Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Death of Vishnu

Vishnu, an odd job man in an apartment complex in Bombay, lies dying on the first floor staircase landing. Within the space of a few hours, the life in this microcosm of urban Indian society slowly unfurls around his impending death. So while Vishnu experiences an out of body phenomenon in which he confronts the possibility that he has become a god, the God, Vishnu, the other residents of the building go about their lives in a mindless fashion, bickering, hallucinating, ruminating, eloping. While he swims in and out of reality, his experience almost spiritual, thinking in retrospection about his hopes, fantasies, and a kaleidoscopic past, the characters of the other building dwellers come into colour, painting a rich portrait of everyday life in middle class India in Manil Suri’s debut novel, “The Death of Vishnu”.

Suri, in a remarkable fashion, blends in the lives of the people living in the building with the unearthly experiences of a dying man. These vignettes of the social, cultural, and religious melodrama that is a part of everyday existence in India are brought to life through four families inhabiting the building – The first floor Hindu neighbours, Asranis and Pathaks, the Muslim Jalals on the second floor, and the recluse living in the penthouse, Vinod Taneja. The titular character, Vishnu, is a hopeless drunk who lives on the first floor landing and makes his living doing menial tasks for the residents of the dysfunctional building. His imminent death, however, is at the heart of a horde of issues that surface as his life ebbs away.

Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak seem to be perennially trying to get the better of each other, making each other’s lives miserable, while their spineless spouses just hope to get to the end of the day without being yelled at. Middle class and fiercely competitive, the foremost concern of the belligerent housewives seems to be the fact that the ghee is mysteriously disappearing from its container. Even when they finally do agree to help Vishnu out, it is more out of their suspicion of the Muslims upstairs (and elsewhere) than concern for the wretched fellow. Their superficial concerns seem to be in sharp contrast with the touching retrospection of Vishnu, or even the ruminations of Mr. Taneja.

The Jalals, on the other hand, are involved in their own quite personal battle, none of which is apparent to anyone else but them. Mr. Jalal, having previously declared himself to be an agnostic, is now determined to understand the hysteria surrounding faith. He goes about doing so by first embracing physical suffering and then, when it turns out to be too painful, abstinence – reason enough for him to shun his doting wife in favour of intellectual/spiritual enlightenment. The situation comes to a head when Mr. Jalal declares Vishnu to be Vishnu, The God, and himself to be his prophet, after dreaming about a divine revelation in which Vishnu, the drunkard, features prominently, and assuming it to be a sign.

As if the drama were not enough, Kavita, the Asranis’ daughter, and Salim, son to the Jalals, are a couple of lovesick, impractical teenagers who plan to elope in the dead of the night. They do so, only to realize later how ill conceived their entire romance was. Mr. Taneja, the only endearing soul in the building, is a hollow one at that, having given up on life and most of its trappings sometime after his wife’s sudden death due to cancer. He now silently awaits his own demise, no longer capable of either anger or compassion.

However, the foibles of the human life are only half the book for we are offered a glimpse into Vishnu’s world through flashbacks in the past. It is interesting to note that though the author uses the past tense to narrate the current goings on in the apartment building, he cleverly shifts to the present in order to describe Vishnu’s dying memories. As Vishnu looks back in time and recalls, in almost poetic fashion, his life, several colours and memories splatter themselves across the pages. These interspersed reminiscences – mostly poignant, often heart rending, and sometimes fearfully explicit – impart a dream like quality to Suri’s writing. As Vishnu longs for love from the lusty prostitute Padmini, imagines himself as an avatar of Vishnu in his mother’s stories, looks at Kavita with a fatherly affection that’s mixed with lecherousness, and recounts the tales of his childhood, we realize how every human being has dreams and aspirations, no matter however impoverished or overlooked he might be.

The device of using a Hindu God’s name for his protagonist allows Suri to experiment with creating fairy tale like stories about Vishnu’s past while also building an atmosphere for the socio-cultural crisis in which the plot culminates. Though the author never directly comments on any religious, cultural, or social topic of substance, he draws heavily from these themes. It’s up to the reader to interpret the undercurrents.

Suri’s prose is sensual and replete with powerful imagery. His style is nuanced and his attention to details impeccable. So while Visnu’s lust for Padmini, someone he can’t make fall in love with him, is explicit and insanely passionate, the short anecdote about The Radiowalla’s love for his radio captivates the reader with it’s meticulous attention to minutiae. The characters are sketched to perfection and come alive through the author’s love for the mundane. But the downside is that there are too many of them. The reader is often left with several threads to comprehend. And though he can effortlessly move from one to another because of the surreal nature of the narration, several of these threads remain unresolved. The end result being that the plot lacks a definite closure. It’s left hanging and open. The reader has the freedom to read between the lines. In whichever way he deems fit. While that might not be to the liking of many, it’s perhaps the only way the author could have brought the different storylines to a satisfactory conclusion.

Manil Suri, a successful Indian immigrant in Maryland, has shrewdly targeted his novel at an American audience for “there’s nothing a privileged readership likes more than stories about the ridiculous poor (as long as they’re exotic enough to trigger no unease); their antics and pretensions, their cowardice and inability to tell the truth”. Set almost entirely in a middle class apartment block in Bombay, The Death of Vishnu is an emotional, “old fashioned episodic” novel that teeters on the edge of the metaphysical, all with a touch of Bollywood masala and Victorian romanticism. Although the novel lacks a definite or consistent plot, Suri’s eye for details and exceptional story telling capabilities manage to prevent it from falling flat on its face and give it a certain phantasmagoric quality, something which makes for an interesting read but not an exceptional one.
1. http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/01/28/reviews/010128.28gorrat.html
2. http://www.proxsa.org/resources/ghadar/v5n1/vishnu.htm
3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/feb/04/fiction.reviews