The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri
Manil Suri's first novel, The Death of Vishnu (W.W. Norton & Company; 2001), is filled with imagery and ideas. And food. Hot chili Indian foods like golgappa: "She watched intently as each golgappa was created: the tap to make the hole in the top of the papdi, the scoops to fill it with chickpeas and chutney, the final immersion into the pot of tamarind water..." The foods are not translated into what their Western equivalents might be, but retain an exotic mystery. The uninhibited pleasure the various characters take in eating only adds to the reader's vicarious pleasure. India is such a poverty ridden country that a tasty dish might well be that much more rewarding.
But this is not a book about India's poor. Yes, the dying Vishnu of the title is dirt poor, he is blind in one eye and is a life long drunk. He is dying at home, that is, on the landing he occupies in a small apartment complex in Bombay. He does (did) jobs for the regular apartment dwellers; errands, and dish cleaning and the like for a small fee and for the place to sleep on the landing. The two tenants he waits on mostly (lazily, sloppily and cheatingly by all accounts) are Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani. He also helps out the Muslim family above them, the Jalals, and the sad Mr. Taneja who lost his beloved wife seventeen years earlier, living above the Jalals.
There are other landing dwellers. This is India and housing is an ad hoc affair. There is Radiowalla, and the man who occupies the steps just above the street but has no name that anyone knows. There are the various gangas, female servants for hire to collect the morning milk and perform other household chores. Before Vishnu occupied the steps, Tall Ganga did and she sold the landing to Vishnu after marrying off her last daughter so she could retire with a son. Tall Ganga blackmailed the residents into taking Vishnu on.
Those tenants are middle class, but don't make any comparisons with American counterparts. The better-offs are not so well off by our standards. Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak share a kitchen, for example (and none to peaceably), and their living quarters are cramped.
So many characters move in and out of this book. And Gods are among them, along with ghosts and spirits. The Bhagavad Gita is everywhere present in images, in influences and in superstitions. Other religious influences play a role. There are the Jalals, she a devout Muslim, and Ahmed Jalal, a thinker and skeptic, a wayward Muslim. He has read philosophy and religion and he is very perplexed by the concept of faith, so much so that he decides he must find it, must seek a sign. There are peripheral healers and holy men and swamiji's too among the crowded, noisy, dusty city streets. Bombay, flushed by the Arabian Sea, The Gateway to India.
When we arrive in the teeming city, Vishnu is lying on his landing and Mrs. Pathak is bringing him tea. She is careful not to breath in for fear of inhaling a spirit of Vishnu's death. Soon there is a quarrel between Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani over who will pay the amublancewalla to carry Vishnu to the hospital. The husbands give their wives a wide berth while the verbal hardball is played out over everything from one accused of stealing cooking oil to the other of stealing rationed water from the common kitchen. Vishnu languishes. The ambulance finally arrives, the men having decided to each pay half, but the women refuse to pay and the amulancewalla leaves Vishnu where he is. Only he knows that the morgue is the place for Vishnu now, but if no will pay, here Vishnu will stay. And no one else will kneel down to feel for a pulse.
Enter Vishnu's spirit or soul as it moves out of his body, not yet aware that technically Vishnu is no more. His soul journeys up the stairs, aware of what goes on around him, but unable to act. This will be the end of one Karmic round, and Vishnu remembers all the stories his mother has told him about his namesake's many reincarnations, such as insect, bird, Brahmin, monkey. For me these recollections, these mythic stories of the God Vishnu are the most delightful part of the book: "His mind races through the names his mother has taught him. All the times that Vishnu has descended to earth to battle evil. He wonders if he could be Narasimha, the man-lion who sprang out of a pillar to slay a demon. Or Vamana, the dwarf, who taught the tyrant Bali a lesson. Or one of the later avatars, like Krishna or Buddha, the ones who came down as humans. But then he thinks that Narasimha has already come and gone, as have Vamana and Rama and Krishna. How could he be an incarnation that has already been lived? The flames begin to grow a little, they raise their heads and glance curiously around. There is only one avatar yet to descend. The last avatar of Vishnu. The one they call Kalki. Destined to cut the thread of time and purify all of mankind."
Much time is devoted to the pettiness of the Asranis and the Pathaks and their spoiled children. The ripe beauty, Kavita Asrani, who, in her mind, lives the tales of Indian film heroines while believing she is in love with Salim, the forbidden Muslim son of the Jalals'. There is Vinod Taneja who escaped into grief at his wife's death, which eventually became a benumbed escape from life. There is Radiowalla and Short Ganga. They are all brushed very thinly, more caricatures than characters. They might be found in Dickens or Balzac, but in those writers it would be very clear what each caricature stood for; greed or sloth or envy and so on, but I am not always sure in Suri's novel, there are so many lightly drawn characters.
Then there is Mr. Jalal and his quest for faith. His reasons though were not made very compelling to me. He embarks on his quest with thoughts of self-abnegation; abolish the mind/body obsession and faith will come. This translates into sleeping on the floor next to his bed without telling his perplexed wife why. Finally he decides he must submit to harsher rigors against the flesh and one night, the night of Vishnu's death, he slips out of the apartment in his pajamas and down to Vishnu's landing to curl up against what he believes to be Vishnu's sleeping body. His quest comes to a bizarre close with poor Mrs. Jalal, for reasons that remain unclear, bearing the brunt. Mrs. Jalal, along with Vishnu's mother (met only in flashback) are the two characters in the book that I thought possessed a measure of genuine sentiment.
Aside, I suppose, from Vishnu on his once in a lifetime journey to death. Vishnu, worthless in all other ways, has had a pure love for the arrogant prostitute Padmini. He bought her things and took her places and rarely had enough money left over for her sex. He learned to accept what he could possess of her, the fleeting moments of flesh pressed against flesh and the occasional smile. Some of that love is transferred to Kavita Asrani who Vishnu has watched blossom from childhood to full blown womanhood.
If you are confused by all these characters and Gods and quests, I can only offer that I was at times overwhelmed. I am not certain all of the characters are necessary. I think I would have liked to have known Vishnu better and maybe a character like Mr. Taneja less. There are so many stories within stories. At its center the book is very much about Gods and religion; not so much as in man's fate, but rather notations on how to live and how to die, peppered in between with philosophical concepts. It falls to the ill-fated Mr. Jalal to carry this core, but he ends as such a ridiculous figure that I wasn't quite sure what point was being made by his tentative search for faith. Just a joke?
In real life, Manil Suri is a mathematician. He has lived in the United States for twenty-one years and teaches mathematics at the University of Maryland. I mention this because I think there lies the key the open-ended equation that is his book. The work is not so much a story as a lively picking at the commonplace and poking at the profound.
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