The Death of Vishnu takes place on a small stage, with most of the external action occurring in the narrow stairwell of a Bombay apartment building. The characters are all ordinary, from dying alcoholic Vishnu, to the the warring neighbours the Asranis and the Pathaks, the teenage “starcrossed” lovers, the reclusive widower upstairs, tall and short ganga, or the cigarette and radiowallas. This is a domestic story, and the people are familiar ones, with common sins of vanity, religious zeal, covetiousness, and narrowmindedness. So why is this novel so powerful? Why does it eclipse the many generational and grand Indian sagas that it has been compared to?
Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Death of Vishnu
by Manil Suri
Bloomsbury, May 2002
ISBN 0 7475 5761 6
The Death of Vishnu takes place on a small stage, with most of the external action occurring in the narrow stairwell of a Bombay apartment building. The characters are all ordinary, from dying alcoholic Vishnu, to the the warring neighbours the Asranis and the Pathaks, the teenage “starcrossed” lovers, the reclusive widower upstairs, tall and short ganga, or the cigarette and radiowallas. This is a domestic story, and the people are familiar ones, with common sins of vanity, religious zeal, covetiousness, and narrowmindedness. So why is this novel so powerful? Why does it eclipse the many generational and grand Indian sagas that it has been compared to? The main power in this novel is Suri’s exceptional command of the narrative voice. The story moves deftly and subtly between the comic and material world of the neighbours and the sensual and dreamlike world of the dying Vishnu, and the recalled memories and desires under the surface of these ordinary people. The narrator is entirely invisible, and the characterisation so realistic, that the reader becomes intimately connected with the story, simultaneously experiencing the inner and outer worlds of its characters, and moving between reality and fantasy, desire and emptiness, the sublime and the ridiculous.
Regardless of the many foibles of the characters, Suri’s prose remains tender and warm, even as Mrs Asrani dyes her hair, or argues over thievery of the water cistern, or as Mrs Pathak raids the ghee tin, fusses over her ‘kitty’ party and magnanimously hands out rotten fruit and stale chapatis. Kavita is never criticised for her desire to become a star, or her over idealistic and syrupy view of romance (which has devastating effects on the parents of her ‘beloved’), nor is Mrs Jaiswal for card cheating, Vishnu for his overindulgence in drink (and delusions of grandeur), Mr Pathak for his extremism (in some ways, as ‘romantic’ as Kavita’s desire to live a film star’s life), or Short Ganga for her scientific “discoveries”. These people have their faults, and many of them are serious, but all are treated with the kind of benevolent kindness of a parent for its flawed children, and form much of the humour of this often very funny novel. Characters obsess over Kraft cheese, pieces of styrofoam, radio stations, thread, the Guiness Book of World Records and of course love, money, sex and enlightenment, The cheating Mrs Jaiswal (an excerpt I heard Suri read very eloquently at The Sydney Writer’s Festival) shows an appropriate horror when she hears that the dhal she is eating is made with pilfered ghee:
‘No!’ Mrs. Jaiswal gasped, quick to draw upon her thespian grounding. She allowed her shocked fingers to release the toxic plate, and watch wide-eyed as it shattered with a satisfying crash, sending lentils bouncing everywhere. Mrs Mirchandi tried doing the same, but inexpertly toppled her plate inwards instead, depositing cubes of cheese in her sari, some of which she only found (and ate) at home, later.
In contrast Vishu’s reminiscences are built on the smells and sounds of the world he inhabits on the stairs, a cup of tea, the red colour of light through the windowpassing through his closed eyelids, a mango, or a passerby’s perfume, but take on a magical, Proustian feel:
The steam rises lazily from the surface of the tea. It is thick with the aroma of boiled milk, streaked with the perfume of cardamom and clove. It wisps and curls and rises and falls, tracing letters from some fleeting alphabet. A sudden gust leads it spiralling down to the motionless man. It reaches his face, almost invisible now, and wafts playfully under his nose.
The scent conjures up memories of Vishnu’s life, including Padmini, the woman he loved, Kavita, Mrs Asrani’s beautiful daughter, and his parents. An offered mango gives rise to a vision of the mango goddess, with her fertile abundant sap. There are other links between the “living” characters and the dying Vishnu. Just as Mr Jalal remembers when Vishnu stole his car, Vishnu suddenly smells the sea, and is back driving Jalal’s Fiat, with Padmini. Vishnu’s scenes with Padmini are sexy, laden with attar scent, vermillion dye, the taste of mangos, and music. It is a stunning contrast with the soiled and messed dying man left uncared for on the staircase. A similar type of contrast occurs with the other characters as they conjure up moments of their own youth, love, and loss, including Mrs and Mrs Jalal: “This was not the time to worry about the empty chambers people carried around in their hearts”, Mr Taneja, Kavita and Salim. Similarly Mr Jalal’s literary and metaphysical fall, Mrs Jalal’s desperate attempts to exorcise them, and even Mrs Asrani’s feelings of physical insecurity are all as moving as they are absurd. These moments of vulnerability are so rich, and so delicately contrasted with the “reality” of the present that the reader begins to perceive the series of illusory layers – maya and nirvana, as interchangeable, and equally real and unreal.
As Vishnu ascends the steps, he moves closer to his destiny. Is it godliness, or death? The next stage of rebirth, or union with his love? We don’t know what is dream, and what is actually happening, and it doesn’t matter any more, since the dream is, in any case, actually happening to the dreamer. Vishnu becomes his dream, his dream becomes fiction, and fiction reality:
His arms, his hands, his legs, are luminous, brilliant. He feels the brilliance being absorbed through his skin, saturating his flesh, flowing through his blood all the way to his fingertips. He starts radiating brilliance himself…he look down at himself and he can no longer tell where the light ends and his body begins.
The ending of The Death of Vishnu is inspired, and although I won’t give it away, it is, in a sentence, simultaneously silly, funny, profound and tragic, leaving the reader pondering long after the book is finished. Manil Suri, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, has created a wonderful first novel. It is funny, evocative, full of the ordinary antics of everyday life, sexy, sad and rich in mythological illusion.
For more information on The Death of Vishnu, visit: The Death of Vishnu: A Novel