The death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri

Paper Book, 2001




New York : W.W. Norton, c2001.


Vishnu, the odd-job man in a Bombay apartment block, lies dying on the staircase landing. Around him the lives of the apartment dwellers unfold - the warring housewives on the first floor, the lovesick teenagers on the second, and the widower, alone and quietly grieving at the top of the building. In a fevered state Vishnu looks back on his love affair with the seductive Padmini and comedy becomes tragedy as his life draws to a close.

User reviews

LibraryThing member KimHolland
There is so much going on in this novel on so many different levels that I immediately want to read it again. The juxtaposition of interior and exterior life and the human desire for connection and transcendance are common threads manifested in numerous characters who are often humorous and
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sometimes tragic in their obessions. Vishnu's death becomes a celebration of the senses as he remembers his life through scenes with his mother and his lover. This is not a horrible death-- although the graphic details of his very public dying create turmoil and discomfort for his neighbors who try to discover the appropriate level of compassion. Vishnu seems to have lived more deeply than those who judge him.
The mundane and mythic are interwoven-- is this a biological demise, spiritual ascension or both?
The setting in Mumbai is wonderfully descriptive; the characters' obessions with the trivial and obsurd are recognizable and poignant. Sometimes the writing took me to an uncomfortable edge, but I appreciate the challenge.
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LibraryThing member FicusFan
I saw this book on LT and the premise sounded interesting. It is set in modern day Bombay, in an apartment building. It concerns 4 tenants and the homeless man, Vishnu, who lives on a landing in the building. He has been there for years, and he is now dying. He becomes unconscious and the life of
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the building swirls around him. He also begins to remember his past and then he dreams, and wonders if he is the god Vishnu.

Vishnu relives his past, as a small child with his mother, and as a grown man with the love of his life, the prostitute Padmini. We follow along and learn about him, and his life, and that of the poor. He is considered drunk, and unreliable but he purchased the right to live on the landing from the previous occupant. She finally saved enough money to retire. She did odd jobs and ran errands for the apartment tenants. Vishnu is too unreliable to take over all her functions, but he does some work for them also.

There are 2 families who are just up the stairs from him. They are both Hindu. The Asrani and the Pathak. The Asrani have a grown daughter that is not yet married. The wives of the families are conducting a genteel war of the bourgeoisie against each other. They are overly concerned with status and style. They have lost touch with their younger selves, when they were open and loving. Material things are all they are concerned with now. They each use their husband as a combatant, forcing them to lie and to flee when they can. The only peace for the husbands is out of the house and away from their wives.

The wives are fighting with each other over the use of water - which is limited at times, and the pilfering of ghee (clarified butter) that belongs to one by the other. They don't have kitchens in their apartments, but share a single one located between them.

The wives who are disgusted with Vishnu are shown barely able to deal with him when he is unconscious, and are pretending that he is OK. They fight with each other over his mess, over whether to call a doctor, an ambulance to take him to the hospital, and the expected hospital bill. He is left lying to his fate. Their bickering is the backdrop for Vishnu's simple human recollections of love and happiness as a child and as a man in love.

The next family involved is a Muslim family called the Jalals. They are quietly despised by their Hindu neighbors. They are a family divided. The wife is devout and the husband is a rationalist. The wife spends her time trying to bring her husband and grown son to practice their faith. The son is secretly in love with the Hindu Asrani's daughter and they are sneaking around.

The last person in the building is a widower Mr. Taneja who keeps to himself. He never got over the death of his wife from cancer. He doesn't have to work, and he doesn't socialize.

Each family and person gets stage time to explain their life. It makes for an interesting story, and a look at modern Indian life. They are not rich, and the apartment building has seen better days and more ritzy occupants. They are part of the middle class.

The other people who flit through the story are the poorer people who serve them. They are shown trying to survive, and are much closer to their feelings. They are also volatile and easily led. At one point they become a mob and attack the Muslim Jalals, when they think Mr. Jalal and his son have kidnapped the Asrani's daughter. The son and daughter have actually secretly eloped, but no one knows that.

Mr. Jalal is also trying to find his faith. So he is fasting and sleeping on the floor. He is very uncomfortable, and one night wanders down the landing and falls asleep next to Vishnu. Somehow he and Vishnu dream of the god Vishnu, and though he is Muslim, he thinks that the Hindu god is the truth. He tries to preach the truth of Vishnu, but this also enrages the poor who work in an around the building, convinced that the Muslim is making fun of their religion. It is another reason for the attack.

When Vishnu finishes dreaming of his life, he seems to have an out of body experience, and he wonders if he is Vishnu.

The book was interesting, funny, and sad at how people can be so callous and cruel, often without thought. The writing was good, the setting and the characters interesting. And though set in India the warning about losing sight of what is really important in life applies to everyone.

I also thought the tenants depicted the different responses to life, The Asranis and the Pathaks are engaged fully in life. The wives get sidetracked by the material world, the husbands are more philosophical but they disengage because they want peace. The Jalals are the religious option and they too show the range of responses. The wife is devout and will not consider anything outside her faith. The husband is a rationalist and explores many different faiths, but believes in none. Mr. Taneja is the option of withdrawal from life. He tries to do charity work, but he is unable to actually have any emotional interactions, so he gives it up. He is so inwardly focused he doesn't hear a cry for help from someone hanging off his balcony. The son and the daughter are the option of running away from problems, but in the end you are still stuck with yourself so that also doesn't work. Finally the poor are those who have somehow gone from seeking entertainment to brighten their lives, to being ruled by the need for excitement and entertainment. They believe everything they hear, the wilder the better, and they often act upon it to their and others' detriment.

Each option has its problems and its advantages, but being too dedicated to one causes you to miss the other. Perhaps Vishnu with his lack of boundaries and possessions is the closest to happiness. But he is hampered in the end by his lack of money, since the outside world runs on it and he must live in the world.

I enjoyed it, but thought it was a bit too long. Towards the end I just wanted Vishnu to die and the whole thing to be over. The way the book ends also leaves some of the story threads unfinished. I thought after so much time, I at least deserved a better wrap-up, though it may appeal to those who don't want a nice neat ending.
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LibraryThing member debnance
On the steps of a Bombay apartmentVishnu, a servant, a handyman, lays dying. The story shifts fromVishnu's remembrances of the past to each of the apartment dwellersand then to Vishnu's dying thoughts. Vishnu is ignored by the othersas much as possible, but becomes an embarrassment as his dying
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growsmore and more prolonged and more and more messy.The book's strength, to me, was in its typically Indian focus on thesensuality of life and the Indian casual acceptance of the horrors oflife.
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LibraryThing member Chelyse
The landing of an apartment building in Mumbai is occupied by Vishnu who lives there upon the sufferance of the apartment residents. He has "earned" his landing by running errands for the residents, but now as he is dying they all react with varying degrees of guilt, hostility, avoidance,
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repulsion. What a portrait of these dreadful, all too human, all too familiar, people! And Vishnu's dying is its own separate story ending with a kind of grace. I will not forget this book.
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LibraryThing member SmithSJ01
With a mixture of Indian mythology, Bollywood storylines and an odd-job man with a difference; this novel was bound to be something different. The Bombay apartment block that is the setting for this novel has excellent characters living on every floor. There is a mix of religions and mix of
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cultural beliefs, with Vishnu lay dying on the landing. Through Vishnu we find out all about the lives of the families around him. On the first floor are two couples, warring over the shared kitchen and looking after Vishnu. The next floor has two families with teenagers from each in love with each other and finally on the third floor is a widower, still very much in love with his wife.

It is unusual to read and one I struggled to get into but once hooked you are soon that involved in their lives that you wouldn’t dream of closing the covers unfinished. The ending proves that all cultures and religions will unite when danger, or perceived danger, occurs and it is amazing to see how close nit they will become in a dreadful deceitful way. There are laughs and sorrows throughout the novel and I loved the mixture of Shakespearean references and the blurring of boundaries between his plays and Indian equivalents.

If you don’t like the mythological aspect (which was my least favourite) some of Vishnu’s chapters reflecting back on his life will prove testing, yet the rest of the novel is great. Whilst I don’t think it is wonderfully written, it will suck you in. This is a debut novel inspired by a real Vishnu that lived on the landing of the author’s apartment block as he was growing up. The opening line is one I particularly loved, “not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet” and lets you know you are going to be reading something very different from the norm. Worth a read and perhaps other novels by the author may be more assured in style. Although not entirely my cup of tea, it is a novel I would happily recommend.
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LibraryThing member dangelelli
I didn't really like it. I like deep, philosophical novels and explorations of foreign lifestyles and conditions. This novel just has no redeeming characters. I feel like I would have liked the book had I finished it, but I just gave up because it was not fun to read.
LibraryThing member heinous-eli
Extremely well-written, richly developed, and highly memorable. The characters are real people to me.
LibraryThing member moretoastplease
I am a (mostly nonfiction and essay) writer whose plots pretty much suck. So I notice plots. This is a lovely plot. The writer is a mathematician, and the book's structure corresponds with the levels through which the Indian god Vishnu rises in heaven (as the story goes.)

Suri has a lovely ear for
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dialogue and takes great catty humor in setting up two dueling middle-aged females who share a kitchen and a floor in an apartment. On their stairs lies Vishnu, a poor beggar who is dying.

Simple, elegant, funny, interesting, pithy. Such a nice change from the "Geeta got a master's degree and is now SO UPSET because her parents want her to get MARRIED" plot that you see with the less sophisticated Indian authors.

Incidentally, I love Jane Austen and I find that many of the modern Indian authors are the modern equivalent to the wonderfully ironic comedy of manners that Austen used to play with. The social situations and striations are similar; it's a wonderful read.

This book is different, though. It's got an elegant structure. And no young marrieds.
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LibraryThing member miyurose
This was an unusual book, but good. Being only marginally familiar with Indian culture, there were things that seemed strange to me, like the whole concept of a man that lives on the stairs landing in exchange for running errands for people in the building. In a way, this book was a like a soap
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opera. There were feuding neighbors, a “forbidden love” situation between a Hindu girl and Muslim boy that leads to a tragedy, and a man whose arranged marriage comes to an untimely end. All of this is interspersed with the memories and hallucinations(?) of a dying man. Overall, I think this book is about the search for happiness and enlightenment, and how it may not be what you think it is.
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LibraryThing member bookwitch
On a concrete landing in an apartment block in Mumbai, Vishnu, who scrapes a living by running errands for the tenants, is dying. Above and below, all around him, life in the flats continues. Mrs Ashrani and Mrs Pathak squabble over their shared kitchen, and a pair of star-crossed teenage lovers
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meets on the roof terrace while the parents of one struggle to come to terms with the difficulties of faith and marriage, and the mother of the other plots to get her daughter safely married off. Upstairs an elderly recluse mourns the loss of his wife, and Vishnu’s successor guards the sounds from his transistor like a drowning man clinging to the wreckage. The building seems almost like a microcosm of life on earth, even down to the ants that pass the dying man as his soul finds its way up the stairs to the roof.

A beautifully written novel, the tone judged exquisitely from the first page to the last. It’s all here, between these covers; the almost comic tragedy of the human condition contrasted and compared with the extraordinary mythology of the god Vishnu, and glimpses from the brain of the dying Vishnu of delicious and tender eroticism. The act of death itself becomes something very real and almost experienced. Like Hilary Mantel in Beyond Black, Manil Suri seems to pin the magic to the page and make it true. I read the last sentences and uttered ‘What?’ aloud, read them twice more before it hit me, then laughed aloud. Brilliant.
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LibraryThing member suchisundar
This novel is set in Bombay and revolves around the lives of a couple of families living in an apartment complex in Bombay.

It is a shoddy tale centering around Vishnu, a drunken man who just occupies the landing in the apartment complex. Each of the families have their list of mundane issues to
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grapple with and none worthy of holding the reader's interest for longer than a fleeting glance.

I would rate the book as below average
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LibraryThing member ruinedbyreading
The Death of Vishnu is about the lives of those living in the building Vishnu sleeps and works in. On the first floor, Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak can’t stop arguing long enough to get anything done, including getting Vishnu to a doctor. On the second floor are the Jalals, a Muslim family
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everyone loves to hate. It is Mr. Jalal who dreams that Vishnu reveals himself to him as the god Vishnu. He feels it is his duty to call the others to worship him. It is this, as well as the fact that his son Salim has run off with Kavita, the Asrani girl, that gets everyone into trouble. Then on the top floor is Mr. Taneja, a widower who lost his wife to cancer.

Then, of course, there is Vishnu, the drunk who runs errands for everyone in the building. He falls ill and lies dying on the stairs for days. He experiences an out of body episode and can see everything going on around him. When he hears Mr. Jalal ranting about how Vishnu is Lord Vishnu, he begins to believe it himself.

The background stories of these characters is told in flashbacks, and it’s what makes the book so interesting. I really loved reading about Mr. Taneja’s marriage and how he fell in love with his wife. But the flashbacks to Vishnu’s time spent with Padmini, a prostitute that he was in love with, left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t really like Vishnu’s character, but I did enjoy the retelling of stores his mother told him when he was a child, of Jeev, a man who lived many lives. My favorite was the story of Jeev, who fell in love with Arjun while he was living his life as a bird.

The book was comical at times, and there was plenty of interesting Hindu mythology. At first I thought the book was just too strange to like, but I began to enjoy it about halfway through. It’s still a very strange book, but it’s entertaining.
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LibraryThing member BCCJillster
A wonderful novel. Something about this is hypnotizing and the characters will stay with you. A glimpse at a totally different part of the Indian culture from any I'd read about before.
LibraryThing member firebird013
Such a clever book - two points of view; one of a dead cleaner slowly ascending into higher aspects of the afterlife; the other giving insights into daily life in Bombay. Both take place in an interlinked way in an apartment block in the city. Completely original. A real favorite.
LibraryThing member doulweapons
i feel like i should have liked this book more than i did, and would have, but for some reason i never got into it. it's still good, and i recommend it, but for some reason it never grabbed me.
LibraryThing member nmaloney
An excellent book that follows the happenings in the apartments and hallways of an building in India. Charming and touching, most beautifully written.
LibraryThing member mana_tominaga
Chaos ensues around a beggar named Vishnu as he lies dying on the steps of a Mumbai apartment.
Some negatives: the shift in tenses is not very compelling, and the characters are not very pleasant or affable. Indeed, many seem like fools. I enjoyed the delight in senses, and the lush descriptions of
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the environment.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
My friend Roger selected this one for samizdat. My friend Mark looked a forsymbolism in the myriad floors occupied by characters; all went swimmingly until Roger flet weird about his father and sort of freaked out. I didn't freak out as I had been freaked out for a while at that particular
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juncture. The novel didn't really surprise in any way.
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LibraryThing member kslade
OK fiction on how death of a homeless man in India affects people.
LibraryThing member tkcs
I'm just a couple of chapters into this but I've decided to put it away because it just hasn't appealed to me like I thought it would. I may pick it up later, but right now I have too many things I really want to read to plug away at something that doesn't engage me.
LibraryThing member grheault
wonderful writing, and an easy trip to India; part of the apartment house genre; creates empathy for others we might never know.
LibraryThing member SqueakyChu
With just the right touch of humor, the author brings us a story of relationships between residents of an apartment building in Bombay. Vishnu, resident of the first floor landing, is dying in full view of all apartment residents. First floor apartment residents, Mrs. Arani and Mrs. Pathak,
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disagree as to what to do about this situation and demand that the husbands of each decide. During this painful process, the Asrani’s daughter Kavita tries to decide whether or not to elope with Salim Jalal who lives on the second floor. Arifa, Salim’s mother, becomes concerned about her husband’s increasingly aberrant behavior such as sleeping one night next to the dying man Vishnu. .

The stories of these apartment dwellers and other related people become hopelessly and amusingly intertwined as the plot develops. There is love and feuding and life and death. Within the story, Hindu mythology abounds. At the end of the story, a glossary highlights the terms unfamiliar to the Western reader. Within the story, there’s the incredibly rich writing of a debut novelist with a promising literary future.
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LibraryThing member dougwood57
Manil Suri's debut novel 'The Death of Vishnu' was inspired by a real man named Vishnu who lived and died on the steps in the apartment building in Bombay where Suri grew up. That's correct, my dear fellow Western reader 'lived and died on the steps'. Even the mildly attentive reader will
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immediately grasp that 'The Death of Vishnu' is not a standard piece of Western literature.

The book centers around Vishnu as he lies dying on these steps where he has lived for years occasionally serving the needs of the apartment dwellers, who offer him weak tea and stale food in return. Vishnu, of course, is also the name of a major god in Hinduism and Indian mythology, the preserver of the Universe. Vishnu begins to dream while his life force ebbs. Another apartment dweller on his own almost inadvertent search for religious insight suggests that this often-drunk and dying Vishnu really is the Lord 'Vishnu'.

'The Death of Vishnu' is peopled with an array of interesting characters who live in or work near the building like the Asranis, Pathaks, and the Muslim Jalals, as well the cigarettewalla and the paanwalla, Short Ganga, and Tall Ganga (the book has a handy glossary). Suri explores the tribulations of living in arranged or negotiated marriages (and also the act of arranging and negotiating of these marriages), the search for religious enlightenment, religious conflict, middle-class social pretensions (all the fiercer for being so pedestrian), and more. There is a lot going on in 'The Death of Vishnu' and Suri intended this busy-ness to reflect the reality of life in Bombay (as he calls it).

'The Death of Vishnu' is the first of a trilogy with each book bearing the name of a major Hindu god. The second book The Age of Shiva: A Novel is due out in early 2008. For the Western reader like this reviewer, 'The Death of Vishnu' at times presents challenges of interpretation - is Mr. Jalal's semi-accidental search for enlightenment supposed to be comic or not? India is a very strange place to Westerners, but Suri deftly brings it closer without greatly Westernizing the story.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member tobagotim
Suri mixes tragedy and comedy in an insightful look at caste and religion in a Mumbai apartment building. I emailed the author to express my appreciation for this book and got a humorous response.
LibraryThing member gbelik
Vishnu lives on the landing of a small apartment building and is slowly dying in place. In this novel we learn a little about his life and love and also about the relationships of the residents of the building. I enjoyed the personal stories, but found myself skimming when the story became mystical
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or spiritual.
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