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The Writer's Math

UMBC Mathematics Professor Manil Suri Is Becoming Better Known For His Emerging Novel Trilogy

Michael Northrup

By John Barry | Posted 4/23/2008

In his small, spare office in the inner halls of the UMBC Department of Mathematics and Statistics, Manil Suri is carefully juggling two lives. A gray steel bookshelf is filled with books on numerical analysis. A blackboard on his wall is scribbled with variables and calculations. There's no obvious evidence that Suri is a Pen/Faulkner award-nominated writer. In fact, there's no indication that he reads fiction at all, at least until you notice a hardcover copy of his latest novel, The Age of Shiva, under his computer.

Applied mathematics is his day job, even though his literature hobby has been taking up much of his time recently. The next day he heads off to England for a five-day book tour and, from there, across the channel.

"It will be translated in German, French, Danish, and Serbian," Suri says and stops, admitting that he's unsure exactly why he's big in Serbia. Wiry, poised, with a little gray around the fringes of his hair, Suri is a very youthful 48. He also speaks of his late-blooming career with the good-humored detachment of someone who hasn't clawed his way to literary success through a labyrinth of writing programs and professorships.

Detachment isn't to be confused with indifference, though. For Suri, publication came after decades of isolated writing. And as he begins to talk about the novel--he doesn't seem interested in talking about his vocation--he begins by talking about the title. There's one god in Hindu mythology who has three faces: Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma. His first book, 2001's The Death of Vishnu, was inspired by the caretaker of the universe. The Age of Shiva, which Suri calls the second in his trilogy, was inspired by the god of destruction.

"There is this confusion," he says, in his measured, professorial tone. His words come out as formed paragraphs. "Shiva is traditionally called the god of destruction. . . . However, it's not the Western idea of destruction, where there's obliteration and bombs and all that. But he's an ascetic and he withdraws from the world. And it's without his participation--that is absolutely needed by the universe--that the universe starts winding down. So Vishnu is the preserver. Shiva is the destroyer. Vishnu keeps trying to bring Shiva back into the universe."

Suri isn't a practicing Hindu, but he calls himself a Hindu agnostic. ("Not a contradiction in my view," he inserts in a later clarification.) As a writer, he says, he was influenced philosophically by the nature of Shiva, whom he calls an "erotic ascetic" who gradually disappears from the world, while attracting others to him. "The aspect that attracted me was that since he withdraws, he leaves this vacuum behind him," Suri says. "And people who are in love with him, people who want him, are left with this intense longing for someone that they cannot attain."

While he doesn't say it, that could also be responsible for the brief appearance of Bruce Springsteen in the earlier drafts of Shiva. Suri himself came to the United States at 20, as a graduate student. At first, Shiva's central character was going to be Ashvin, a young Indian man who, like Suri, moves to Pittsburgh. In fact, Suri initially placed the main body of the novel in 1987, opening at a Bruce Springsteen concert. "A concert that actually happened," he adds.

But very quickly, Ashvin started to leave the spotlight. And so did Bruce. And so did Pittsburgh. "And then, the first person I started writing about was his mother, Meera," Suri says. Eventually, his manuscripts started to move back in time, until, finally, he came up with a version beginning in 1955, in New Delhi, 10 years before Ashvin was born.

"But once I got to this strange date [1955] and started looking at it, it became a much more interesting period," Suri says, discussing how Shiva became intertwined with India's history. "India had been independent for seven or eight years. And at that time, after partition [with Pakistan], things had settled down after all the bloodshed. It was starting to be a newer country. The seeds of modern thought were sprouting, and even feminism, you could argue, was just beginning to rise. More important, religious fundamentalism as a political power, people were just waking up to that idea. All these interesting things were happening."

Meera quickly became Shiva's central story, which she narrates to her son, Ashvin. She's 17 when Shiva opens, becoming enamored of her sister's boyfriend, Dev, a charming aspiring singer. When Meera marries Dev, she finds herself living with his provincial family in a small town away from her Delhi roots.

Suri allows that Shiva is a coming-of-age story that follows a young woman in male-dominated India, but he says that it has a historic parallel--not quite making it a historical novel, but the characters are innately shaped by the times. Meera shares some traits with Indira Gandhi, who becomes India's prime minister halfway through the novel.

"When Indira Gandhi came up in the '60s, she was this amazing icon of womanhood," Suri says. "She was first promoted to power by people who hoped she would be a puppet. Then when she got to power, she really showed them. So that ties into the whole idea of the mother-goddess, of Parvati, which is sort of the opposite side of Shiva. When I looked further, there were all these myths about Sati, as well as Parvati and her child."

Sati is the Indian deity who marries the god Shiva against her father's wishes. In the Hindu mythology, she is reborn as Parvati, who seeks to reunite with Shiva. Suri's Meera also rejects her father, Pari, and by the novel's end tries to regain her son's love. While Suri doesn't want to turn Shiva into an allegory, the mythologies are integrated into the plot line.

In fact, there are more parallels and forces in post-war India's history than any of his characters know what to do with in Shiva. That may be where Shiva breaks with most modern American coming-of-age novels. Meera's life and development--sexually and politically--is intimately entwined with the larger-than-life political figures who dominated India.

"When you go to India, there are always these big posters of gods and politicians--there's a mix between the two," Suri explains. "You don't know where one starts and the other ends. Some of the politicians have been elevated to the position of gods. That's what I was trying to say, that Indira Gandhi, her iconography was basically the same as that of [the goddess] Parvati."

This historical overlay is a radical departure from Vishnu, which focused specifically on the death of an old man in an apartment building. His first novel's success led fans to ask for a follow-up, which didn't happen. "There was this expectation that I would write something that would have the same characters, or continue the story, or at least would have the same form or structure or synergy," Suri says. "But I wanted [the novels] to reflect the deities I was talking about. Shiva, because he's the ascetic, is much more serene, more erotic, as opposed to Vishnu, who's much more filled with energy. That's why the moods of the two novels are very different."

He says he tried to adhere to the same sort of outline for Shiva, but neither modern India, Meera, nor Shiva was willing to cooperate. "[Meera] ruined the whole thing," he chuckles, sounding a little henpecked by his own character. "I had to follow her. That took a lot of time."

As he told her story, Meera's voice started taking over. "That's the voice I came out with," he says. "Of course, writing one scene is fine. Looking through her eyes at her son was much more difficult. The hardest thing was to figure out whether women and men think differently. I kept thinking that I was a man, putting her thoughts into my head. So I would have to step back and think, What would my mother do in this position? or What would my aunt do? or something.

"So the moral of the story is that every novel is going to be different. One is always learning, I guess."

That's not the only advice he has for aspiring novelists. His best advice? Don't take it. "After I finished the book, I showed it to people, and my god," he says. "They had these opinions. If I'd had that kind of advice while writing the book, it would have completely derailed me. That's something for writers to be cautious about: getting well-meaning advice. You've got to have seven or eight people, but even that's way too much. So I'm very suspicious about advice.

"I used to be in several writing groups," he continues. "It was very helpful with short stories. But then I started The Death of Vishnu, and I remember someone really ripping into the first chapter, saying, you know, rearrange it, take apart everything, and then explain where you are, why you're there, and do all this explanation. I didn't follow any of it, as it turned out."

It sounds like Suri is questioning the rationale behind small group workshops--the crux of most university writing programs, the backbone of contemporary American literature. "I haven't ever been in a writing program," Suri demurs, in his characteristically evenhanded way. "But I have benefited secondhand, because some of the people in my writing group were involved in a writing program at American University. You need to know about craft and character and so on, but then I think each writer gets to the point where, after that point, you need to take everything with a grain of salt.

"So it's always a balancing act, trying to pick the best path--or thinking several moves ahead like a chess player and seeing where the story can go, along the separate paths," he continues, and then sighs, wondering if he chose the wrong day job. "You would think that mathematicians would be much better chess players, but I read somewhere that physicists are much better."

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