Manil Suri’s exuberant images of modern-day India, invoking Hindu gods and probing into religious divisions, provide rich scenery for his apocalyptic new novel, The City Of Devi.” The firebombs Suri rains down on Mumbai burn so bright that the human story underneath, of two residents racing to find their mutual lover before the end of the world, can’t live up to its grand scale.
After a wave of terrorist violence sweeps the globe, religious gangs in Mumbai take advantage of the disruption to battle for control of the city. Among the ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire, cultish devotion attaches to Devi, Mumbai’s patron saint. Her followers believe she’ll return and save the city; Hindu forces blanket Mumbai with statues of her, which Muslim guerrilla groups deface. Within this turmoil, a newlywed named Sarita attempts to leave Mumbai to find her husband Karun, who left weeks ago for a scientific conference. Dogging her footsteps is the cosmopolitan Jaz, who approaches Sarita under the guise of protecting her, while hoping to reach Karun first so she doesn’t find out they were once lovers. Raised around the world by liberal Muslims, Jaz returned to India reluctantly, but dove into the exuberance of living a double life with Karun as his “roommate.” His experience in deception helps them on the run as they weigh the risks of posing as an inter-religious “couple” or as brother and clueless sister.
World-weary Jaz sees the desperation of their situation more than Sarita, for whom the turmoil of the city takes a back seat to the prospect of saving her marriage. Her naïveté undercuts her rosy depiction of Karun’s courtship. But they’re both operating under delusions, which are harder to accept as the violence around them escalates, and the grand gestures Karun inspires in his lovers becomes increasingly questionable.
Sarita and Jaz’ ruthlessness toward the suffering people around them matches Suri’s brutal affection for describing the destruction visited upon Mumbai, where gods are blockbuster superheroes and nightclub owners welcome the fat receipts of the last nights of the world. Chance encounters with survivors, from a disabled girl believed to be a divine incarnation to a warlord surrounding himself with intellectuals, provide tantalizing glimpses into these end times, but the plot always returns to plod obligingly after Karun. The City Of Devi means to use all this danger to give Jaz and Sarita’s escape a sense of urgency, but it’s more satisfying just to watch this carefully crafted world burn down.