Manil Suri, 48, is by day a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. By night, he is a novelist, creating narratives set in his native India.
Suri’s first novel, The Death of Vishnu, published by WW Norton and Co. in the US, was excerpted in The New Yorker and had a $350,000 (Rs1.5 crore) advance. Norton has just released his second novel, The Age of Shiva, to glowing notices. Amy Tan called it “both intimate and epic, a balance of sensual beauty and visceral reality”.
Have there been many mathematician-novelists?
Lewis Carroll. He was sort of a mathematician. There are other people who’ve done something similar. Apostolos Doxiadis wrote Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, and he was a mathematician. There’s someone in Argentina who wrote a short novella on Godel’s incompleteness theorem. So there’s a sprinkling of them. But it’s not like medicine, where there’s a tradition of literary doctors. Mathematics and literature, they seem divergent fields. In mathematics you have a lot of constraints, whereas in literature, you can make your story come out the way you’d like it to.
Write stuff: Mathematics professor and novelist Manil Suri. (Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg)
Are there areas where math and writing converge?
Actually, there are a few. If you’re writing and plotting the path of your characters, you have to consider the different directions they might go. “If I move something there, what will happen with this other thing?” Or, “How will the characters interact, if they do this or that?”
In mathematics, in place of characters, you have variables or unknowns. If I’m trying to plot a theorem, I try to imagine these variables interacting with each other. The boundary of their interaction is the theorem.
Did you write as a child?
I kept journals. And I painted, too. But the India of the 1960s and 1970s was still a new nation, barely free of British colonialism. The arts were not encouraged, especially Indian arts. I hardly read any Indian writers in school. There were no role models. If you showed any aptitude for studies, you were pushed towards the sciences and mathematics. If you failed at those, you might try something else. On the whole, the arts were seen as a sign of weakness.
Was your family middle class?
We were teetering middle class, at the edge of something worse. My grandparents lost everything in the partition of India in 1947. They were refugees from Rawalpindi, which is now in Pakistan. We lived in one room in Bombay, my mother, father and I.
My parents wanted me to become a doctor because that’s what my grandfather had been. Medicine was the last thing I wanted. In college, I took abstract algebra and fell in love with it. I liked how in mathematics you could find definitive answers. When you did a problem and it worked, it was a great feeling, something like a runner’s high.
When a professor suggested that I try to find a fellowship in America, I wasn’t sure. But I’d grown very pessimistic about my future in India. We have a tradition where children stay with their parents after they get a job. So while I loved my parents, I could see myself living in that fishbowl of a room forever. Once I got the ball rolling for studies in America, the idea excited.
And there was something else. I knew I was probably gay, which was completely invisible in India at that time.
What sort of math do you do?
Applied mathematics. I work in numerical analysis, which helps engineers solve mathematical problems they encounter.
How did you put your two lives together?
Through finding innovative ways to do math outreach. That was the bridge.
©2008/The New York Times