The City of Devi, By Manil Suri


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

What would you do and whom would you save if the city in which you lived was to be obliterated in four days? This is the conundrum facing Sarita and the other characters in Manil Suri's new novel, set in a futuristic Mumbai on the brink of nuclear annihilation. The question of whether they can save themselves – or will be saved by the goddess of the title – creates tension throughout.

Mumbai or Bombay is the central character in all Suri's three novels. The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva focused on the present and past of the city. Setting his new novel in a hypothetical future paradoxically succeeds in shedding insight on present-day Mumbai. Suri is also a professor of mathematics in the US. His new book crafts an acutely drawn love triangle, as well as showing characters grappling with a problem far harder to solve than any equation.

Sarita is intent on buying what appears to be the last pomegranate in the city. Four days before the bomb that is supposed to obliterate Mumbai, she finds herself in the ruins of Crawford Market haggling with the lone remaining fruit seller. Around her are shops gutted in the previous night's air raid or terrorist bomb. Smoke billows out of buildings. Gangs of Hindu and Muslim thugs prowl the streets. Sarita must acknowledge that "the city, as I knew and loved it, is gone".

Suri draws out the emotional attachment to place and to people, and the sense of devastation that loss brings. Sarita is desperate to be reunited with her physicist husband Karun, mysteriously missing for more than a fortnight. Suri's trademark mixing of humour with the most serious of issues –politics, religion, sex – is sustained throughout the well-paced narrative.

Sarita's life becomes intertwined with that of the memorable Jaz, "The Jazter": a gay Muslim, also searching for his lover in the chaos. Both he and Sarita are drawn to Devi maa, the goddess who has apparently appeared to save the city. This vividly imagined book about personal and national destruction – and the possibilities of salvation – lingers long after the final page, showing how it is loss that teaches the value of what is most loved.