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Epitaph of a Small Winner

THE DEATH OF VISHNU A Novel; By Manil Suri; W.W. Norton: 300 pp., $24.95

February 04, 2001|SHASHI THAROOR

"Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand." Thus begins Manil Suri's splendid first novel, "The Death of Vishnu," a remarkable literary debut by a 41-year-old tenured professor of mathematics. This opening sentence perfectly captures the qualities of the novel it launches, a finely observed comedy of manners that evolves into searing tragedy, rendered in a tone of wry detachment that paradoxically illuminates its characters' essential humanity.

Vishnu is a layabout and odd-job man who has arranged for himself a sleeping space on one of the landings of a middle-class apartment building in Bombay and who performs and receives assorted minor favors for and from its residents. When the novel begins, he is dying, "sprawled on the stone, his figure aligned with the curve of the stairs." As the story unfolds, Vishnu's soul begins a slow ascent up the steps of the building, observing his own lifeless body on the staircase and the lives of the men and women in the apartments he passes on his way to the next world. He recalls his own past, too--a mother who doted on him, a prostitute he wooed--as his soul embarks on the journey which will merge his spirit back into the cosmos. But his story is essentially that of his neighbors and patrons, as Shashi Tharoor is the author of "The Great Indian Novel" and, most recently, "India: From Midnight to the Millennium." His new novel, "Riot," will be published next fall.

compelling a collection of characters as you can hope to encounter between the pages of a single book.

There are the quarreling Asranis and Pathaks, the men weak and self-indulgent, dreading nothing so much as being dragged into the disputes between their manipulative social-climbing wives, who have the misfortune of being obliged to share a single kitchen. There is the rationalist Mr. Jalal, whose efforts to understand his wife's fervent Islamic faith drive him into increasingly bizarre exercises in self-denial and, ultimately, self-delusion. There is the absurd elopement of the Asranis' adolescent daughter, Kavita, her head filled with the romantic fantasies of Bollywood (Bombay's formulaic Hindi cinema, in which poor boys routinely win rich girls after chasing them around trees, lip-syncing melodic vows of eternal pursuit) with the Jalals' more down-to-earth son, Salim, whose dream is to repair cars in the dreariest of India's dreary small towns. There is the reclusive widower Vinod Taneja, hopelessly mourning the wife he lost to cancer 17 years earlier, listening obsessively to an old gramophone record of her favorite Hindi film song. And around them are the working-class purveyors of various essential services: cleaning ladies and cigarette vendors and the cart-pusher whose fulfillment of his greatest childhood ambition--to own a transistor radio--transforms his own nature and his relationships with everyone else.

But if this suggests a comforting world of banal urban domesticity--a sort of big-city equivalent of the small-town desires and tribulations in R.K. Narayan's Malgudi novels--Manil Suri will have none of it. Latent in the atmosphere of the city, but not even hinted at in the first two-thirds of the novel, is the lurking menace of easily stoked hatreds and communal passions which erupt into violence in the novel's disturbing climax. It is as if Suri has carefully cultivated the Malgudian illusion only to shatter it.

*

Yet there are indications all along that "The Death of Vishnu," despite the premises of its plot, will be no mere social comedy. The title, for a start: Death itself is no laughing matter, and the name Vishnu is also that of the god of preservation in the Trimurti, the Hindu holy Trinity, who stands, as the book's epigraph reminds us, "sustaining the entire world with a fragment of my being." Hindu philosophy has long taught that the world is indeed illusion--maya--and that maya is a special aspect of Vishnu himself. In Hindu thought, the gods create illusions which mortals imagine to be real, but even the gods themselves are illusory, true divinity being beyond human sensory perception. Suri does not dwell on such matters, but his mythological allusions are no affectation, because they play a part in the Muslim Mr. Jalal's apocalypse-inducing vision of being visited by the god Vishnu. In weaving this into his skillfully paced narrative, Suri handles the novel's key transition so deftly that what might have proved jarring appears ordained all along, as if his mild domestic satire only laid the platform for that rare storytelling feat, an evocation of the tragic consequences of comedy.

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