The Death of Vishnu
by Manil Suri
Manil Suri’s first novel, The Death of Vishnu, is an interesting and captivating novel that combines the rich elements of Bollywood and Hindu mythology with a narrative worthy of Dickens. Sometimes the novel is very funny in its exploration of social airs and keeping up appearances, and at other times deadly serious when contemplating the implications such attitudes may have on others. At the same time, the novel serves as a rich allegory and exploration through the Hindu and Muslim faiths, through spiritual quests, and the nature of love and longing.
The novel begins with Vishnu, the apartment building’s handyman, lying near death on the stairs. Unconscious, he remains a passive object subject to the designs proposed by the other residents of the building. This leaves two families, the Pathaks and the Asranis, to squabble amongst themselves who will pay for the ambulance.
Case studies in social climbers and status seekers, the Pathaks and Asranis continue to harbor grudges and resentment against one another as their pettiness reaches new levels while a man lies dying on the steps. However, this scene could just as well as taken place in Atlanta as London. The particulars are not important, as this is human nature at its most base and revolting elements.
While the two families bicker, we recall the various ways Vishnu has taken advantage of the residents in the past. Stealing their car or inflating the prices of objects he has been sent by them to retrieve, and yet, as Vishnu reminisces, it all becomes perfectly clear. As does the moments when Vishnu reminisces on his times playing with the children in the apartment flat. Children who at one time treated him as a playmate and then came to realize their social status above him.
Vishnu, the sometimes drunken and mischievous handyman, is also a man filled with desire and unrequited love. As the narrative flashes back and forth between the present and Vishnu’s past, we encounter Padmini, the prostitute that Vishnu is in love with. The prostitute that Vishnu would do anything for, but who ultimately remains elusive to him. Reminiscing, he recalls the time that he brought Padmini a basket of mangoes and lathered her body with its seed and wet pulp:
“He tastes her neck first. It is sweet with mango, salty with sweat. He moves downward, capturing the dabs of pulp with his mouth, lingering at each nipple, stopping to sip the liquid collected in her navel. She gets saltier as he descends, and more aromatic, as if the mango is mixed with something pungent in the earth from which it has sprung. As he enters her, his tongue encounters a sweetness not encountered before in these folds. Lured by the sweetness, he dives in deeper, and then deeper still. Probing, caressing, tasting, but never retrieving, the tiny nugget of mango he knows is nestling there. So many earthly ways to enjoy mangoes. Vishnu is loath to give them up.” (197)
As the novel progresses, Vishnu continues his recollections and memories of his life as his soul leaves his body and moves up the stairwell up the building. Each landing brings new occupants and new stories to tell. Together, their stories and Vishnu’s story intertwines until the soul of Vishnu wonders to himself if he is, in fact, the god Vishnu from Hindu mythology.
The next landing brings him to the flat of the Jalals. Mrs. Jalal, a devout Muslim has concern and wonder of the strange changes affecting her husband. As the story progresses, we learn that Mr. Jalal is not the man he seems to be, but is in fact a seeker looking for spiritual truth. A man drawn to the self-flagellation of various penitents who wander the streets of Bombay, but he himself remains a man incapable of suffering any physical discomfort. If the Pathaks and Asranis represent the deluded in the quest for material comfort, then Mr. Jalal represents the fool seeking wisdom. In the end, what he is seeking for and what he receives are two different things. The result is one that costs him dearly. But it is also a lesson that informs Vishnu’s progression up the stairwell and into the night.
Passing by the Jalals flat, Vishnu comes to the flat of Vinod Taneja. The story recalled here of Taneja and his wife is one of the most moving stories in the book. If in no other place in this novel does Manil Suri demonstrate his skill as a storyteller, it is here. The Taneja’s story reveals the depth and longing one man feels for his wife and the strange manner grief and longing may turn bittersweet.
At its finest, The Death of Vishnu captures those elements that inform and define the spiritual elements of life. This novel contains richly drawn characters and highly developed stories that are at times comic and at other times tragic, sometimes within in the same paragraph. This is a moving novel from an inspired and talented author.