e-mail us

Winter Books

Both struggles and earthly pleasures on display here

By Manil Suri
Norton, 295 pages, $24.95


Vishnu is a god. More specifically, he is the Hindu “keeper of the universe, keeper of the sun,” from whom all life and radiance flows. Growing up in California, a land where the term Indian means that someone needs to be kicked in the shins for not using the more politically correct “Native American,” I found that the full implications of the title of Manil Suri’s engaging examination of life in a Bombay, India, apartment building were not immediately apparent to me.

Here, however, is where Suri’s mastery rises to the surface: He has constructed a novel that is appealing and intelligible to a Western audience, yet draws us intimately into a foreign city, subtly teaching us its customs while sharing its secrets.

He allows us a window into a culture shockingly different from ours but manages to eliminate any semblance of culture shock. What remains is a simple story about people struggling to find their identities, and how lives so diverse and varied can be housed in a single building, on the steps of which an old drunk, Vishnu, is dying.

Following modern trends in writing and film, The Death of Vishnu is a slice-of-life told out of sequence, with memories and events swirling together, providing explanation for characters’ earlier action. The picture Suri presents is not particularly cheerful. However, it did not leave me with a feeling of depression, but rather, of acceptance, even serenity.

The form, while technically well executed, breaks no new ground, but the content is so well balanced, so honest, that we are able to forgive the personal flaws of the characters and move past judgment to a place of understanding.

For example, the novel begins with the two families who occupy the first floor of flats, bickering about who will pay for an ambulance to take Vishnu away. Their concern, we discover, is not for Vishnu, but rather is driven by horror at the mess he’s made on the steps.

I closed the book after my first bout of reading, burning with hatred of both families, the Asranis and the Pathaks, a hatred that was later tempered by learning of Mrs. Asrani’s crippling feelings of inadequacy and cooled by the discovery that Mrs. Pathak tries her best to survive and find friendship in a rigid and hierarchical social group.

The hatred, at last, was dissolved by the story of the myriad small choices that led to such dismal situations.

Moving up through the building, more choices and more characters are added to the mix. There are choices of the past, such as Mrs. Jalal’s decision to marry a man she knew did not share her devotion to Islam, or Mr. Teneja’s touching decision to love the wife he did not choose. And there are choices to be made, such as frivolous young Kavita Asrani’s hyper-romantic elopement with Mrs. Jalal’s son, Salim. Secrets, too, are revealed.

Mr. Jalal, the inconsiderate, non-communicative intellectual, is revealed to be searching for faith and so overwhelmed by this search that he can no longer function in society. This secret is quite different from Vishnu’s innocent love for Kavita, but both move the reader to beg for better communication, a softening that will allow truthful connection.

Communication, however, is not the name of the game in 20th-century identity crises. Ever since a solitary Hamlet uttered the immortal “To be or not to be,” modern heroes have been doomed to ponder their problems alone.

And Suri has certainly provided his cast with a great many solitary options. They struggle to determine whether to be Hindu or Muslim or obedient or rebellious or quiet or in love -- or dead. Or a god for that matter.

The supporting characters force them to act, and then Suri, amazingly, helps their actions to be understood. After the understanding there may be disgust or regret or empathy, but, above all, I appreciate the humanity that lies in the process.

And in this building teeming with life, where is Vishnu? Lying on the steps, dying, where he has been since Page One.

Although, not entirely. Vishnu embarks on his own search for identity. In his confusion, he begins to wonder whether he is, in fact, the god Vishnu, the last avatar, responsible for cleansing the earth of sin and sinners. He asks himself repeatedly, “Man or god? Man or god?” and is quite sincere in his doubt over whether he truly wants to assume the role of deity. After all, he says, there are “so many earthly ways to enjoy mangoes.”

And that is the sense I was left with at the end of this story. There are struggles and disappointments and terrible things in this world, but in the end, earthly pleasures are equally myriad.

Allison Pedrazzi, who was born and raised in Sebastopol, Calif., spent the summer working and running interminable errands there, during which time she ran into people she’s known since she was 6. This fall she entered her second year of college as a wet-behind-the-ears newbie, a transfer from Georgetown University to the University of California Davis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 26, 2001