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Manil Suri. Photo: M Zhazo/Hindustan Times
Manil Suri. Photo: M Zhazo/Hindustan Times

The Love Issue | The view is great from up here

Manil Suri, the novelist and mathematics professor, on gay activism , coming out to family, and unlocking his inner Bollywood diva

Manil Suri grew up in a one-room apartment at Kemps Corner, Mumbai, with his father, a Hindi film music director, and mother, a schoolteacher. He went to Campion School and spent most of his time reading, away from peers or schoolmates. As a gay teenager and adult in Mumbai, Suri did not find love, or much freedom. He pursued higher studies in mathematics at the Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania, US, and has been teaching mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, for many years now.

Suri is known more, however, for his novels: The Death of Vishnu (2001), The Age of Shiva (2008) and The City of Devi (2013).

The Death of Vishnu, his debut, made a splash. With the Joycean weaving of mythology and bourgeois life, Suri established himself not only as a deft storyteller, but also as a man of letters, and a sympathetic observer of the pop and the mundane. He found love in America and came out, over many years, with his parents and family. His last novel, The City of Devi, about Mumbai in the throes of an apocalypse, contains explicit depictions of homosexual sex (the book incidentally got him the “Bad Sex in Fiction" prize in 2013). He has written extensively on India and LGBT issues.

In an email interview, Suri talks about the need for Indian authors and film-makers to come out, and protest against the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) ruling on Section 377, gay activism, his personal experiences with coming out, and doing a Helen in front of a New York audience. Edited excerpts:

More than being about differences or the acceptance of differences, the SC’s upholding of Section 377 is a human rights issue for those who will be worst affected by it—men and women from less privileged backgrounds or extremely conservative communities. How can gay people from the educated classes help?

One way is through groups like the Humsafar Trust, the Naz Foundation, etc., which form a bridge between the classes. There are several people from the well-educated classes (Ashok Row Kavi comes to mind) who have worked tirelessly to make such connections through these groups. It’s through an expansion of this kind of interaction that people from educated classes can help. These are brave non-profit groups (the Naz Foundation was the one to originally challenge Section 377)—they deserve our financial support, whether we’re gay or straight.

No industry or arena other than the world of fashion openly accepts homosexuality. Most of the gay directors and actors in Bollywood don’t come out. Some are open in select circles, but not when it comes to, say, protests against the SC ruling. Do you think this has contributed to the way homosexuality is perceived
in India?

Absolutely. That’s why the Supreme Court could get away with its outlandish assertion that only a “minuscule fraction" of India’s population is gay. It’s a tragedy, really—those who are the most visible, who have the most power to change public opinion, are also the most afraid. Certainly there are risks, but for those brave enough to come out, I honestly believe they’d end up with more positives, through the respect they’d gain.

At the Kolkata Book Fair last year, you read a portion from ‘The City of Devi’ which was about homosexuality. Did the lack of response or acknowledgement surprise you? Does the media here ask you questions about your homosexuality?

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Gokul in Colaba. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Since you are from Mumbai, how have you seen the city’s gay communitychange?

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no community to speak of. Then, through the years, an underground movement slowly started to peek out—the private parties on the roof decks of suburban hotels, the upstairs bar at Gokul’s (in south Mumbai) which was unofficially colonized, the gay disco scene which became increasingly prominent. What’s most heartening to see is that the emphasis on sex is abating in favour of love—people are entering relationships, trying to create a vibrant gay culture.

In ‘Granta’ magazine you wrote about how your mother and father responded to your coming out. Is your extended family also more accepting now?

My mother’s family has always been very accepting. My father’s family is more conservative, but I’ve yet to hear anything critical from them either. I was particularly surprised last year when my 87-year-old uncle told me he’d almost finished The City of Devi. I was dying to know what he thought of all the sex in it, but chickened out and didn’t ask him.

What are your earliest memories of finding love in Mumbai? Did you find love in your teenage and early adult years?

Sadly, no. I didn’t really know any gay people during the entire 20 years I spent in Bombay (I left in 1979). It was a very lonely existence, as it still is for many young people who might realize they are gay, but may have no one to talk to. That’s why the presence of the Internet and social groups has been so transforming—it gives people a chance to connect with others who might be grappling with the same difficult issues. Of course, I’ve now had the opportunity to visit Bombay several times with my partner Larry—we’ve found it’s a great city to be in love.

What can we learn from Western countries, say, the US, where you live, about gay activism and gay rights movements?

It’s a long process. In the US, gay rights received a terrible blow in 1986, when the supreme court upheld sodomy laws (just like in India). It took 17 long years for the US supreme court to finally admit (in 2003) that it was wrong, and to legalize homosexuality. What caused the change was visibility: more and more LGBT people coming out—something India desperately needs. My advice: View the SC decision not as a setback but an opportunity. Becoming legal is certainly a key aspect, but moulding public opinion is even more important. People need to see gay people as their friends, neighbours and relatives before their attitudes will change.

Are you as comfortable with the “gay Indian" tag as the mathematician or novelist tag?

Comfortable? I’m delighted! There are so few people claiming this honour right now that hey, you’re even interviewing a measly author, not some big-shot actor! Come on, LGBT Indians—join me, the view is great from up here!

In your fiction, you have used figures from Hindu mythology and religion. What are some of the most riveting stories, or imagery, from Indian mythology about alternative sexuality and homosexuality?

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Kemps Corner, Mumbai where Suri grew up. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

At the Brooklyn Museum you once performed a Bollywood number, unlocking your inner Bollywood diva. Tell us about that experience, it sounds like a lot of fun!

It was scary getting up in front of all those people to perform Helen’s striptease (Piya Tu Ab to Aaja). But once I started, it was, indeed, an “unlocking" of my inner self—a wonderfully empowering experience. If I could do this, I could do anything—I could dispense with a lot of fear in my life. The crowd loved it, and although initially speechless, my university president approved too when I showed him the video. This is exactly what coming out is like—initially scary, but once you do it, enormously empowering. I invite all LGBT Indians to take the next step towards this liberating rebirth that awaits them.

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