anil Suri has had two very diverse
He can mostly be found at the
University of Maryland, Baltimore
County, teaching mathematics.
In between he has found time to
write three critically-acclaimed
novels – The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva and The
City of Devi. The trilogy features Hindu gods – Brahma,
Vishnu and Shiva. The Death of Vishnu won the
PEN/Robert W Bingham Prize in 2002.
Suri has now embarked on an even more ambitious
project. He has co-authored The Mathematics of Being
Human, a play that will be performed March 8 at New
York City’s Museum of Mathematics. Suri also acts in it.
Suri Skyped with us about the making of the play.
You have three remarkable works of fiction. But how
did theater happen to you? Why theater?
It is one of those accidental things you fall into. I have
been wondering the same question: Why theater?
I was approached by Michele Osherow, my coauthor.
She is a dramaturge for the Folger Theater, Washington,
DC, and teaches English at University of Maryland.
They were putting up Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia
and that has a lot of math in it. She asked me to come
and talk to the cast and explain the math. So I did that.
I then I went to the theater before the show, set up my
PowerPoint and nearly 100 people showed up. It seems
they were interested if you made the math accessible.
Fast forward a few years and we ended up teaching
together on literature and math.
Wow, that’s never been done any-
where else before?
I don’t know. It probably has been
taught. She really liked poetry and I am
zero, absolutely null in it. We would
send 20 e-mails over the weekend trying to find some common ground.
There was tension. And the students
were perhaps going: ‘My god these
professors are going nuts. They have
real difference of opinion.’ So they
were getting nervous.
You got along well professionally?
Well, yes, but intellectually we were
coming from different places. She had
literature and poetry in her thinking.
I was coming from very precise
What was the course called?
It was called Mathematics
and What it Means to be
And the university was
okay with such an experi-
Yes, the university
actually encourages that.
There’s a program for incoming humanities student to
take a class that is taught by two different professors —
one in humanities and someone from a different field.
This particular batch was in shock when they learned
that it was going to be a mathematician teaching the
seminar. They – for the most past — did not want to do
anything with mathematics after finishing high school.
What was the content of the course?
We started with Oluipo. It was a movement started by
mathematicians who did these weird experiments in
language. We looked at the play Arcadia. At C P Snow’s
essay on why sciences and humanities are so diverse
( Two Cultures)...
We (then) examined King Lear…
And from there how did the play come about?
If you look at Lear, Shakespeare uses the term noth-
ing about 29 times in the play. It really seems like he is
bringing the idea of zero into the play. I was skeptical
about it but after a while I realized that there must be
something in it.
From there we wrote three essays for the Chronicle of
Higher Education. They were kind of funny, bringing up
the tensions and trying to do something interdisciplinary.
And then about a year ago we were invited by St
Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada. They asked us
to come and present a talk based on the essays. That’s
when the theater idea came up. Michelle has all this
experience in theater.
And me… I am always dramatic. So why not try and
I know your dramatic side. I have seen you dance to a
Bollywood song at the Brooklyn Book Festival!
Right. So this was the inner dancer, the tragedian, the
Meena Kumari that is trying to get out of me.
So I said “Let’s write a play.”
You have done fiction. How different is writing a play
And she said “Are you crazy, we have one month to do
I said “Let’s try to write it. If we can’t write it, we will
give the talk.”
We managed to write it. About 12 days before the talk
we said: “Oh by the way, we will present the talk as a
play instead. And could you find us two student actors
from the drama department?”
with someone who has a theater background? How did
that collaboration work?
She knew exactly what a play is meant to be. At sever-
Would you sit together and work or divide sections?
al points she said “Well, this would be great for a book.
But you don’t need all this exposition. The first line of
dialogue you wrote is enough, because the rest will
involve acting and how the actors say the lines.”
She was very good at editing. I was good at keeping
the story going. Not making it too academic. I was try-
ing to keep the tension of fiction.
We would write something, show it to the other person. It went back and forth like that.
It was intense and tough at times, because we were still
coming from different places. She was worried about how
people in the humanities will look at it, while I was
thinking about the audience with a math background.
There was a lot of drama involved but it worked.
At Waterloo we presented our first version. As I understand with plays, you have to perform them several times
and each time you get an improvement. So, we were fortunate. We teamed up with a director with the theater
department in our university and he got two actors.
We wrote a completely different draft over last summer and started rehearsing last fall. (The director) said
he didn’t want us to just sit. It is to be an enacted play.
The only difference is that we kept the scripts with us.
Aseem Chhabra finds out why mathematician
I was thinking I could just go up and do it. But it was
hours and hours of practice.
We had two shows in our university and it went very
well. Afterwards we got some feedback and some people
in theater had much more critical comments to make.
The play works like a play, but there is also a lot of
outreach going on. You cannot assume that the
audience knows a lot about these topics. You have
to weave in information about mathematical
concepts in terms of drama.
Then we performed in San Antonio at a
math conference. Mathematic-
ians can be quite ruthless and
I was nervous. But there were
about 300 people and it
worked fine. The next step
is New York City’s Muse-
um of Mathematics.
and writer Manil Suri has joined the stage
Finding his inner
Meena Kumari Writer and mathematician Manil Suir (center) has coauthored The Mathematics of Being Human, a play that will be performed March 8 at New York City’s Museum of Mathematics
FROM MATH TO DRAMA
India Abroad March 6, 2015
THE MAGAZINE M11