At the opening of this masterful debut novel, Vishnu lies dying on the staircase he inhabits while his neighbors the Pathaks and the Asranis argue over who will pay for an ambulance. As the action spirals up through the floors of the apartment building we are pulled into the drama of the residents' lives: Mr. Jalal's obsessive search for higher meaning; Vinod Taneja's longing for the wife he has lost; the comic elopement of Kavita Asrani, who fancies herself the heroine of a Hindi movie.Suffused with Hindu mythology, this story of one apartment building becomes a metaphor for the social and religious divisions of contemporary India, and Vishnu's ascent of the staircase parallels the soul's progress through the various stages of existence. As Vishnu closes in on the riddle of his own mortality, we wonder whether he might not be the god Vishnu, guardian not only of the fate of the building and its occupants, but of the entire universe.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Suri has a lovely ear for 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.
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 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
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.
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 the environment.
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.
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.