The City of Devi seems a brave and intricate tale of forbidden love in the heart of India. It weaves together the love stories of two protagonists, both of which long for the affections of the same man. Karun is the love object they both desire. And both seem, at times, to have him. Surita is a latecomer to the world of romance, particularly for the Hindu culture she has been bought up in. Jaz is male, and although he has the longer, and arguably more real relationship with Karun, the fact that it is a homosexual affair and Jaz is a Muslim, means it is a love they must hide. All of this is bought to a head in a future Mumbai, torn apart by terrorism, the separate religions at war, and everybody quaking under the threat of a Pakistani atom bomb. At the start, this is a sharp, distressing, and incisive novel. Although clearly far-fetched, the premise is believable. And frightening.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay that way.
The novel switches between the perspectives of Sarita and Jaz, and each section flips freely between the present day and the past. The opening section deals with Sarita; in the present as she tries to navigate her way through the blasted streets to find Karun, and in the past as she looks for love, finds it, but then discovers the difficulties of sex in a culture that forbids it before you are married. This section is extremely involving. Sarita’s desire for a partner, her naivety, her fear, and the portrayal of their difficult sex life, is perfect. Funny, accurate, and heartbreaking at the same time. Her experiences in the present, plighted by the threat of terrorism, are at times terrifying.
Jaz’s voice is in no way as endearing or enjoyable. It’s crude, stereotyped, and it makes it difficult to like him or sympathise with him. Although a first person narrative, he constantly talks about himself in the third person, and it’s as annoying here as it is when anybody does the same in real life. Everything’s a joke to him, and the jokes aren’t very funny. The opening ‘Jaz’ section has you longing for a return to the writing displayed when Sarita was at the fore.
But the novel never really recovers. Other than in the opening section, there is a lack of realism, believability, and emotion. What was frightening, real, and touching in the opening section, becomes silly, unrealistic, and farcical. Each section is increasingly littered with a litany of ridiculous characters, and what seemed like it was going to be an adroit consideration of love, loss, and the state of our world today, becomes throwaway and uninvolving. Once the three characters are united, events become so unbelievable that you almost have to laugh.
Any Cop?: For the opening section, and, at times, the portrayal of Karun’s struggles with his homosexuality, I would like to say yes. Sadly, there are too many moments in this novel that create the opposite reaction to what they intended. When it means to make you laugh, you cringe. When it means to touch you, and bring a tear to the eye, it can be hard not to snigger. When it wants you to enjoy it, you may feel like throwing it at the wall. A premise with so much promise evaporates every time you turn a page.