Manil Suri’s first novel, The Death of Vishnu, is a mélange of social commentary, romance-novel lust, the mundane, the comic, and the unbelievable. Blending fantasy and reality, the author focuses on a Bombay apartment building inhabited by several paralyzed characters. Each is unable to escape both his true state of mind and the role he plays within the confines of the apartment. Suri forgoes simple realism in favor of a multi-layered, mystical, sexual tale, attracting even the most resistant of readers with his lovely, provocative prose.
The Death of Vishnu skillfully captures the struggles of urban life, even if its central religious metaphor jerks the reader back and forth between reality, fantasy, past, present and future. In order to understand the author’s frequent mythological references, it’s best to brush up on the basics of Hinduism. However, even those who dive into The Death of Vishnu unfamiliar with the Vedas will be awed by the rare treats of this sophisticated, elegant novel.
Suri’s work was inspired by the actual death of Vishnu, a man who had lived and died on the steps of the author’s childhood home in Bombay. The Death of Vishnu depicts the slow, poignant demise of the title character, an odd-job man whose limp body lies motionless on the landing as the intertwined lives of the building’s inhabitants unfold around him. The light shining through the windows plays on Vishnu’s face as it “passes through his closed eyelids and whispers his past to him,” during his final ascension of the apartment stairs. As his old, weak frame rises into the air above, “the spell of gravity is broken, all the scents he has smelled are upon him, blending together to form a new aroma,” and his body changes into something liquid and luminous. He turns into his namesake, the god Vishnu. According to Hindu mythology, whenever there is an imbalance between good and evil, Vishnu, “the preserver,” is born to re-establish order. The deity of Vishnu has emerged from the old man’s body to sort out the emotions flying through the apartment block, which are completely out of equilibrium. Suri explores the deeper workings of human nature as he approaches an electrifying catharsis of illumination, love, and loss.
Suri’s prose, with its glowing, sensual language and powerful imagery, fluidly draws readers into the mystical world of the gods, with its potent, spicy-sweet scents:
“The perfume is so thick and potent that he can feel it press against his face. Except that now it is the earth his nostrils are pressed against, earth that is wet and aromatic, earth that smells sweet and loamy…it is the land, it is fertility…it is an aroma he has never smelled before, but recognizes instantly”
Suri has called the Bombay apartment building in The Death of Vishnu a microcosm for the ethno-political map of India. The novel chronicles several relationships within the building: a pair of feuding housewives, a bereaved widower who lives in his own past, lovesick teenagers, and a Muslim couple whose marriage is failing fast. By focusing the chapters of his novel on how these different characters interact with one another and with Vishnu, Suri is able to show how religion, death, faith, and unexpected changes all work together to define each person’s individuality.
Religious issues distress several of Suri’s characters, including the Hindu Asrani family on the first floor and the Muslim Jalals on the second. Kavita, the beautiful, teenage Asrani daughter, must choose between the high-class Hindu engineer her parents have selected for her, and her true love, Salim Jalal. Kavita and Salim’s secret relationship places a huge strain on the entire apartment community. Vishnu agrees to become their “alerter,” and shares vicariously in the dangerous lust and innocent beauty of first-time love.
Meanwhile, Salim’s father, Ahmed Jalal, in his deep effort to understand the obstinacy and hysteria of religion, is determined to experience “this thing they call faith.” Rejecting his intellectualism in favor of enlightenment, he begins to leave his wife at night and sleep wrapped up in the calm darkness of Vishnu’s body. It is at these points in The Death of Vishnu that Suri’s novel crosses the threshold between awesome and extraordinary. Suri’s detailed account of Jalal’s vision of Vishnu is so exquisitely crafted that it almost seems to be an out-of-body experience for the reader as well.
…and then he was overcome with a sense of oneness, all touch and feeling subsiding, all thought and emotion fading, the intensity of the vision engulfing him in all its splendor, and once fully encapsulated, an unexpected peace descending, a quiet, a solitude, a meditative calm, and then, finally, sleep, pure and silent, unusually deep.
Suri uniquely plays on the capacity of food to conjure deep emotions and memories of the past. Kavita often brings Vishnu his morning tea, sustaining and comforting the dying man as he drinks the hot liquid that infuses the cool morning air with scents of clove and cardamom. With this offering to Vishnu, the old man recalls his love for the lusty and beautiful Padmini, and his hunger for the affection that she would not return to him. In Vishnu’s vivid memories, hot bhajia, or chili fritters, remind Padmini of the times when her mother would fry up extra batches because she loved them so much. Vishnu, wanting to “touch her, taste her, breathe her in,” uses the power of food to entice Padmini to expose her past to him—every bit she opens up is a step towards the chance that she will love him.
However, food can also be a destructive force. The deep-set animosity between Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak results from petty arguments over miniscule amounts of ghee and gur. In these scenes, Suri recognizes the futility of human life, often abruptly switching to descriptions of Vishnu’s exorcism: his desertion of the body and his ascent to immortality. The squabbles of Mrs. Asrani and her neighbor seem especially trivial when compared to Vishnu’s deeper sense of being.
Suri’s literary debut is a stunning, poignant combination of starkly contrasting worlds. The seemingly mundane Bombay metropolis is fused with the beauty and depth of Hindu mythology in this impressive literary accomplishment. Reading The Death of Vishnu, I was overtaken by both fantasy and reality, and emerged with a new view of our own bizarre, maddening, beautiful world.