Does Baltimore ever remind you of Mumbai, or other cities in India? If so, how?
It doesn’t, but we can work on it. First, fill the streets with people until every inch is occupied. Ask every car owner in the entire state to drive into the downtown area. Stuff the light-rail with commuters so that they are hanging out of the doors (have some perch on the roof as well). Unleash street vendors to sell snacks at every corner, cover every wall with Bollywood film posters, you get the idea. Perhaps Christo might consider it for his next project?
You’ve noted that “Devi is the key to deciphering Mumbai.” Why is that? And is the goddess key to understanding Indian culture, as well?
The keyword is multiplicity. Everything in Mumbai (or, for that matter, Indian culture) seems to coexist with its exact opposite —chaos with serenity, kindness with cruelty, extreme wealth with extreme poverty. This is what Devi (as well as the other major deities Vishnu and Shiva) encapsulate—multiple incarnations that reflect and celebrate all aspects of life. As the famous photographer Raghubir Singh said, a snapshot of India never has just one focal point—there are always multiple points of view.
In what ways did the British presence shape your worldview?
Most fundamentally, I speak, write, and think in English – the result of an English-medium legacy of education the British left behind. By the time I was growing up, though, it was America that the country set its sights on when it looked westward. The wounds of colonialism were pretty much what my parents’ generation suffered from.
Does the logic and inevitability of mathematics make a good foil for fiction writing? If so, how?
To an extent, it can help with sorting out the different paths that a narrative can take. However, as I learned, this can be taken too far. Two-thirds through The City of Devi , I made an elaborate graph of all the options open to my characters, and found, to my dismay, that none were viable. Which meant I had mathematically “proved” the story could not be completed. Fortunately, the math was lost on my literary agent, who drily told me to soldier on.
A friend at UMBC told me that you co-taught a freshman seminar class on mathematics for non-math majors. What did that experience teach you?
It taught me that without at least some basic motivation on the part of the learner, it’s simply impossible to engage people in mathematics, no matter how interesting or fun you make it. The subject is difficult, and for the students who were genuinely curious (and were ready to put in the effort), it was a great class. I’ve now taught a bunch of such courses, and they’ve been essential experience for a “math novel” I’m working on.
Will you be doing anymore Bollywood dances after readings?
Definitely, but this time, a striptease as the hero, rather than the heroine (as I did in Brooklyn in 2008). My only concern is that Bollywood heroes these days are very pumped up. So I’ve already started working out with a personal trainer (seriously).
Any favorite Bollywood films?
Perhaps it’s nostalgia, or perhaps Bollywood has just become too much a copy of the worst of Hollywood of late (Barfi, India’s Oscar entry for best foreign film this year was so bad that I walked out after twenty minutes). But for the true flavor of Bollywood, nothing beats films from the sixties and seventies—for me, its golden age. Try An Evening in Paris or better still, Caravan—pure escapism, but well worth it.