The City of Devi.
Bloomsbury. 2013. 384 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 3391 9.
The first third of this book is about sex: love and sex, sex and love. In the first five chapters, Sarita remembers how she fell in love with Karun and the details of her increasingly adventurous attempts to get him to consummate their marriage. The next five chapters deal with Jaz's homosexual seduction of Karun, his gradual falling in love with him, and their subsequent parting. The sex is imaginative but leaves little to the imagination. Now, however, Karun has disappeared, and Sarita and Jaz are trying to find him.
All this occurs in a dystopian world in which Pakistan is at war with India and has set a date for a nuclear attack on Mumbai (where the novel is set); dirty bombs have exploded in Zurich, New York, London, and other world cities; all communication networks have broken down; Hindu and Muslim extremist groups have taken over parts of the city and are undertaking murderous religious persecution; and SuperDevi, a Bollywood/Hollywood epic, has captured popular imagination and fostered a cult which is being used by the power-hungry Bhim, leader of the extremist, right-wing, Hindu Rashtriya Manch, to further his own interests. Oh, and Sarita is taking Karun a pomegranate!
It would be easy to parody the events that make up the rest of this book. The miraculous escapes, the Bollywood-style Devi celebrations, Jaz's camp cousin "Aunty" Rahim who helps them escape the Muslim Limbus thugs, the final sexual consummation, which almost qualifies for nomination for the Bad Sex Award, and the predictable ending: all these are the stuff of Bond movies. And Sarita's ability to be relatively unaffected by the horrors she witnesses and the personal dramas she experiences, keeps her character shallow and undeveloped.
However, Manil Suri writes well, and he knows how to create interesting characters, how to structure and tell a good story, how to describe the horrors of war, and how to capture the variety, flavor, excesses, and beauty of Indian life.
An advertising puff on the back cover of the book quotes the Independent as saying that "Manil Suri has been likened to Narayan, Coatzee, Naipaul, Chekhov and Flaubert." One wonders who made that comparison. It is nonsense. Perhaps if publishers exaggerated less, I would be less judgmental. Suri has certainly "developed a voice of his own" but with a little less sex, a bit more realism in the plot, and some development of the serious issues touched on in the book, might make this book less of a romantic thriller and more like the "huge novel" that the advertising claims.
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