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Jaipur Literature Festival 2023: Manil Suri's book is not just about mathematics

Though Manil Suri's book, 'The Big Bang of Numbers', invites the reader to ‘build’ a universe using mathematical ‘first principles’, this book is for everyone, not just mathematicians

A file photo of Manil Suri. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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If you’ve ever read a popular book about mathematics — think Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity, Simon Singh’s Fermat’s Last Theorem, or Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach — you’ll know that the author is generally terrified of readers rejecting the book because of a profusion of unfamiliar math equations or formulae. This is a phenomenon as old as the genre itself. In 1988, the year of my birth, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was published and in the foreword, Hawking says that his publishers are convinced he will “lose half his readership with every equation”. 

Over three decades later, Manil Suri (novelist, not to mention professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County or UMBC) has followed the same advice with his (very enjoyable and erudite) book The Big Bang of Numbers: How to Build a Universe Using Only Math. The most ‘difficult’ math you need to know to follow this book is probably the quadratic equation, no more. As the title suggests, the text invites the reader to ‘build’ the universe (disciplines like geometry or physics first, and then pretty much everything else) using mathematical ‘first principles’. It’s essentially an elaborate thought experiment, a math joke stretched to its logical endpoint. The 63-year-old Suri, one of the speakers at the ongoing Jaipur Literature Festival, spoke about his latest work during an interview. 

“Mathematics suffers from bad PR, I feel,” Suri said. “People are definitely afraid of encountering mathematical symbols or equations in what they’re reading, and Stephen Hawking knew that. So, for me this was always part of the plan, that I would write a book for everybody, not just mathematicians. Plus, a long time ago—could be 20-30 years ago—I read a guide intended for the curator of a science museum and it said, ‘Do not use the word ‘mathematics’ in your exhibition!’” 

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The Big Bang of Numbers has been in the works for a decade. In fact, when I interviewed Suri in 2013, he had mentioned that he was working on “a novel with real math in it”. Obviously, at some point Suri switched formats, but make no mistake — this book has been written by a highly skilled novelist, by a person who understands character and plot, context and subtext. There are also literary references throughout, like a part where Suri talks about the works of Jorge Luis Borges, two of whose short stories (‘The Book of Sand’ as well as ‘The Library of Babel’) tackle the subject of infinity. At one point during the book, Suri is faced with the task of teaching his readers how addition, subtraction, multiplication et al came about. He does so by making numbers — yes, plain old ‘1’ and ‘2’ and ‘3’ — sentient beings, characters interacting with each other, playing games and so on. In the process, they educate the reader on mathematical operations.  

“Initially, their characterizations were even more prominent and the numbers had even bigger personalities,” Suri said. “But then the editor to whom I had pitched my novel retired and the new editor read my manuscript and the numbers-as-characters stuff was deemed too experimental. The manuscript was twice the size it is right now!”

At several different places in the book, it feels like Suri is talking in philosophical or religious (the book is structured biblically, so to speak, inviting the reader to create the world in seven days) rather than mathematical terms. This is no accident, of course. Concepts like a null set or infinity have obvious theological connotations. The pioneering mathematician Georg Cantor (1845-1918) invoked the writings of 13th century theologist Thomas Aquinas while talking about ‘transfinite’ numbers (numbers that are not technically infinite, but vastly larger than finite/countable numbers nevertheless). If you read Aristotle or Plato or even someone relatively recent like Bertrand Russell, you’ll see how philosophy and mathematics work in lockstep, how they are often indistinguishable in these texts. 

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Suri said: “Theology and mathematics often intersect because deep down, they’re both ways in which people try to comprehend or try to conceptualize the intangible. For mathematicians from earlier centuries, religion was also just a big part of the cultural landscape in general and not to be a part of it could end badly for you. Cantor, for example, was afraid of being punished by the Church for his work on infinities. He did not want to be the next Galileo.”

Outside of this book, Suri is best known for his Hindu-deity-themed trilogy of novels between 2001 and 2013 — The Death of Vishnu (2001), The Age of Shiva (2008) and The City of Devi (2013). The number ‘3’ often assumes great significance in his plots, a doff of the hat to the Pulitzer-winning novelist Michael Cunningham (The Hours), whose class Suri took at college;. The Death of Vishnu in particular was a virtuosic performance, and was longlisted for the Booker and shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The titular Vishnu is the perennially drunk handyman of a Bombay apartment building, lying half-dead on a landing. When a Muslim resident named Ahmed has a vision of Vishnu as his namesake deity (“with fire and smoke, and more heads than I can count”), it becomes clear that Vishnu’s impending death is going to pluck at this community’s many pressure points; religion, caste, the usual suspects, really. 

For the most part, all three of Suri’s novels were well-received by critics. He even became an Internet sensation briefly, after his drag performance at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2008, dancing to the Helen song ‘Piya Tu Ab To Aaja’. However, in 2013 a passage from The City of Devi was, however, awarded Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Ten years later, how does he feel about the unwanted honour?

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“No publicity is bad publicity, am I right?” Suri said with a chuckle. “After the award happened, I wrote a piece in the New York Times about the experience and it was well-received. The President of the university (UMBC) started introducing me as the winner of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, every chance he got. And I was like, ‘I have done other stuff, you know, I’m a mathematician, I’m a novelist’. Students are often horrified to hear me being introduced like that, but I feel it’s all in good humour. It is such a struggle for writers to gain any sort of visibility at all today.”

 Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer


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