For those who claim that the finest contemporary writers in English are ones whose mother tongue is another language, The Death of Vishnu provides spectacular confirmation of their theory. With this first novel, Manil Suri places himself in the company of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Bapsi Sidhwa, Gita Mehta, Arundhati Roy, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and others in the great post-independence Indian and Pakistani literary flowering. In a beautifully structured effort (Suri is a professional mathematician), he links and overlays a half dozen tales, using the “pathetic” figure of Vishnu as his organizing device. In the process, he permits his readers to experience the explosive fullness of contemporary Indian life—its sensuality and asceticism; passion for food, scents, music, and film; love for the gods, holidays, and ceremony; the viciousness of Hindu-Muslim enmity; and intellectuality and devotion.
More remarkably, the book can be read with pleasure by those who know nothing of Hindu mythology and philosophy, despite the fact that Suri embeds his narrative in some of the deepest features of that religion. Vishnu’s landing is part of a staircase, which Vishnu gradually ascends to meet that great god’s daughter, Lakshmi, and be taken up in the great cycle of birth and rebirth. Both Mr. Jalal and Vinod Taneja recapitulate the classic Hindu stages of life (student, householder, ascetic). The staircase, grimy and bug-ridden, places all life on the same ladder of being; even the ants have their stories and cry out in anguish. India is radically modern and ancient at the same time, so the staircase represents the DNA double helix and the hierarchies of caste, color, and class introduced by Aryan warriors circa 1500 b.c.e.
All of this, however, is in the deep structure of the novel. In many ways, the surface is all action, resembling the plots of the movies and soap operas so loved by Indian audiences. On the first floor, the Pathaks and Asranis move from crisis to crisis in their long rivalry. The wives spar over the use of the four kerosene stoves in the hot common kitchen. The husbands—both cowed by their more forceful spouses—vainly try to patch things up. A huge dispute erupts over who is to clean up Vishnu’s area, pay for an ambulance, and handle medical costs. Neither family really cares for him—emotionally or responsibly—for he is completely beneath them in station. On the other hand, he has a genuine squatter’s right to be there and no one is about to turn him out.
Meanwhile, an absorbing “upstairs/downstairs” drama is unfolding, as the Asrani’s beautiful and movie-struck eighteen-year-old daughter, Kavita, has fallen in love with Salim Jalal. Before he fell ill, Vishnu helped them (for a price) pull off their trysts in dark recesses of the building. Disregarding the disaster they will surely cause, the Hindu-Muslim lovebirds elope. In their absence, the underlying religious hostility breaks out with unimaginable viciousness. The rumor spreads that Kavita has been kidnapped and despoiled. A vicious crowd gathers at the Jalals’ door.
Paradoxically, Salim’s father, after years as a critical skeptic, has already started an inward journey that would have made conversion to Hinduism inevitable. In the book’s choicest scene, he speaks fearlessly to the mob, describing a great vision of the deity he has had while sleeping next to Vishnu on the landing. He believes this to be the first sermon in what will become a world-saving ministry. What the crowd immediately notices is that he is paraphrasing the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (which he had once read). Now he is not only guilty of “dacoity” (gang-style robbery), but also of blasphemy. As they beat him into semi-consciousness, he notices a Christian cross on a church near the apartment. This reminds him that all religious innovators must suffer for the message they bear the world. The incident is both harsh and comic at the same time—a combination that Suri seems to want his readers to understand as fundamental to Indian life.
Oblivious to what is happening below him, yet absorbed in the meditations so characteristic of the philosophical side of Hinduism, Vinod Taneja has the third floor to himself. After seventeen years of grieving the death of his wife, Sheetal, he has begun to find some peace. Whereas he once found sterile the basic teachings about the stages of life necessary to prepare one for liberation from desire and attachment, their truth now provides him with a way to continue. Drifting about the city, he learns of an ashram where a certain “Swamiji” presides. He attends sessions there, sitting on the outer edge of the gathering. Finally the teacher approaches him, asking why he is there. Calling himself “just an observer,” Taneja is shocked to learn...
(The entire section is 1963 words.)