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The Death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri
295 pages,
ISBN: 0393050424


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Life and Death in a Bombay Tenament
by Nikki Abraham

Manil Suri packs his 295-page novel with memorable characters, convincing dialogue, dramatic, pathos-inspiring, and humorous situations, and open-ended meaningūūno small achievement. On its most superficial level, The Death of Vishnu follows the inhabitants of a small middle-class apartment building in Bombay (Mumbai) over the course of 24 hours. The building, besides housing those who rent the individual flats within its four storeys, is central to a whole host of people. Such people, including small vendors (the "cigarettewalla" and the "paanwalla") low-caste servers ("tall ganga", "short ganga" and the "jamadarni") and vagrants such as Vishnu, spend most of their days either outside, or seeking shelter in places that affluent Westerners could never think of as "home" for anyone. In particular, the landings on each floor of the building are occupied by various lower-caste individuals who vie fiercely for the "right" of habitation, paying off those who have control over the squatting rights whenever a squatter dies or leaves for good.

Vishnu, a drunk who lives on the second-floor landing (having, eleven years earlier, bought his way up from the less comfortable ground-floor landing), now lies motionless on his precious square of shelter, letting go of his life by degrees. Like all those who exist in servitude, he lives in symbiosis with his mastersūūa fact that would be vehemently denied by the "civilized" top of the pecking order, but is utilized cannily by those at the bottom, to gain whatever advantage possible to ameliorate their desperate circumstances. And so Vishnu's dying affects everyone.

Because he has no money, instead of being taken to a hospital he is left on the landing to die. The two families on "his" floor, who for eleven years have depended on him to run errands for them, cannot settle who should be responsible for costs that might be incurred by this final illness. Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak are at loggerheads over their shared kitchen and everything else; their husbands are impotent, childishly venting their frustration by indulging in small acts of rebellion against their wives. Each woman believes the other family does not pay enough or do enough for Vishnu; each struggles to maintain a virtuous stance and therefore a clear conscience, while doing and sacrificing as little as possible.

The story shifts back and forth from Vishnu's dying reveries and experiences to the dramatic events that unfold around him. Kavita, headstrong daughter of the Asranis, who are Hindu, plans to run off with Salim, handsome son of the Muslim Jalal family who live upstairs. The self-involved parents of both young people have failed to notice the seriousness of the growing relationship, and are completely unprepared. In fact, it takes them so long to emerge from their narcissistic fog and realize that Salim and Kavita have actually gone away together, that events overtake them.

Meanwhile for Vishnu, letting go of his life involves revisiting his past, and he returns not only to memories of the prostitute who earlier in his life had been the unattainable object of his love, but also to the traditional Hindu stories his loving mother endlessly recounted to him when he was a child. The human Vishnu, carried away by his dying visions, begins to wonder if he himself may in fact be an incarnation of the god Vishnu, preserver of the world. This idea is suggested to him by Mr. Jalal, father of the wayward Salim. Mr. Jalal's wife is devoutly Muslim but he himself has been cursed with the gift of reason rather than faith. He desires to penetrate the mystery of religious practice, but cannot. His failure to do this consumes him. At one point in the 24-hour period covered in the book, Mr. Jalal comes to believe that the dying Vishnu may hold the answer to his quest. This moment is pivotal to the storyline but also to the novel's larger meaning.

The Death of Vishnu imaginatively poses questions about the varieties of religious experience, and leaves them for the reader to answer. The character of Vishnu is central to the inhabitants of the apartment building, but is he the god Vishnu? Mr. Jalal has a religious experience that could be real in the accepted Western-scientific-worldview sense, or could be thought of as encroaching insanity. Our opinion about it will depend more on who we are than on anything the author tells us. That is what makes this novel so interesting.

Without the narrative structure Suri imposes, the novel as a whole might have spun off in too many directions. Too many characters and situations vie for attention. However, the story is successfully contained first by the arc of events concerning the elopement of Kavitha and Salim, and second by the conceit that Vishnu, in the dying process, separates from his body and climbs floor by floor to the top of the building. This device is not slavishly imposed but the reader does realize that when Vishnu's spirit-self reaches the top of the building, he will die, the strands of the story will merge, and there will be some kind of resolution.

At first the characters seem too imperfect to be attractive. Given time, however, they grow in the reader's affections. Vishnu, the central character, is something of a cipher, but those around him are less so. In particular I found Mr. Jalal, whose never-ending argument with himself about the nature of religious experience is drawn with painful clarity, a sympathetic soul. But each of the characters can be viewed with or without compassion, as the reader chooses. Certainly author Manil Suri is not inclined to gloss over human shortcomings.

This is a thinking-person's novel rather than a good old-fashioned yarn. The writing is excellent, the story-lines interesting, the characters vividly human. The heart is moved; but it is warmed and chilled in equal measure, which can bring about an uncomfortable feeling. Sort of like being human. ņ

Nikki Abraham is an artist and freelance writer living in Toronto.

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