An effortless tightrope walk between banality and satire, the believable and the fantastical.
It’s apocalypse now in Mumbai. There have been a series of terrorist explosions, there are water shortages, the streets are filled with mounds of piled-up garbage, Hindus and Muslims are warring dangerously. That’s business as usual in Mumbai, you might remark. Ah, but there’s more. A virus has put paid to Internet connections, radio and TV sets have been silenced, local trains have stopped running. And Pakistan has pulled out its final card: it has threatened to explode a nuclear device over the city.
So what does Sarita, the first of our three main protagonists, do? She hunts for first, a pomegranate and next for Karun, her husband of a two-year-old unconsummated marriage. (The luscious red fruit is part of her plan to rectify the one shortcoming in her marriage.) Sarita is a trusting sort; after 24 months of foreplay and pomegranates, she is but mildly suspicious of Karun’s sexual reluctance. And the half-lies of his ominously silent disappearance spur her on to greater resolve, not resentment.
Dogging her heels all through her search for the un-obliging Karun is Ijaz aka Jaz, cocky gay predator who refers to himself as ‘the Jazter’. Sarita protects Jaz from the Hindus, he steers her through Muslim pockets. Fate does its bit as well. As do elephants, ferries, a bit of deus ex machina, and a cranky little creature with four arms who has been proclaimed the Devi who will save the city.
The plot is outrageous, audacious and tosses up religion, politics and sex in an ever-inventive narrative that doesn’t cop out or wilt and comes up with conceit after clever conceit all the way to the end. There’s great storytelling technique and Suri does an effortless tightrope walk between banality and satire, the meticulously believable and the outrageously fantastical.
There are some marvellous Bollywood-ish touches (but naturally). Like Baby Rinky, star of Superdevi, the blockbuster that has triggered off the communal conflagration and the Hindu Rashtriya Manch’s drive to “purify” the city’s population. The Amar-Akbar-Anthony motif with a helpful, party-loving Sequeira coming to our sadly separated couple’s aid. There are last-second rescues, that old chestnut, a one-shot impregnation… and more. Suri mixes it all up with wit and audacity, with the intimacy of the insider and the wry detachment of the man who lives far away from native shores.
It’s all very clever, indeed. But, as with any self-respecting Bollywood film, there are problems. Chief among them being long, often turgid speeches. The dialogue lacks the delicious tone of say, Mrs. Pathak’s and Mrs. Asrani’s grumblings in Death of Vishnu. (That was the first book in this trilogy, The Age of Shiva being the second.)
The characters here hold forth at length; even the Jazter, busting with sexual energy, can get tedious at times. Sarita is the worst offender. Here’s her take on a particularly joyous episode of oral sex she has with Karun: “Although I did not manage to bring him to climax that first time, I could tell he enjoyed it. As did I, especially after he reciprocated in kind (which I allowed only because my self-consciousness had been neutralised by the restaurant libations)” Libations? Perhaps Sarita’s sex life would be improved if she got plain drunk?
The Jazter has no such problems, thank you. Indeed, the relationship between Jaz and his lover holds far greater passion and is told with a truer voice. It is Karun, the pivot around whom the story revolves, who is the fuzziest character and an annoyingly weak-willed one as well.
In a book that places the Devi on a pedestal, it is appropriately, the woman who is the stronger half. Alas, Jaz, the gay Casanova, the most attractive character in the book, steals her thunder. It’s a man’s world after all.
The City of Devi; Manil Suri, Bloomsbury India, Rs.499.