bkking, October 12, 2006
Manil Suri?s first novel, The Death of Vishnu, blends Hindu mythology with Bollywood in a dark but comic tale about the occupants of a Mumbai apartment building. In this teeming metropolis, the apartment block is a microcosm of Indian society, where interactions between people of different Hindu castes and religious minorities unfold.
It is through their relationship with drunkard and odd-job man, Vishnu, one of the dwellers of the stairwell, that we get to know each of the inhabitants. On the bottom floor live two middle-class Hindu families; the Asranis and the Pathaks, who share a kitchen and a great deal of animosity. Occasionally enlisting support from their hen-pecked husbands, the two women bicker a about everything from trivialities to the vexing issue of who will pay Vishnu?s medical expenses. Their hostility and competitiveness is only suspended briefly by their mutual suspicion of their Muslim neighbours, the Jalal family. Residing above them all is the reclusive widower Mr. Taneja, a retired banker whose grief leaves him completely detached from the drama unfolding below. The central character, Vishnu spends the entire novel in limbo, dreaming of his past and experiencing supernatural visions, under a sheet on the landing of the darkened stairwell.
Manil Suri has written a book with humour and pathos, giving the reader a rare insight into the lives of the poor and destitute in Indian cities. India has the largest middle-class in the world and, as a result of low literacy rates amongst the general population, the voices of the middle and upper classes are the ones most often heard in Indian literature.
Take, for example A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, where we explore the dilemmas of a high-caste family in their quest for a future husband for their daughter. In this book, as with many written by Indian authors, the poorest people are just shadowy characters living on the periphery of the lives of the main characters ? they are maids, cooks, rickshaw drivers, but are not usually the central subject of a novel.
Yet in The Death of Vishnu the author places an impoverished drunkard of the lowest caste as the central character of his book. He is also endowed with the name of one of the three primary deities in Hinduism - Vishnu, the preserver and guardian of the universe.
The author shares some qualities with his contemporary Rohinton Mistry, or with the work of vetran writer R.K. Narayan, in his focus on microcosmic situations, but with a black humour not present in Mistry?s work and a contemporary urban angst not explored by Narayan.
Manil Suri explores the role of religion and faith in the lives of the occupants; the different levels of the apartment block are a symbol of the progress of a souls journey from the lowest realms to spiritual realisation in Hindu cosmology.
For the Asranis? and the Pathaks? ? middle-class Hindu families who share the lower floor - religion is observed in its? most common and superficial form, where the motivation for actions is purely to gain spiritual merit for the next life, without the compassion and insight required to obtain a higher rebirth. On the next floor live the Muslim Jalal family, where religion is the subject of intense debate and anxiety ? with Mrs Jalal?s superstition and devout observance of religious rituals clashing with her husband?s intellectual approach to faith. Mr Taneja, the only resident of the upper floor, has renounced all worldly pursuits and is peace-loving, kind and generous ? he exists on a higher spiritual plane separated from the material and practical concerns of than those below him.
Manil Suri also explores the thinly veiled hostility between Hindu and Muslim communities in India through Mr Jalals spiritual journey from an intellectual sceptic to martyred prophet. Whilst this is a subject covered by other Indian writers it isn?t usually approached with the comic appeal that Suri brings to The Death of Vishnu.
Mani Suri, a professor of mathematics, reveals a considerable talent for writing in this his first novel, with an ability to weave comedy and tragedy together into a warm, authentic and engaging narrative.
He reveals aspects of Hindu mythology is an accessible manner - borrowing from the stories of the Bhagavan Gita (one of the important Hindu religious texts) - and clearly demonstrates how these stories enable the poor to cope with the burdens of life on the lowest rung of Indian society. Punctuated by references to Bollywood (the Indian film industry), the author also reveals how filmic illusion infiltrates every strata of society, and the way fantasy is used as a sedative for the entire population.
Whilst this is a hilarious book, the author also explores darker themes, such as the simmering cauldron of communal violence, and the casual mistreatment and indifference to the plight of the lower castes in an accurate and insightful manner.
My only criticism of this book is that the characters of Mrs Asrani and Mrs Pathak and their respective husbands are difficult to distinguish between. However, this doesn?t detract from the overall authenticity of the narrative as these characters can be read as a believable amalgamation of middle-class Hindu couples ? their values, attitudes and aspirations are as common as a moustache on an Indian engineering student.
This is the first book of a planned trilogy, where the other two gods in Hinduism - Brahma, the creator and Shiva, the destroyer ? will be the inspiration. Having thoroughly enjoyed ?The Death of Vishnu?, I am looking forward to reading Manil Suri?s next novel with anticipation of another delightful offering.