An Interview with Manil Suri

An interview with Manil Suri (b. 1959) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review, in 2009.

Manil Suri worked on his novel, The Death of Vishnu, for five years. He’d start, stop, edit, stop again. His day job -- teaching applied mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County full time – took up so much time, he explains.

But in 2000, he finished the work of fiction, which takes place in a crowded Indian apartment building on the dying day of a drunk named Vishnu. After several pivotal writers’ workshops, he submitted the first chapter to one weekly magazine. The New Yorker published that chapter in 2001, propelling Suri into the ranks of the best-selling author. The New York Times called Vishnu “beguiling and deceptively ambitious” and Barnes & Noble gave him the Discover Prize for 2002.

Seven years later, he published his second novel, The Age of Shiva, the story of a young Indian mother living during the birth of an independent India. Novelist Amy Tan called it “a majestic story.” Pretty good for a mathematician with a hobby.

Suri, who was born in Mumbai (Bombay) but came to America at age 20 to attend Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh, keeps one foot in India and one in the U.S. He’s still at UMBC, still teaching math – the kind that develops equations to help engineers build bridges – and lives in Silver Spring. But he travels to India often. His family still lives there and he set both his novels in that country. He’s planning a third part to his triptych of Hindu god novels – Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma are the Hindu trinity – based on Brahma.

Suri grew up watching Bollywood movies (he once waited in line for seven hours for tickets to a new show on its first weekend, he admits) and painted movie posters when he was younger. But he also voraciously read Mad Magazine and novels in English from the circulating library.

Now that his own writing is profitable, he’s turned to another hobby, cooking. His recipe for coq au vin with Indian spices appeared in the New York Times magazine in November 2008. He’s also an aspiring blogger, and has posted a video of him on stage at the September 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival. They asked him to do something embarrassing, he said. Other authors passed out brownies, he scoffs.

Suri reenacted, in spangly red skirt and midriff top he bought in India, sultry Bollywood star Helen’s famous dance. He didn’t have the fluffy curls cascading down his back like she did, but his “belly hair” made up for it, he laughs. He drew whoops of appreciation from the crowd. The curious can visit his site to hear excerpts from his fiction, read his recipe for salmon with orange and mint and to watch that famous dance.


Susan Thornton Hobby: Could you describe your childhood, growing up in one room with your mother and father in a Mumbai apartment building? There was a man named Vishnu who died on your stairs. You liked to cook, even then, and you loved to read.

Manil Suri: [laughing] In terms of cooking, it was a little more precocious. I would find these recipes and ask my mother to make them. They were usually quite awful. I remember a frozen dessert, and I added a lot of strawberry essence, and it was inedible. It was mishaps like that. But I would not venture into the kitchen; it was shared with neighbors.

We never had people over from school, it was too shabby a place. I really learned to entertain myself, and that’s where the writing came in. Vishnu was a fixture during my childhood. At some point he started living in our landing. And if something was left over from cooking, we would give it to him. And he did do some errands, he would take the ration wheat to the mill, or he would stand in line for the wheat. But he wasn’t very trustworthy; he would take the money and drink.

In 1995, he was very sick. I had gone back for a visit, and he died that same visit. At the same time, I ended up getting very sick. I got chicken pox. I was in bed, my parents were looking after me. And he was on the landing, and the municipality came and got his body. I always remember that incident, and the next year I started writing about it.

STH: When talking about why you came to America, you’ve spoken of limitations you felt in India.

MS: The future looked like I would remain in that place, that apartment. We weren’t even renters, we paid to rent a room. And if we didn’t have that place, we’d have to live way out in the suburbs and that was awful, it was very hard to get into the city. The future looked quite murky. If you live with your parents and you’re an only child, it’s quite stifling. I was very close to them, but I knew I needed to go. And I thought I might be gay. Also, it was the mathematics itself, it’s harder to pursue higher math there.

STH: And why did you start writing? And why did you keep your writing a secret from colleagues?

MS: I did write as a child, then it became a hobby. In India, particularly, you’re supposed to have hobbies. I became a professor here, and I needed some hobbies to broaden my existence. Through graduate school, I was painting, but that fell off.

I would write a story every year, maybe two. Even that one story was very fulfilling. I was not writing about India at first. But then I wrote one story about India, and it seemed to be much more alive. And I started Vishnu in ’95, ’96.

I thought I just needed to keep it a secret. It’s almost macho, "Look how much time I spend on my field." I really had a feeling that I’m in this fishbowl, constantly being evaluated for signs of weakness, and this would be a weakness.

STH: Could you talk about taking writers’ workshops? You took one with Jane Bradley at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, one with Vikram Chandra (during which he called your first two chapters “trenchant”) and one in 1997 with Michael Cunningham. What did workshops do for you?

MS: A workshop was the next step. The main reason was that my writing exploded, imploded, as often happens. It was a really good experience. I ended up writing the first part of Death of Vishnu for it. And Vikram’s workshop met for the whole semester, once a week. He started every class with something about craft or character. He gave us the gist of an MFA, a lot of tricks of the trade.

With Michael Cunningham, the workshop was only five days long. I had been in a slump, I had written the first and second chapters [of Vishnu] and I had an outline staring me in the face. He was extremely encouraging. He was the first one to say, "OK, you’re a writer." It was a turning point. I had to force myself to write the third chapter, and he gave me a page and a half of notes on it. And he said, "You have to finish this at any cost." I had been wondering, should I be wasting my time on this? That year, I had sent out 50 pieces, and gotten 50 rejections. His words made a big difference. And in about a year and a half, I was done.

I went to an artist’s colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I was supposed to be there four weeks. I left after three and a half weeks, I had written seven chapters. That’s never happened again, of course.

STH: For Vishnu, you read the Bhagavad Gita and the Koran. For Shiva, you read Of Woman Born, and the Times of India from 1950s for days on end. Why do research?

MS: I only do research if necessary. It’s not absolutely essential for every book. In the first book, the nature of the story led me to the research. I needed to know Hindu mythology. I had a Muslim character, so I needed to read the Koran. In my second book, I knew I really needed a good grounding, what were the ’50s like, what were the ’60s like in India? I was getting a feel for the atmosphere. For the most part, it’s picking up little details and dropping them in, you have to get immersed in that feeling. You don’t want it to be overkill. Even in the new one (Shiva), I wrote it all out, and had to take out 70% of it. It was overwhelming the story.

STH: Bollywood’s films are ubiquitous in India, and you’ve written about them in both of your books. Could you describe its influence on your writing?

MS: Bollywood, all of Indian films, are a common frame of reference in India. Vishnu, my other characters higher in the building, all would be familiar with the actors and the new films. It’s a great way of tying together all of society and examining it. I saw so many films, it is so ingrained in me. In Bollywood, everything is exaggerated, larger than life. It’s a great way of mirroring what’s happening in a character’s life.

STH: Meera, the heroine at the center of your second book, The Age of Shiva, cries the most at movies that play out the tragedy of motherhood. Could you talk about motherhood in India and Bollywood?

MS: In cinema, the mother is this larger-than-life heroine. Still there’s an edge to her. Lots of times, she ends up killing her son: He’s gone bad. And there’s a duality, [mothers are both] benign and this Kali form of the mother goddess. It’s played out in the book as well. Motherhood is held up as this relationship that transcends everything. It’s the highest form of relationship. The country is your mother, the cow is your mother. It’s the highest honor there is. And yet it’s very hard to uphold that. Human people have a hard time living up to that.

STH: With both math and fiction, there’s lots of time alone, thinking, with a blank screen or paper in front of you – is that good? You’re using different brain muscles – is each a relief for the other?

MS: Being a mathematician all these years, you spend a lot of time sitting alone, working out a problem. It’s the same thing as a writer, you’re just working out different problems.

STH: In math, you have constraints, proofs, yes or no answers most of the time. In fiction, there are infinite combinations, and you have control how your story ends. Could you talk about the difference?

MS: Yes, exactly. The best analogy is of a chess game. You have these pieces, and in fiction, you look at what happens, you try to plot the moves and pick the path that is the most dramatic, the most funny. In math, you’re trying to find some general theorem that governs the pieces’ interaction. In math, you’re trying to describe all the possible reactions. In fiction, you get to choose.

STH: You’ve been traveling almost every weekend to book festivals, doing interviews to promote your newest book. How has the business of being a writer affected your life?

MS: I really cannot concentrate on writing another novel until that last novel is done, until the hardback and the paperback are out and done. I’ve tried, but it’s not there. I need quiet and peace, I need to get the first book out of my system. Promoting the books is a whole new job in itself.

STH: The first part of your trilogy, Vishnu, has a vertical structure, a complex narrative style. Your second, Shiva, has a more horizontal structure, a more straightforward narrative. What should we expect from the third piece?

MS: The flavor will be more surreal, very different from the first two. I’m really going between two and three different models for it. But I’m going to defer it until next year.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2009. All rights reserved.