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'The Death Of Vishnu' by Manil Suri

Tenants' social mores clash in Bombay building

Sunday, April 22, 2001

By Mark Kemp

 
 

The Death Of Vishnu

By Manil Suri

Norton
$24.95

   
 

A few years ago, American readers might have had difficulty thinking of more than one or two South Asian writers published in the United States.

While Bharati Mukherjee and Anita Desai continue to produce important books, a remarkable number of young and talented writers of Indian or Pakistani origin has been gathering substantial acclaim. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize last year for “The Interpreter of Maladies” is only the best-known of these.

The newest addition to this growing list is Manil Suri. His first novel is a powerful debut that balances the thematically lofty with the meticulously mundane. The title suggests philosophy, and this novel meditates deeply about cosmic problems. It also focuses closely on the minutiae of ordinary lives.

The bulk of the novel takes place in an apartment building in Bombay and describes the comic, often vindictive interactions of its tenants in their orbits around the immobile, dying servant, Vishnu.

Suri received his doctorate in mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University and now teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He grew up in Bombay in an apartment building that inspired the one in the novel. It is clear from his tender but deeply ironic portraits of the four families -- the Pathaks, Asranis, Jalals and Tanejas -- that Suri knows these people intimately.

In their various pursuits of social status or spiritual meaning, they are by turns ridiculous and sublime.

In one seemingly minor subplot, Mr. Taneja’s young wife, dying of cancer, wishes above all else for a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. After careful consideration, she decides that she will memorize the dialogue of one entire movie.

Barely able to stay conscious during their viewing of the movie, ironically titled “Jeevan” (Life), Sheetal and her husband tape it, and she spends the next two months lying next to the cassette recorder memorizing. By the time she is ready to recite, her disease has advanced to such a degree that “Sheetal confused lines, forgot entire scenes and became too emotional to continue when Dilip Kumar consigned his beloved’s ashes to the Ganges and watched them float away in the water.”

Poignant scenes like this one could easily slip into sentimental-ity or mockery, but Suri maintains a confident hold on narrative tone. His irony never turns us away from his characters, even when their actions or words are despicable. And from the start we know they will often be petty and narrow-minded.

On the opening page, Mrs. Asrani debates “what to do with the cup of tea she brought Vishnu every morning.” Because he is near death, “it was obvious that Vishnu did not have much need for tea right now. On the other hand, giving tea to the dying was surely a very propitious thing to do.”

This vacillation between miserly scruples and an eye to the spiritual prize characterizes much of the characters’ approach to life. They worry about their religious duties and mortality. They share kitchens and squabble over drinking water and the possible expense of an ambulance for Vishnu.

Their socioeconomic world is as complex as their religious world: A lowly servant, who has taken over cleaning chores from Vishnu, dabbles in real estate by renting one of the stairwell landings as sleeping quarters to the cigarettewala, one of the many vendors who ply their trade in the street below.

No one is free from Suri’s satire, yet he also grants every one of his characters a measure of dignity. The Jalals, the only Muslims in the building, are fundamentally mismatched: She’s a rather simple zealot, and he’s an “intellectual” atheist who has read a little about the world’s religions and philosophies and had once hoped to make a sort of Eliza Doolittle of his unschooled wife.

Eventually, however, doubt begins to gnaw at Mr. Jalal: “Hadn’t even Einstein professed the existence of God?”

He becomes obsessed with asceticism and mortifying the body, to the point of sleeping on Vishnu’s landing beside the dying man and duly experiencing there a dream or vision of the servant as the god Vishnu. What happens when this irreligious Muslim tries to convert his wife and neighbors to his apocalyptic new brand of Hinduism makes for beautifully understated comedy as well as pathos.

Through all of these vignettes and subplots, Suri threads the story of Vishnu, a poor man with his own visions of grandeur. As he lies dying, he remembers his childhood and the too-real games his mother helped him to play, in which he pretended to be one of the 10 incarnations of Vishnu.

He also recalls his ill-fated but luscious romance with the prostitute Padmini. The scenes with her most sensuously offset the Jalals’ attempts, and those of others, to reach a higher plane through physical self-denial.

Both the pains and pleasures of the body, “The Death of Vishnu” assures us, are fleeting. But they are also what we really remember.

Mark Kemp teaches in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh.

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