As in his previous novel, The Age of Shiva, Suri proves himself adept at inhabiting a female narrator. What’s surprising, though, is how shadowy Sarita’s closeted husband remains. Like a construct of dark matter, Karun generates tremendous attraction while remaining mostly unseen. He’s a sweet nerd who leads his wife along without ever giving us a sense of his inner life beyond his rather adolescent regrets and conflicted desires. “The passivity at the core of his being” makes him a particularly problematic centerpiece for a novel.
This certainly doesn’t stem from any prudishness on the author’s part. Alternate sections of the novel are narrated by a gay Muslim named Jaz. Predatory and witty, he recalls a life of unrestrained sexual conquest (and fabulous fashion sense). He’s a well-traveled sophisticate, “Jaz Bond dropping into the villain’s lair,” an operator who radiates “shifty wavelengths” — obscene, ironic and seductive. But as nuclear armageddon approaches and Hindu thugs take over Mumbai, Jaz finds himself on the wrong side of the new partition without a foreskin.
In one of the novel’s many wonderfully surreal scenes, Sarita and Jaz meet in an abandoned aquarium, where all the fish have been eaten by scavengers, except for one lonely shark. Supremely vulnerable apart, the Hindu wife and the Muslim homosexual decide to join forces to find her husband. From this point forward, a Bollywood “Wizard of Oz” vibe electrifies the peripatetic tale, as Sarita and Jaz make their way through an increasingly bizarre landscape, hoping to get answers from the goddess Devi.
We know from Kurt Vonnegut how scenes of carnage should blend with moments of comedy to sound bitter, but The City of De vi never dips toward cynicism, never loses its essential sweetness, no matter how cruel or kooky the action: Prisoners burned alive during religious celebrations! Disciples drinking their god’s urine! Despots ripped apart by angry mobs! Imperiled heroes escaping on elephants! Only a careful writer could choreograph these cliches without sinking into parody or bathos. Moments of melodrama risk jumping the rails, but the whole story manages to keep hurtling along toward a surprisingly tender ending.
If the political resolution is ultimately a little too pat, the resolution of the novel’s romance is full of guileless charm. “We rise and fall under the empty sky,” Sarita says toward the end, “borne back toward the land by the frisking waves.” Would F. Scott Fitzgerald recognize his famous closing line transformed so boldly in this weird, complicated world?
Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.