A Magical Evening Along the Silk Road, featuring Manil Suri

March 1, 2009 at 6:32 pm (books, Library, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington))

Last night the Howard County library held its annual fundraiser, “Evening in the Stacks.”  This year the theme was “Along the Silk Road.” For one evening, the East Columbia Branch was transformed into a combination of exotic souk and sultan’s palace. Decorations were lavish; food was plentiful and delicious. (I was especially grateful for the chicken curry!) At the silent auction, everything  from concert tickets to fencing lessons was up for grabs.

(A primary sponsor of this yearly event is the Washington Post. A representative of the paper offered ringing assurances of the Post’s continuing viability: “The Washington Post is not going anywhere!” It was all I could do to keep from calling out, “Give us back our Sunday Book World supplement!”  Ah well – I would not have been heard at any rate, due to the considerable volume of ambient noise .)

The high point of the evening was provided by the evening’s guest author, Manil Suri.

vishnu

shivaI listened to The Death of Vishnu several years ago, and I remember how surprised and delighted I was by Manil Suri’s laugh-out-loud manner of storytelling. So I was not surprised at his lively, engaging speaking style. Mr. Suri possesses the kind of charm that emanates from genuine personal qualities – warmth, wit, erudition, empathy. The assumed  facade that one often perceives in a setting like last night’s was nowhere in evidence.

Mr. Suri spoke with eloquence and tenderness of his childhood and youth in India, and of his family’s fascinating history. He discussed the way in which aspects of his personal history were transmuted into the stuff of fiction, especially in The Death of Vishnu. He talked about his own growth as a writer and about the process of getting published; Bollywood lore played an entertaining part in this saga.

After his remarks, Mr. Suri took questions from the audience. Referring to The Age of Shiva, one person declared herself amazed by the author’s ability to project himself into the mind and heart of a woman character. Suri was extremely gratified by  this comment, as well he might be.  After all, this uncanny ability has long been one of the qualities most admired in Leo Tolstoy, who breathed life into one of western literature’s most vital and enduring creations, Anna Karenina.

Manil Suri

Manil Suri

Initially, there was a slight delay in the proceedings while the audience was being seated. Undaunted, Mr. Suri launched a power point presentation; this was followed by a truly hilarious video. He did all this spontaneously, before he had even been officially introduced. He strikes me as the ideal guest speaker, unfailingly gracious in the face of delays and/or sudden script changes.

In addition to being a novelist, Mr. Suri has a “day job” as professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

This is a man who possesses brains, talent, and personal attractiveness in rare combination.

At last last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, participants were asked by festival organizers to follow their readings with “something embarrassing.”  Prof. Suri responded to this challenge by performing his very own – and probably never to be duplicated! – Bollywood Dance:

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