Mar 24, 2013 News
Love and Hate Collide in Indian Odyssey
By Dr. Glenville Ashby
In “The City of Devi,” award winning author Manil Suri presents an imaginatively hypnotic drama that captures the full gamut of human emotions. It is provocatively existential, pricking our very conscience. It invites reflection and debate on the human potential for altruism and depravity – powerful forces that compete, incessantly in this wrenching work, a work where art imitates life.
Suri’s drama unfolds in post 9/11 era. Mumbai, too, is still searing from its own terror attack. Soon, the quiet unease and false sense of tolerance and accommodation, surrender to chaos, pitch battles and open war.
Suri, a writer of enviable range, explores the power of love amid a city in ruins, a city threatened with annihilation by a war with blaring religious and sectarian overtones. Its narration is compelling, holding court from its opening salvo. As if waving a wand, he uses his literary canvas like the consummate artist, beckoning readers to enter into a world where emotions are pulsating, raw, authentic, and frightening. Death looms, the constant companion in a tit for tat murderous campaign of genocidal lust.
That Indians turn on each other with internecine fury didn’t happen overnight. The city of Devi – Bombay- emerged as India’s Silicon Valley, priding itself in its secular appeal, its pluralism and emerging modernity. But looming in the background are right wing Hindu nationalists that threaten to cleanse cities of moral decay and reinstate a virulent strain Hinduism with little tolerance for unbelievers. They are referred to as the Khakis – thugs that do the bidding of Bhim, the leader of the feared nationalist group: The Hindu Rashtriya Manch (HRM).
Rhetoric gives way to violence, massacres, in response to Muslim terrorists and a war with Pakistan. Threatened with annihilation by Pakistan, and stretched thin by a diversionary invasion by Chinese troops, India is on edge. Battles erupt, not only in traditional theaters of war. No one is safe, not even in bomb shelters. Anyone suspected of being Muslim is savagely trounced, murdered. In one painfully graphic scene the page bleeds. “The beating has stopped for the moment. The victim lies crumbled in a corner of the basement…The Khakis stand around, discussing what more to do with him…a few children advance cautiously to the victim. One of them spits at him, another bounces a rock off his back…Someone finds a rope. The man protests unintelligibly as the Khakis drag him from the corner…his face seems to have cave in – only a mass of red remains where one might have seen a nose, a mouth…”
In one massacre, “Bhim’s army beheaded men as they prayed, dragged women out and raped them in the court yard, impaled babies on sharpened sticks driven into the rocky beach.’
With communications cut, the City of Devi plunges into despair, driven by rumors, duplicity and insecurity. Muslims aren’t the only victims. Hindus are hunted down by marauding gangs of Muslim extremists – the Limbus – who fan out their enclaves searching for the enemy with unbridled fury….Theirs is also a separatist campaign. Mahim is the Muslim bastion – financed, supported and protected by Pakistan’s Intelligence Services, the ISI.
The Limbus is tolerated only because their ruthlessness brings a warped sense of security. Sharia takes precedence. Women are forced to wear burqas, and its citizenry are under the gun for the slightest infraction. When Sarita, who is Hindu is escorted through a Muslim strongholds, she must remove her bindi and cover up. “Actually, your whole body,” she is told. “We will look for some cloth to use as a burka – to conceal your sari as well.” Muslims band together as a ground swell of Islamophobia grips nations.
The world is unable to respond to the saber rattling that has beset South Asia, for it too is shaken by spasms of terrorism. This is Suri’s world – unpredictable and frighteningly dark. As the author rifles through this riveting tale, the question arises: Will light ever pierce this suffocating veil?
Amid the mayhem, there is a sense that religion is in Suri’s cross hairs, rife for a closer look. Devi Ma is the patron of the city, so revered that many believe that she should be part of the trimurti. That Sarita must ask of Devi Ma’s whereabouts as the city burns, is telling. But the defenders of the Goddess are in the millions, assured of her divine protection. Subtly, Suri begs the questions: Is blind faith in the gods, a delusion, the result of some kind of hysteria? On one occasion, she questions one of Devi’s devotes: “And you do believe that she’ll protect us from the Pakistanis? That she’ll open her heavenly parasol to block their bombs on the nineteenth?” (The October date of Pakistan’s purported nuclear assault on India.)
Will religious fervor be humankind’s undoing? On some levels, Suri’s work is prophetic, foreboding, but remains equally hopeful. This is the crux of his ontological inquiry.
Suri deftly creates a rich tapestry of characters that complement each other. Scenes of homo-erotic love are depicted with a driving lust, but never distasteful. Sure, there is enough eroticism, homophobia and psychological projection to go around. The tepid sexual affair between Sarita and her husband, Karun, captures all the color and tone of unrequited love. Nonetheless, Sarita is smitten. She’s the diffident bride, yearning for her missing husband.
She embarks on a perilous journey punctuated with buzzing warplanes and the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Her devotion is unwavering despite Karun’s temerity and disinterest in engaging his wife’s sexual fantasies. How could she know that he is gay? His first love, Ijaz, is Muslim. He is dominant, cocky, with an unfathomable libidinous drive. His joie de vivre is stark, but his licentious leanings give way to caring and love for Sarita’s husband. He proves fiercely loyal and protective of Sarita, as Fate brings them together in a bomb shelter, and later in their journey to find a troubled Karun – both vying for his attention, his love – although the grieving bride is unaware of Ijaz’s motives.
What follows is a roller coaster of a narrative, with enough twists and turns to enthrall readers. The confrontation with the formidable Bhim; Devi Ma’s long awaited appearance; the choreographed religious fanfare; the specter of a nuclear holocaust; and the tortuous and tragic reunion with Karun, make for a dizzying crescendo and alarming end.
Unquestionably, Suri proves his salt. His invariable ability to fluidly weave two distinct plots – love and hate – under a single existentialist banner is impressive. The City of Devi dabbles with the question of identity in all its manifestations – personal, ethnic, religious and national. Who are we? What does violence say about us? How do we perceive and react to impending doom? And more importantly, are we our brother’s keeper?
This is a work where love and hate jockey to the center – neither outstripping each other. They are in lock step through this drama of boundless passion. This is a seminal undertaking -instructive, inspirational and timely; a tour de force that speaks volumes of mankind’s imminent fate.
The City of Devi by Mani Suri, 2013
W.W. Norton & Norton Company, Inc.
Rating: Highly recommended
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