Volume 5: Number 1, Feb 21 2002
Review: Manil Suri, The Death of Vishnu
by Anhoni Patel
At first glance, there is not too much in common between mathematics and literature. True, there are several prominent writers who profess a fascination for the numbers and formulas of science. However, what kind of fiction could a person who lives in a world of logic and fact possibly create? Manil Suri, the author of The Death of Vishnu (W.W. Norton, 2001), makes his living as a mathematician at the University of Maryland and has created an emotional and metaphysical novel that breaks the boundaries of empirical thought. What kind of fiction could a person who lives in a world of logic and fact possibly create?
In this, his first book, Suri blends the everyday squabbles and troubles of the residents in a four-story apartment complex in contemporary Bombay with the ethereal experiences of a dying man. The title character, Vishnu, is a truant who is allowed to sleep on the first-floor landing in return for doing menial tasks for the inhabitants of the dysfunctional building; his impending and subsequent death is at the heart of a host of issues and problems that rise to the surface as he wanes away. There are four families to which the reader is introduced and none of them, except for the widower Mr. Taneja, who is the soul of the complex (and an empty one at that), is endearing. The women are portrayed as controlling, ignorant nags and their men lack both courage and self-esteem.
The second floor is occupied by the Asranis and the Pathaks, two Hindu families who are more concerned with the pettiness of their own meaningless lives than anything else, particularly that of the health of a dying servant. Even in those moments when they are compelled to take action on behalf of Vishnu, they are motivated by self-gain; striving to maintain Karma-points for their souls and keep up appearances. Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak are engaged in a no-holds-barred rivalry that dates back to the time they were forced to share a kitchen; at least three-quarters of their narrow minds are perpetually engaged in paranoid thoughts of who's supposedly hoarding more ghee and wasting more water. Their spineless spouses simply try to make it through the day without getting a scolding. Moreover, Kavita, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Asranis lives in a self-absorbed fantasy world full of Hindu movie sequences and melodrama. She's having a torrid affair with Salim, son of the third-floor residents, the Jalals, who have enough problems already. Mr. Jalal is a condescending pseudo-intellectual striving for nirvana in the form of self-aggrandizement and martyrdom while his loving wife is an anxious, doting woman who embraces Islam more out of fear than faith. While these people duke it out, the fourth-floor occupant Mr. Taneja, slowly waits for his own demise as he lives out his days holed up in his flat mourning for his long deceased wife. Needless to say, each character has serious issues. However, none of their dilemmas are completely resolved, leaving one sitting on the edge of one's seat with a decidedly unsatisfied feeling.
Just when Suri begins to truly explore the inner psyches of his characters-Mrs. Asrani's struggle with aging, Mr. Pathak's doleful rumination on his lack of freedom, Mr. Taneja's remembrances of his late wife-the author gets sidetracked onto other, less intriguing, concerns, such as Vishnu's purgatory experiences and Mr. Jalal's obsession with religious revelation, and does not follow through with the storylines he has already established. Interspersed between the more visceral actions of the present day are the memories and deathbed images of Vishnu. These are more experimental sections, full of surreal images and haunting events, in the life of a humble man about whom many would not even think twice. Compared to the superficial concerns of the middle-class occupants, Vishnu's stories are touching and meaningful; thus, the point that everyone has aspirations and dreams and childhood tales, even the most overlooked, impoverished beings. The device of naming a character after a major Hindu god allows Suri to weave in poignant fairy-tale like stories from religious lore (stories Vishnu's mother would tell him) while creating a support structure for the major conflict to which the plot culminates. However, having Vishnu be an actual character also serves as a shield for the author. He can play into the stereotypical aspects of an Indian novel, i.e. exoticized spirituality-but get away with not sounding too hokey because, 'hey, it's not really about Hinduism per say but about the character.'
Suri skillfully creates believable characters that come to life off the pages. The reader becomes enveloped in the psychoses of the characters; one experiences the nervousness of Mr. Taneja on his wedding night while wanting to scream in frustration at the twisted ignorance of Kavita's pipe dreams. He adds wonderful details that not only tell of everyday living in Bombay but also support the rich, complicated world he's developed. There are two scenes that best capture this element: when Mrs. Pathak hosts a chaotic kitty party and the tale of the Radiowallah's beloved radio. The most descriptive and powerful section is that of Mr. Jalal's dream sequence in which Vishnu reveals himself as a reincarnation of the powerful deity; this incident serves as the turning point for the story.
Although The Death of Vishnu is inconsistent in its plot, this part elevates Suri's storytelling abilities from amateur to professional, proving the level of his knowledge of the craft of writing. He manages to balance the whole novel on this one pinnacle without having it crash onto the floor. It's difficult to create something which is at once fantastic and believable, as in the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but here he succeeds. But unlike the epic works of Marquez, Suri seems to be trying to do too much and it gets sloppy. There is an overabundance of plot lines and points and one feels oneself drowning by the end, trying to grab at one of them. He needs to go back and kill off some of the characters or make the book into a very thick series. Maybe a television series... maybe not.
(Anhoni is a San Francisco-based writer.)
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