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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri. W. W. Norton & Company. January 2001

This was Manil Suri’s first novel, written in 2001. He is an applied mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. [1] He was the author of a few short stories prior to his first novel. When this book was published, the author had been away from India for about 20 years (he had in fact come to the US as a student at Carnige Mellon when he was 20). However, once it was published in India, some prominent critics there called it an “Indian novel”.  The novel takes place in contemporary Mumbai and is based upon some of the people the author knew of in his apartment building while growing up in Mumbai.

The stage of the story centers on the lives of people in an apartment building. The protagonist, Vishnu, inhabits a stair landing between the ground and first floors. He is very poor, somewhat of an alcoholic, middle aged, and lay dying on his landing. Vishnu gained this prized spot in the building (prized due to his standing or caste) by purchasing the right from the previous occupant. Additionally, in exchange for occupying on the landing as his residence in the building, he does odd jobs for some of the families (such as standing in line to get milk in the morning, washing dishes, and so on).

Life in the building goes on as he lay dying. There are two Hindu families living on the first floor, a Muslim family on the second, and a widower who rarely comes out of his apartment on the third floor. The two families on the first floor have an ongoing tension, rivalry, and bickering going on between the wives over several of things. For example, their shared kitchen (on the same floor) is a place of a sustained passive-aggressive arms race. Accusations fly from one woman against the other for assumedly taking more than her share of water ration from the cistern on the roof. This could bring on a reprisal in the guise of “borrowing” the other family’s ghee (clarified butter) or other, and so on.

As it slowly dawns on these women that Vishnu is ill (the novel begins with one of the women delivering Vishnu’s morning tea and finds him comatose and having soiled himself), they begin fighting over which family should take responsibility for doing something. This becomes an ever more volatile issue between them as the day goes on, both demanding of the other to pay for an ambulance to take him to the hospital. At one point, the two husbands, neither of whom have much control over their wives and generally keep out of the way of the conflicts and from each other, decide to arrange for an ambulance between each other without their wives’ knowledge or approval. Once the ambulance arrives, neither wife agrees to pay the ambulance attendant until after much arguing and struggle. Once the ambulance has been given their fee, he demands someone sign for the responsibility for Vishnu’s hospital bill. Neither family was prepared to go that far and the ambulance left, with Vishnu at that point either near death or having had actually died.

Much else of the narrative takes place in Vishnu’s mind as he fades in and out of consciousness and his memories of childhood, his youth, scenes of his lost love (who was a prostitute). Vishnu never married and had no immediate family in the sprawling city, his relatives living several hours away by train in the interior of India. Eventually, his soul begins to leave his body and he is able to hear the voices of the insects crawling around the stairway and within the walls, able to see the lives of the other residents go about their day, all the while continuing his fading from the present into the past. As he “climbs” the stairs, compelled by some urge to go to the roof of the building, be begins to believe himself to actually be the final incarnation of Vishnu, rather than being dead (which does not seem to occur to him at all). As he ascends to the top stairs, his visions become more and more laden with imagery of Hindu mythology until, at last, he enters the home of all the gods who are all waiting to greet him. His journey then rapidly takes him to the close of his story, into the company of Krisna who sits in a beautiful forest playing his characteristic flute. Vishnu, greatly puzzled at realizing he is not the incarnation of his namesake god, asks the boy ‘What now?’ to which is replied, ‘Why, you rest and then go back, of course’! Vishnu is then finally at peace after a long, very difficult life of poverty, struggle, and humiliating death (though appropriate for his station in life).

One of my favorite characters of the novel was Mr. Jalal. He was the husband of the Muslim family from the second floor. His story within the novel was significant as it became something of a flashpoint in one of the many subplots. Jalal was a skeptical, intellectual, and critical man, well read in western and eastern philosophies and religions. Mostly an agnostic (while other characters, including his wife, were obsessively superstitious and religious), he was at the time of the novel dealing with a spiritual crisis of his own. He was seeking for himself some kind of religious experience, or feeling, something that did not appeal to the intellect or the emotions but to the soul, and experience which he felt he needed but could not find. He believed the key to the religious experience was suffering and he tried several different methods to achieve the requisite amount. However, he was basically afraid of pain (‘why must pain be so painful’, he said to himself at one point) which further complicated his journey to arrive at a religious experience.

One of the acts of suffering Jalal attempted was to lie down with Vishnu on the landing, perhaps as an act of contrition to God (or gods) to be at a level of one so lowly as Vishnu, or perhaps to contract the disease that the residents assumed had had made Vishnu ill. Before doing this, however, the daughter of one of the first floor Hindu families and his son made their try at elopement. As the young woman went down stairs, she left an article of clothing on Vishnu as a keepsake.

Jalal had a fitful dream that he interpreted as an authentic religious vision of the Hindu god, Vishnu. He was awakened in the early morning of the next day by the other first floor family (rivals to the one whose daughter had run away with Jalal’s son). (Bear in mind Vishnu was likely very much dead at this point but the families were not all that interested it seems to verify this fact). Once awoken, he excitedly recounted his vision of Vishnu to them. He had, unfortunately, merely recounted a scene from the Bhagavad Gita that he was at the time not aware he had read years ago and had forgotten. But he was sure he had achieved his goal of a genuine religious experience and that he was now a prophet, of all things, Vishnu. It was his calling, he believed, to bring harmony to the two great religions of India, Islam and Hinduism.

When the vendors and others (all Hindus) who did not live in the building learned that the Hindu family’s daughter’s shawl had been left near Jalal, who was clearly crazy or drunk, and that his son was also missing, rumors quickly spread that the girl was a victim of foul play. A small mob formed, marched to the second floor, intending to extract justice. They beat Mrs. Jalal senseless and caused Mr. Jalal to fall from a balcony as he tried to escape.

What this novel portrays of a modern Indian city is quite exciting. All of the Hindu married couples had been arranged marriages. Each of these marriages started off on somewhat awkwardly but each had, it seemed, grew to be in love with each other. The daughter who attempted an elopement with Jalal’s son, was in fact having such a marriage arranged prior to the Jalal’s demise. It was interesting to see how she abandoned the younger Jalal later on the day of the elopement and after they left the city. Once she realized that they were to start a modest, humble life in a smaller city, she thought better of the arranged marriage: it was more attractive to her to be worshiped by the homely engineer her parents had arranged a marriage to. I had assumed that such marriages were mostly a thing of the past, not something in a modern, high-tech India (even pre-high-tech India of the 70’s and 80’s) would be common.

Next, the castes, or stations of life, the vendors and Vishnu had in comparison to the higher life of the building’s apartment residents was arresting: I had no familiarity of these separations of people other than a vague understanding of such a cultural condition. Further surprising was how the vendors who sold their wares to all the families with no apparent prejudice or ill will to the Jalal’s, and even in some cases had served that family for many years, would all succumb to being swept up in a religion-inspired violent act against them. 

There are also frequent scenes of how valuable space is to the lives of the characters. A stair case landing makes a legitimate home for someone. Some people of lower castes as Vishnu can take up residence on some of the lower stairs. The stair case itself serves as a metaphor for both spiritual journeys (for Vishnu certainly and then for Jalal, too, to a certain extent) and for caste, class, and rank (the higher floors were occupied by higher income families). Cramped, shortages of space also figures prominently to the two Hindu families whose rivalries and resentments emerge most often in the shared kitchen.

In one way, the novel could be a kind of social allegory for India. Vishnu embodies the interplay of earthly powerlessness but with a certain kind of spiritual power (through his progression from living to death). We see a vibrant, intense Indian city that is a crowded, noisy place. Your place in society, whether Hindi or not, makes up more of you than it would be made of in America. Tradition, religion, and superstitions (even spells, witchcraft and so on) are very important to many people (as it is here) that further defines the self in India for an Indian. This is a valuable, fascinating book and an impressive first novel.


[1] Manil Suri, Biography. http://www.manilsuri.com/suri-bio.htm.  Retrieved 20110701.

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