Manil Suri: The Death of Vishnu

Manil Suri
The Death of Vishnu
W.W. Norton

 

VISHNU IS DYING. This pauper who has camped out on the landing of a Bombay apartment building for years is nearing his end, and he's now sprawled upon the steps. That's the grim opening premise of this darkly comic first novel, a fictionalized account of a similar death in the Bombay apartment building where author Manil Suri grew up. The tale that follows is a condemnation of indifference that is appalling and wonderfully awful at once.

This tonal mixture is evident from the opening line: "Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived." As Mrs. Asrani struggles with the absurdity of offering tea to an unconscious, dying man--and her selfish need to fulfill that social obligation--the reader encounters one of the novel's central concerns: What should be done about Vishnu and how can the responsibility be evaded or passed to someone else? The question becomes more complicated as feuding households, the Asranis and the Pathaks, argue over who should pay for the care and removal of their neighbor and hireling.

The residents feel revulsion toward this man who has long performed their menial tasks in exchange for excess food and spare change (which he typically spends on drink). Now, with circumstances becoming uglier, their threadbare tolerance turns to petty meanness, an attitude that Suri captures convincingly. The only weakness in his characterizations is a tendency to ascribe such behavior to the women of the building but cast several of the male characters as merely haplessly ineffectual.

As Suri details the interior lives of the feuding households, he gradually introduces the building's other tenants. There's a pair of star-crossed young lovers who straddle the Hindu-Muslim divide through their Bollywood fantasy; an irreligious freethinker seeking enlightenment and his Muslim wife fearful of blasphemy; a middle-aged man lost to himself and attempting to recover from the premature death of his wife. And then, of course, there is the dying, ever-prostrate Vishnu, who in terminal convalescence recalls his mother's stories and his foolish "romance" with a prostitute--before envisioning ascension as the Hindu god whose name he bears. The novel's ultimate vision is itself complicated and messily human and divine: a portrait of a highly imperfect community as viewed from a death perch at the foot of the stairs.

 
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