Mathematician finds a literary formula

Publishing successes add up for a UMBC professor who once kept his writing a 'delicious secret.'


June 04, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

Manil Suri kept his secret for years. It wasn't a deep, dark mystery by any means, but something precious shared only with family and friends. The kind of secret that the 40-year-old math professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, suddenly would remember while driving to work or retrieve from the back of his mind before falling asleep.

What few of his university colleagues knew was that Suri is a fiction writer of great imagination and beauty. In January, W.W. Norton publishing house purchased the Bombay-born mathematician's first novel for nearly $500,000. Almost simultaneously, the New Yorker magazine purchased a short story excerpted from the novel and published it in its Feb. 14 issue. Since then, overseas rights to the book, in which Suri weaves a highly textured tale about the tenants of a particular apartment building in Bombay, have been sold in more than a dozen countries. The U.S. edition is scheduled to be published in late January.

"I see plenty of people not just in math but in all kinds of jobs who become their job. Their personality just seems to be that job, and that is why I think it is important to do more than one thing," Suri says.

"The other thing is, of course, you have this delicious secret, and you are thinking, 'Oh, if only they knew what I was really up to.' "

Suri inhabits two seemingly unrelated, esoteric worlds. In academia, he does research in computational mathematics, a pursuit that involves designing and studying computer algorithms that can be used to approximate solutions for problems too complicated to be solved precisely with formulas. In "The Seven Circles," the short story published in the New Yorker, he describes a world in which an arranged marriage between Vinod, a young banker in Bombay, and Sheetal, a young woman of decided opinions, begins as a prickly negotiation and evolves into a lasting love affair.

But Suri's two passions -- mathematics and fiction -- are efforts to describe the same, enormously complex universe, one that resists attempts to reduce it to a simple formula.

"A similarity exists between writing a chapter and writing a math paper," Suri says. "You have to scan both of these so many times to find flaws or until they are without flaws or hitches or anything like that. Sometimes I spend an hour searching for just the right word, just like in math where I would look for exactly the right thing that I need. But in both cases, you can really tell when it is ready. There is something that happens, and you really feel that it is at the right stage."

Suri's novel, "The Death of Vishnu," is set in contemporary Bombay. The tale begins as Vishnu, the building's longtime handyman, lies dying on the steps where he has lived for years. In the rooms above, tenants bicker over who will pay for an ambulance. Gradually, Suri unfolds the stories of the building's residents: Mr. Jalal's quest to find spiritual meaning; Vinod Tanejas' regret over the death of his wife, Sheetal; Kavita Asrani's elopement. "Suffused with Hindu mythology, the story of one apartment building becomes a metaphor for the social and religious divisions of contemporary India, and Vishnu's ascent of the staircase parallels the soul's progress through the various stages of existence," says a description written for the publisher's catalog.

The book begins:

"Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, tea kettle in hand. "

That one sentence convinced agent Nicole Aragi to pluck Suri's manuscript from a pile of papers in her office. Typically, Aragi says, she dates manuscripts and peruses them on a designated reading day in order of their arrival. Something about Suri's submission caught her eye.

"It opens beautifully. It was just one of those manuscripts that came in the mail, and it went straight into my bag, and I took it home," she says. "Everyone in publishing says this: You can tell what you've got very quickly, in one line. Is this person a storyteller or not? Manil has beautiful style and he can tell a story."

Mixing life and fiction

The mathematician-novelist came from India to the United States 17 years ago to earn a doctorate at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. His father, who is retired, was an assistant music director for films in Bombay, and his mother at one time worked as a personal assistant to Indira Gandhi (before Gandhi became prime minister).

Suri speaks softly as he describes how he began as a student to write "one or two stories a year," then gradually became increasingly serious about his art. But for years, he wrote not of India, but of the United States. "One story was about a woman who was in Pittsburgh -- I was in Pittsburgh at the time -- who falls in love with an Indian student, and she has a son who is a gay transvestite," he says. "And somehow I figured this isn't what I should be writing about."

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