A conversation between Manil Suri and Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of The Hours.
Im Michael Cunningham, and I have the privilege of talking to
Manil Suri about his remarkable first novel, The Death of Vishnu. Who are
some of your literary influences? Do you identify yourself particularly as an
Both of these questions are kind of loaded questions, because first of all Im never quite clear in my mind what is meant by a literary influence. How do you interpret that?
I would say, any piece of writing that stays with you, and in some way influences the kind of writer you are, whether it be Henry James or Jacqueline Susann, both of whom I claim as influences.
OK, well thats good, because I certainly grew up on a lot of Jacqueline Susann-type novels. But more serious writers I would have to say, the one that comes to mind is V. S. Naipaul. Ive just read one book of his, A House for Mr. Biswas, and the thing that stayed with me out of that novel was the way his characters speak. And they speak in English, but you can tell they are speaking an Indian language. Its their intonation, or, I dont know how he does it, and thats certainly something I would love to be able to do. So thats something that definitely did stay with me. Ive read several Indian authors, naturally, growing up in India, Rabindranath Tagore comes to mind, R. K. Narayan. Both of those, I dont know if they were influences, but certainly I liked them a lot. Another person I would say, completely different, is Paul Bowles, and the journey that Mr. Jalal makes might have been influenced by something I read of his. You also asked about whether I consider myself an Indian writer, and again that requires some sort of definition. Being a mathematician, Im always looking for definitions. But, I think yes, I think I am, certainly Im writing about India in this book, writing as an Indian I think. There are some books written by Indians which go overboard, bend over backwards trying to explain things to foreign readers. I certainly have tried to make things clear, but on the other hand I think Ive resisted the temptation to, what should I say, be too careful about what I put in and what I dont put in, so that people arent unduly disturbed by anything that they might not understand. So yes, but I dont want to say anything more, because theres this raging controversy as to what constitutes an Indian writer and what doesnt. But I think I am, yes.
Well, you are in fact a mathematician, youre a professor of mathematics. Do you find that mathematics and fiction writing are complementary?
I think one helps the other, because certainly when I write a math paper, I spend an extraordinarily long amount of time trying to make it understandable. On the other hand, I think being a mathematician has its pros and cons. When I first started writing, I would not really pay too much attention to the characters. In other words, I would say: this is a character X, and now I will let X do this, this, this. And the reader can fill in whatever he or she wants, as their favorite character would be X. So theres this abstraction that goes on, which might not be good in terms of character development, but on the other hand is very useful when youre trying to keep strands in place. For instance in this book I see it as a very vertical novel, theres this real mathematical structure, where theres this constant sense of things rising, so I think of it as a type of -- a very vertical type of structure. Did I use mathematics in the book? Well, I did use calculus in it, I actually had to squeeze that word in, and I think its on page 137 or something. [Laughter] There had to be some way of doing it. I was at a conference recently, just last week in fact, and I actually did a reading to a group of mathematicians, toughest group youll find to read to. One of them came up with this interesting idea. He said that all fiction can basically be broken up into several components, much like a signal or any kind of wave can be broken up into components. So he said that he looked at my story, he looked at what I read out, and he said, "Well you have this element, this element, this element, this element, and if I look at all the other pieces of fiction Ive read, theyre also composed of similar elements." And so I can imagine him going back -- hes from Finland -- going back to Helsinki thinking: well, hes solved this central problem of 2,000 years of fiction. [Laughter].
Good for him.
Good for him. Hes probably waiting for the Pulitzer, or whatever. [Laughter]
As a writer myself, I ask only out of curiosity, not in the least out of envy, of course, how you managed to do such a remarkable job of keep the voices of the different characters so distinct.
Well, I dont know, how did I do that? [Laughter].
I always think that from a writer, I have no idea is an entirely acceptable answer. [Laughter]. Now, The Death of Vishnu is part of a trilogy that will also comprise The Life of Shiva and The Birth of Brahma. Did you conceive it as a whole while you were writing this first third?
Well that kind of appeared after the third chapter. Id been stuck for a long time, I had this horrible writers block. Theres this ambulance that comes, and it had to leave without taking Vishnu away with it. And it took me a year and a half to figure out how to make it do that. Once I was writing again, I thought, death, life, birth. There seemed to be these three words, and then there is this Hindu trinity: Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. Shiva is of course the destroyer, and Brahma is the creator, and Vishnu is the preserver, and so I just matched these words with the three gods in the trinity and I came up with three titles. And so I do see myself doing these other two books. The next one is going to be The Life of Shiva. And that will be followed on something on Brahma. And Brahma of course will be a lot about creation and creativity, and thats where I think that by the third book maybe Ill be bold enough to actually have a mathematician as a character. I dont know, maybe the world isnt ready for that yet. [Laughter].
Im ready for it, I cant speak for the world.
Could you describe your process as a writer? Where did the inspiration for the novel come from? And how did you work on it.
There actually was a person named Vishnu. The novel is set in Bombay. And its the story of this man who lives on a landing in an apartment building. When I was growing up Vishnu used to live on this landing below the floor that I grew up on. One year when I went back, I think it was 1995, Vishnu was very ill. And he actually died that year. I thought at that point: heres the person whos just died. I started writing a short story about a year later, and that was a story that I tried to end but I couldnt end it. So it just kept progressing. I actually wrote the end right in the beginning and tried to finish it, first in one chapter, then in two, then it became a novel. So thats how it grew, from that death.
One of the most fascinating things about the book to me is the use of the apartment as a sort of metaphor and as the dying Vishnu crawls from floor to floor his journey resembles the stations of the Hindu ascension. Could you talk a little bit more about that?
I think that was the one idea I had in the outline. In the sense that here was this apartment building -- each floor represents a different stage in life. In Hinduism, youre familiar with the idea of reincarnation, where you go through several lifetimes and each time you ascend a little bit more. Parallel to that idea in Hinduism is there is also this idea that a person is supposed to perform different things in one or perhaps several lifetimes. You might start with a stage where the thing that propels you most is searching for money or for bodily comfort or fame or whatever, and thats supposed to be the basic stage, and then when youve sated yourself with that, then you go on to the next stage, where you might look for more spiritual things, perhaps you serve other people spend your life doing charity work and so on. And after that then there is a still more spiritual stage, and at the top a kind of grand prize is enlightenment, or where youre actually free of all these constraints. And if you look at the book there are these different people who live on different floors. There are the Pathaks and the Asranis who are contantly fighting over their creature comforts and so on. Then there is Mr. Jalal, who is sort of just embarked on his journey to look for other things. And then there is Vinod Taneja on the third floor and he has sort of progressed perhaps the most of all. And then there is Vishnu who is climbing these various stations. And he also meetings some other people along the way who live on the landings. So thats the representation of the Hindu philosophy.
Were you raised Hindu?
Up to a certain age. My father is actually quite religious, he practices and everything. I think there are several types of Hinduism in India. Some of it is very cultural, you do certain things, and you perform certain rites and so on. And then there is the more theoretical side, the Bhagavad Gita and so on. I never had the theoretical side. I was never taught, this is what this represents, this god represents this and so on. So up till about thirteen or so I was quite busy doing the same things my father was. And then I went through this stage, where, you know, rebellion and so on, so I stopped doing all that. I think right now I would call myself an agnostic more than a Hindu. But just writing the book has been very interesting because some of that material, that theoretical side, has really come into this book. And I actually went searching for it. And thats been very eye-opening. I read the Bhagavad Gita somewhere in the middle, you know that figures quite prominently in the book, and after reading it, it was a true eye-opener, and for a while I was wondering if I might start passing out Gitas at the airport like some other people. In fact a strange thing happened. I was reading this book in an airplane once and I forgot it in the seat pocket. And I can just imagine someone later on pulling it out and saying, "Those Hare Krishnas, theyre been here as well!" [Laughter]. So I dont know where this is going to end. Its very interesting. I still call myself an agnostic. I dont know. Previous to this I would always look with great skepticism at these people who suddenly find religion and go back to their roots, and now, horrors, it might even happen to me. [Laughter]. Its very scary.
Vishnu seems like an odd combination of power and powerlessness, in Mr. Jalals vision he crushes people in his many mouths and yet as he ascends the steps cant even crush an ant. What are we to make of this incongruity?
I guess thats another type of contradiction almost, in the sense of theres this branch of Hindu philosophy that says that each person not only contains God but is a part of God. But of course, Vishnu reflects both these natures: that of a human being and that of a god. He appears as something supernatural and very powerful to Mr. Jalal in his vision but on the other hand this could also be a person whos dying and whos spirit or soul is rising through these floors and does not have any kind of corporeal substance to it. So I guess thats the conflict that you see there.
Do ghosts have any place in a religion based on reincarnation?
I would say they arent ghosts, theyre more like spirits or souls. And thats whats supposed to go from life to life. Its the soul this is indestructible. In fact in the Bhagavad Gita -- thats how the Gita starts -- where Krishna tells Arjun that he should go out and fight the battle and kill people, even his relatives, because in fact you cannot kill anyone. All that happens is that the soul goes from one body to another. So in that sense, Vishnu isnt really dying, its just the soul that is going perhaps on to another existence.
In addition to the fabric of Hindu mythology that runs through the book there is a second fabric, based on an equally powerful body of myths: the movies. Could you talk a little bit about how these two religions, one sacred and one profane, each pervade the other?
Movies are a big factor in India. When I was growing up, they were practically the only form of entertainment that people really watched. There was no TV really, and movies were everything. I see them as something that really ties together the whole of society, whether you are rich or poor or whatever, thats a common frame of reference. Everyone sees movies and knows about them. And so in terms of how they interact with religion, first of all I guess one way of thinking about them is that there are all these movies about religious characters. There was one movie called Jai Santoshi Ma some years back I guess about twenty years ago or thirty years ago and that was about this little-known goddess, I guess she was an incarnation of either Lakshmi or Durga. But after that suddenly people discovered this goddess, and suddenly overnight there were thousands of temples to Santoshi Ma all over the country and to this day people perform fasts in her honor which they wouldnt twenty years ago because no one knew who Santoshi Ma was. So theyre really powerful. Thats one kind of movie, thats the mythological dramas you occasionally get. Whats more common are the entertainment movies -- in fact my father, he was assistant music director, hes retired now, but he worked in the movies as an assistant music director. So I certainly have just been completely brainwashed by Hindi cinema. So that certainly comes true, because I think when youre talking about India, and talking about social life and so on there, I think thats really one of the key issues, one of the things that lies at the heart of society there.
Would you describe in a little bit more detail the movies produced by Bombay cinema? Most of us here in the U.S. are only familiar with the movies of Satyajit Ray who obviously is not typical of the vast output of the Indian movie industry.
Yes, he isnt, and I have to admit that when I was growing up, I think I must have been about -- I dont know -- sixteen or seventeen before I saw a Satyajit Ray movie. Most of the movies are what are called "masala" films. Masala is basically curry powder. So its something thats a mixture of all these spices, and thats the word that people use to differentiate serious cinema and "masala" cinema. The masala films typically have -- people say -- that there are only three plots to these movies. One big plot is: there are two brothers, and they are somehow separated at birth, and they reunite at the last scene. Another plot is one grows up to be a police officer and one is a thief, and the police officer shoots the thief and the mother cries and so on. So thats one. And then the third one perhaps is theres a rich girl and a poor boy or some such thing and they cant marry. In fact in the book there is this one line that one of the characters says, "This wedding cannot take place." And that truly is the most repeated line in Hindi movies. Because almost every movie has that line. Theres some dramatic point where a wedding cannot take place. But the nice thing about these is that you go to one of these movies, you can really count on certain things. You can count on four or five or six or eight or now even ten or fourteen songs, each one nicely choreographed, half of them with dances, half romantic songs, and so on. You can count on maybe three or four fights, you know, a nice villain whom you can hate. And some comedy. In fact the typical trailer of a Hindi movie goes pretty much like that. It will flash things like COMEDY and then show you these people and then therell be MELODRAMA, in fact melodrama is considered good, so its actually called that, melodrama, and then there will be these people weeping. So they are entertaining. I recently rented a Hindi movie and called a bunch of friends from this country -- Americans -- to watch it, and they all enjoyed it. But of course there was another movie too, and we could barely watch ten minutes of it because it was so bad. But thats something that everyone watches. And the people in this book are similarly entranced by Hindi movies. I think just about all the characters, maybe not all but pretty much all of them have something to do with movies. Vinod Taneja -- his wife has been through this, I mean his whole life pretty much mirrors a Hindi movie tragedy. And Visnhu himself has this vision at the end about his life reeling back like a Hindi movie. So I think certainly Hindi movies dominate or pervade all of society and thats one of the threads that Ive played with here.
Lets just finish up by talking about the books ending. That haunting scene with the impish blue-tinged boy. What do we think of that?
Thats of course Krishna. Krishna is not just an avatar of Vishnu. By avatar what is meant is someone who descends to earth. So hes not just a avatar, but he really is Vishnu. And in fact Krishna, out of the ten avatars, has a special place, because everything is Krishna and Vishnu is Krishna and Krishna is Vishnu. Krishna actually grew up as a boy. So in that sense he hasnt descended, hes an incarnation. So when Vishnu actually meets Krishna, its in some sense part of him that hes seeing. And the presence of Krishna, for me, actually seems to say that, well, here is Krishna, hes the central character of the Gita, everything is in his hands, and he is in control of everything. So whatever has happened -- in some sense there is this supreme being whos controlling it. Thats one interpretation. This all might be in Vishnus mind of course, because we are just seeing everything through his mind. So thats one interpretation of that.
Its an amazing scene, its an amazing book. Thank you.
Reproduced with the permission of the publisher - WW Norton
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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