Thursday, 22 November 2012

The City of Devi by Manil Suri | Apocalypse now

I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I started reading The City of Devi by Manil Suri. I love Indian literature, and the apocalyptic theme intrigued me, so I simply had to throw myself into it. The novel turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, and I'm kind of glad. It's refreshing to get some new perspectives, and Suri certainly conveys some interesting ideas!

Sarita's world is falling apart. Bombs have struck her city of Mumbai, all communication channels are cut off, rumours claim that terror has struck world-wide and that Pakistan will drop the atom bomb over Mumbai this week. Worst of all, in the middle of all this, her husband Karun is missing. We follow Sarita as she navigates the new warzone in her search for her husband. Muslims and Hindus are at each other's throats, and manage to find time between the bombings to brutally murder each other. But in the midst of all this, Sarita's mind is full of memories. Her and Karun's courtship, their marriage, and the importance of a pomegranate.

Enter Ijaz, a Muslim Sarita saves from certain death, who claims to want to pay her back by seeing her safely to her husband. Unsure if she can trust this smooth stranger who always has a new story for everything, it quickly becomes clear that they need each other to safely pass through areas that are either Hindu or Muslim. But Ijaz has secrets of his own, which ties him together to Sarita and Karun. As they start closing in on Karun's trail, it becomes clear that Ijaz has his own agenda. But will they even find Karun before the bomb is supposed to go off?

Sarita and Karun are navigating a landscape of religious fanaticism. After the Bollywood hit movie Superdevi, Mumbai has become the city of Devi. Our heroes start hearing rumours that Devi is here, and will protect her city against any attack. Fate leads them straight to the so-called Devi's doorstep, where they get up-close and personal with the young "goddess". Will the moody and whimsical Devi-ma be able to protect them, or will she be the cause of their demise?

The plot of the novel keeps thickening, and is constantly moving forward. We move between Sarita and Ijaz as narrators, and they in their turn move between the present, and their memories of the past. This works really well to create suspence and to let us see more sides to the story.

I can totally see this as a bollywood movie. The colours, the action, the grandness, the secrets, the identity crises. A major theme is the novel is identity. We never get to see Karun's perspective, but we get a strong sense of him as a troubled individual floating without an anchor. Sarita tries to be his anchor, but Karun sees the triangle as the perfect balance, and that is what is missing for him to be whole. He keeps returning to his father's notion that the divine triangle consists of Vishnu, Shiva and Devi, instead of the traditional assumption that Brahma was the third wheel. Similarly, this is the third book in a trilogy, the first two being The Death of Vishnu and The Age of Shiva.

Suri explores a number of conflicts in the novel. The clashes between hindus and muslims, between gays and straights, but perhaps most importantly the inner conflict of a person who is totally lost. Is it possible to find healing in a world that is at war?

I find that some of my beliefs have been challenged in reading this book. I question the devotedness of Sarita, and Ijaz, I am annoyed with Karun's lack of a backbone. But I was also taken for a joy ride. There are some really funny passages, and I was completely absorbed in the story, both of the present and the past. And even though Ijaz could be a completely selfish a**hole, he had some redeeming qualities.

The City of Devi is only available in 2013, so in the meantime you can read the other two novels. The Death of Vishnu was even nominated for the Booker, so well worth a go. Next time I'm in the mood for Indian I'll check it out;)

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