If you think that your math prof would never do a striptease on You Tube, you haven’t met Manil Suri, the gay Indian-American author, University of Maryland, Baltimore County mathematics professor and “New York Times” contributing opinion writer.
Being a tenured prof or a Times contributor would be more than enough on anyone’s plate, yet Suri, 56 has written three acclaimed novels loosely based on the Hindu trinity: “The Death of Vishnu” (2001), “The Age of Shiva” (2008) and “The City of Devi” (2013). “Vishnu” was a Pen/Faulkner Award finalist and “Devi” was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. He lives with his partner in Silver Spring.
Suri was born in Bombay, now known as Mumbai where accommodations are expensive, he says. Middle-class families often rent part of a larger apartment.
In Mumbai, Suri, an only child and his parents shared one room in an apartment with three Muslim families.
“There was one kitchen,” he says. “We shared the toilet. There wasn’t any privacy. The fights were about space, not religion. There was a common entrance to the apartment. It was a cause of great friction.”
His father was a Bollywood music director and his mother was a schoolteacher with a master’s degree in psychology. His parents, now deceased, scrimped and saved so they could sent him to private school.
“Public schools in India aren’t good,” Suri says. “You only go to them if you’re very poor.”
When Suri was young, he wouldn’t have predicted that he would go into math or writing. He was interested in science and also used to paint. His main hobby was collecting Bollywood posters.
Movies had a big impact on him. Years later, he performed a sexy Bollywood dance at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2008.
“‘Oh, my God, that’s the guy who taught me calculus,’ one of my students commented when he saw me dance on You Tube,” Suri says.
When he was growing up, movies were the main form of entertainment.
“We only started getting TV when I was in fifth or sixth grade,” he says. “It was awful.”
Suri got a poster of “Star Wars” when it came out and says Hollywood movies just started becoming popular in India toward the end of his time there.
When he was about 12, Suri had his first conversation about what it means to be queer with his mother. He was told that, “everyone is supposed to go through a homosexual phase and then go into a heterosexual phase,” he says. “I went through this phase. I didn’t feel any guilt. I just felt it was natural. I felt I’d grow out of it, but I’m still waiting,” he says.
It was a key factor in his decision to come to the U.S. at age 20 to study math. He eventually earned a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Carnegie-Melon University.
“In Bombay, there was a lack of privacy,” he says. “I didn’t have anyone I could to talk to who was gay.”
He felt no culture shock.
“This place just fit me so much better,” he says. “I loved Hollywood movies. I read Mad magazine. I felt so much at home.”
It’s not that STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields are homophobic, Suri says.
“It’s just that personal things don’t get discussed. I worry that in STEM fields there aren’t enough visible LGBT role models as there are in other fields like the theater, the arts,” he says.
For many years, writing was just a hobby for Suri. He’d write short stories, but not put much effort into it. His first published short story, appeared in “an obscure journal in Bulgaria.”
In Provincetown, Mass., at a writers conference in 1997, Michael Cunningham encouraged Suri to finish “The Death of Vishnu,” of which he’d written only a couple of chapters.
“He told me, ‘You are a writer.’ For the first time I wasn’t just a man with a hobby.”