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Mythology. Mumbai. Both of these subjects have lost their freshness since Manil Suri’s acclaimed 2001 literary debut with The Death of Vishnu, the story of an alcoholic odd-job man dying on the landing of a Bombay apartment block. Maximum city is now a weary muse, somewhat worn out after recent takes on it. And revisiting mythology is what makes for pulp fiction heaven these days, with titles inspired by it threatening to get as numerous as deities in the Hindu pantheon.
It is into this tired, too frequented territory that Suri steps in with his third offering, The City of Devi. The novel follows the standard road movie formula—the journey of two maverick characters in pursuit of a shared goal unfolds against a tableau of improbable events with a sprawling comic cast of goons, miscreants and the occasional good samaritan. Suri’s telling of the tale varies from subtly sardonic to unabashedly clever.
In a Mumbai deserted and on the brink of a nuclear holocaust, Sarita, a statistician, stays back to locate Karun, her absconding physicist spouse. The narrative alternates between Sarita’s journey from Colaba to Bandra, where Karun was last known to be, and her memories of their strange courtship and marriage. The landscape of Suri’s Mumbai is dystopian—there have been terrorist bombings worldwide, the internet has been hacked, news rendered unreliable. Closer home, Pakistan is about to nuke the City of Devi. Rumours, religious zealots and vandalism run rife in a city divided into warring Hindu-Muslim enclaves.
The narrative falters a bit at the start despite numerous clever touches—a film called Superdevi, which is the subliminal trigger for this doomsday scenario; flashbacks to Sarita and Karun’s bedroom engagements, amusingly labelled as Jantar Mantar; a train full of bedecked brides aspiring to be handmaidens to the Devi who has supposedly arrived in person to rescue her city. However, a hundred or so pages into the book, the narrative is taken over by Jaz, a nominal Muslim whose true religion is loving other men, and the book leaps out of the quagmire of predictability. In ‘Jazter’ (as Jaz calls himself) the shikari, cruiser of parks and playgrounds in search of his prey, Suri manages to create a blithe, subversive and original voice. As Jaz joins Sarita in her search for Karun (for reasons of his own), the narrative comes together, the sex no longer limp, the humour sharper.
As a book, The City of Devi offers glib entertainment rather than profound insights into life or human nature. Its trinity of characters (the sanguine Sarita, the intrepid Jaz, the timorous and largely absent Karun) is sufficiently interesting, the plot is far-fetched but nevertheless holds up till the end and the prose is polished. Fortunately, Suri’s interest in revisiting mythology turns out to be cursory, more a matter of a catchy title for the novel (and the triptych) rather than anything more devout. Apart from a persuasive argument on why the trinity is better represented by Devi rather than Brahma in the creator’s role, there is little reason for mythology buffs to add the book to their shelves.
However, if you are a reader with a taste for the farcical or futuristic, you will not be disappointed.