Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Death of Vishnu

Manil Suri's old-fashioned episodic novel of Bombay life could hardly be more different from Finnegans Wake, but the two books do share a device. Just as Joyce's hero is both a Dublin publican and a mythical giant, so Vishnu in The Death of Vishnu, not conscious at any stage of the book, is not just the odd-job man he seems. In the flickering awareness of his last moments, he confronts the possibility that he is in fact an avatar of the god after whom he was named. In a novel by an Indian expatriate shrewdly targeted at an American audience, he experiences something between a Western-style near-death event and the passage of the Hindu soul between incarnations.

There is plenty of local detail in these pages, brand names of foods and medications, but a vagueness about time. If one branch of the Irani hotel chain, where Mr Pathak goes to dip Gluco biscuits in his tea, is threatened with replacement by a video store, then the period can hardly be earlier than the 1980s, but the suppressed nostalgia of the tone would fit an earlier setting.

The happiest relationship in the book is an arranged marriage, and even a headstrong girl planning to elope with an unsuitable boy finds herself drawn to the possibility of marrying, instead, a man she does not know. The city apartment building which houses all the characters, from the affluent widower in the penthouse to Man Who Sleeps On The Bottom Step, retains something of the feel of a village, where everyone knows everyone and no secret lasts long. Feuds can simmer for years; there are no lightbulbs on the landings any more, after a dispute about how the electricity bill should be divided.

With the housewives Mrs Pathak and Mrs Asrani locked in rivalry over status - sharing a kitchen and stealing each other's supplies (one woman marking the level of ghee on the container with eyebrow pencil) - Suri enters familiar territory. Impressed despite herself by the Mexican-style 'tocos' [sic] - really only chapatis wrapped round cauliflower curry, served by the hostess at her last card party - Mrs Pathak sets out to trump them by making Russian-salad samosas, pouring in extra mayonnaise with a manic disregard for the expense. Despite such entertaining moments of broad comedy, it's hard to distinguish between the women, or between their symmetrically henpecked husbands.

There's something distasteful, in any case, about a successful emigrant (Suri is a university professor of mathematics in Baltimore) dishing up caricatural portraits of the life he has left. There's nothing a privileged readership likes more than stories about the ridiculous poor (as long as they're exotic enough to trigger no unease); their antics and pretensions, their cowardice and inability to tell the truth.

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Vishnu lies dying on the landing of a small apartment building in Bombay, his hand ''outstretched, as if trying to pull his body up the next step.'' He has vomited and ''soiled himself'' as well. But don't worry about him; his problems have pretty much ended on this novel's first page, while those of Mrs. Asrani, who stands over him, ''teakettle in hand,'' are only just beginning. ''Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet,'' she has tiptoed out with the cup of tea that she gives him each morning and now faces some difficult choices. First, who will pay to have the mess cleaned up? And then, what about the tea? She's certain Vishnu won't be able to drink it and hates ''the idea of good tea being wasted,'' but she also knows that ''giving tea to a dying man was surely a very propitious thing to do.'' Mrs. Asrani fills the cup without checking to see ''if Vishnu was alive or dead''; with her duty done, ''it didn't really matter.''

''The Death of Vishnu,'' Manil Suri's deft and confident first novel, is set almost entirely in and around the apartment building that Vishnu, depending on your point of view, either haunts or adorns or exploits. A longtime drunk, he has paid a previous servant for the rights to the landing and his position as dogsbody for the two Hindu families on the building's first floor. Middle-class and competitive, the Asranis and the Pathaks share a kitchen in which the women systematically steal from each other; the husbands would be allies if they weren't too timid to cross their wives. Above them live the more prosperous Jalals, the building's only Muslims. Except that Mr. Jalal doesn't quite believe in Allah; instead, he entertains the possibility of all gods, and shops around. He and his wife aren't on good terms with their downstairs neighbors, reflecting a communal suspicion that seems unshared by their son, Salim, and the Asranis' teenage daughter, Kavita. At the top of the building lives the widower Vinod Taneja, a contemplative who hardly ever leaves his apartment.

But that's only half the novel. For Suri intercuts his crisp and often comic account of the building's present-day life with Vishnu's dying memories; and though the present is described in the past tense, the author has, tellingly, switched into the present in writing of Vishnu's past. To the dying, he reminds us, all times are as one: and so we hear the stories Vishnu's mother told him as a child in his rural village and note the fond exaggeration with which she suggests that he may himself be an avatar of the god whose name he bears. We also relive his longing for a prostitute named Padmini, the closest thing to romance he has ever known, and see the sense of half-paternal pride mixed with desire with which he watches Kavita grow into a languorous beauty, the ''mischief'' seeping into her eyes as she demands that he now call her ''memsahib.''

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Manil Suri’s first novel, The Death of Vishnu, is a mélange of social commentary, romance-novel lust, the mundane, the comic, and the unbelievable. Blending fantasy and reality, the author focuses on a Bombay apartment building inhabited by several paralyzed characters. Each is unable to escape both his true state of mind and the role he plays within the confines of the apartment. Suri forgoes simple realism in favor of a multi-layered, mystical, sexual tale, attracting even the most resistant of readers with his lovely, provocative prose.

The Death of Vishnu skillfully captures the struggles of urban life, even if its central religious metaphor jerks the reader back and forth between reality, fantasy, past, present and future. In order to understand the author’s frequent mythological references, it’s best to brush up on the basics of Hinduism. However, even those who dive into The Death of Vishnu unfamiliar with the Vedas will be awed by the rare treats of this sophisticated, elegant novel.

Suri’s work was inspired by the actual death of Vishnu, a man who had lived and died on the steps of the author’s childhood home in Bombay. The Death of Vishnu depicts the slow, poignant demise of the title character, an odd-job man whose limp body lies motionless on the landing as the intertwined lives of the building’s inhabitants unfold around him. The light shining through the windows plays on Vishnu’s face as it “passes through his closed eyelids and whispers his past to him,” during his final ascension of the apartment stairs. As his old, weak frame rises into the air above, “the spell of gravity is broken, all the scents he has smelled are upon him, blending together to form a new aroma,” and his body changes into something liquid and luminous. He turns into his namesake, the god Vishnu. According to Hindu mythology, whenever there is an imbalance between good and evil, Vishnu, “the preserver,” is born to re-establish order. The deity of Vishnu has emerged from the old man’s body to sort out the emotions flying through the apartment block, which are completely out of equilibrium. Suri explores the deeper workings of human nature as he approaches an electrifying catharsis of illumination, love, and loss.

Suri’s prose, with its glowing, sensual language and powerful imagery, fluidly draws readers into the mystical world of the gods, with its potent, spicy-sweet scents: “The perfume is so thick and potent that he can feel it press against his face. Except that now it is the earth his nostrils are pressed against, earth that is wet and aromatic, earth that smells sweet and loamy…it is the land, it is fertility…it is an aroma he has never smelled before, but recognizes instantly”

Suri has called the Bombay apartment building in The Death of Vishnu a microcosm for the ethno-political map of India. The novel chronicles several relationships within the building: a pair of feuding housewives, a bereaved widower who lives in his own past, lovesick teenagers, and a Muslim couple whose marriage is failing fast. By focusing the chapters of his novel on how these different characters interact with one another and with Vishnu, Suri is able to show how religion, death, faith, and unexpected changes all work together to define each person’s individuality.

Religious issues distress several of Suri’s characters, including the Hindu Asrani family on the first floor and the Muslim Jalals on the second. Kavita, the beautiful, teenage Asrani daughter, must choose between the high-class Hindu engineer her parents have selected for her, and her true love, Salim Jalal. Kavita and Salim’s secret relationship places a huge strain on the entire apartment community. Vishnu agrees to become their “alerter,” and shares vicariously in the dangerous lust and innocent beauty of first-time love.

Meanwhile, Salim’s father, Ahmed Jalal, in his deep effort to understand the obstinacy and hysteria of religion, is determined to experience “this thing they call faith.” Rejecting his intellectualism in favor of enlightenment, he begins to leave his wife at night and sleep wrapped up in the calm darkness of Vishnu’s body. It is at these points in The Death of Vishnu that Suri’s novel crosses the threshold between awesome and extraordinary. Suri’s detailed account of Jalal’s vision of Vishnu is so exquisitely crafted that it almost seems to be an out-of-body experience for the reader as well.

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