SEEKING INNER PEACE, Mr. Taneja, a widower still grieving 17 years after his wife's death, visits an ashram where a holy man asks an audience, "'How long can man live for himself? . . . How long can he allow the rule of the jungle to govern him? Plundering the pleasures he fancies, acting on every pinprick of desire, a slave to the promise of wealth, a puppet to the callings of the flesh?'" One answer: at least 24 hours, the amount of time spanned by The Death of Vishnu, the gorgeously written, poignant debut novel from Indian-born University of Maryland mathematics professor Manil Suri.
The Death of Vishnu
by Manil Suri (Norton, $24.95)
Set in a Bombay apartment complex, the novel revolves around Vishnu, the resident handyman and drunk who dies on the lower steps of the building. After Vishnu's ghost rises from his body early in the novel, he questions his nonphysical state—could he actually be Vishnu, the Hindu god?—and reminisces about his nurturing mother, his abusive father, and the prostitute he loved. Through artful orchestration, Suri contrasts Vishnu's gradual understanding of the spiritual order of things with the building inhabitants' increasingly chaotic lives. The domineering Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak and their meek husbands squabble over who's to pay for an ambulance to deliver the "sick" Vishnu to the hospital. Muslim Mrs. Jalal frets over her newly ascetic husband, who, after a night of sleeping next to Vishnu's corpse, suspects the handyman to be a deity and himself a prophet. Eighteen-year-old Kavita Asrani skips past Vishnu's body to elope with the Jalals' son Salim, while neighborhood service providers like Short Ganga, Cigarettewalla, and Paanwalla eventually use that same body to fuel their prejudices against their Muslim employers. Isolated in his top-floor apartment, Mr. Taneja remains oblivious of Vishnu's death and the lives of his neighbors below.
In Suri's novel, community is a collection of self-serving yet interdependent individuals, their lives divided by walls, their hearts separated by egos: Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani define strict territories in the communal kitchen; before his amorous adventure with Kavita, Salim snatches money from the dead Vishnu's pocket; after Radiowalla builds an appreciative following due to his brand-new radio, he shuts off the device once a station finally plays Tall Ganga's phoned-in request, obliterating the community and interrupting the servant's dance with the words, "Tell her to get her own radio."
ACTS OF CHARITY and compassion are similarly tainted by selfishness. Mrs. Jalal offers Short Ganga bananas only after she realizes Mr. Jalal won't eat them: "They're not going to last another day—here—for the children." Close with Vishnu as a child, Kavita distances herself from the older man as she matures, gradually recognizing the status gap between them. In an act of appreciation to Vishnu for his help in cloaking her love affair with Salim, she "reaches out her hand as if to touch his cheek. But her fingertips stop before they make contact with his face, and she waves instead."
Exploring lofty heights with his descriptions of Hindu deities and references to Eastern mythology, Suri occasionally loses the Western reader when his writing takes on the ethereality of religious texts. But when he unearths the carnal details of everyday life, Suri's prose shines. His characters seek solace in their senses, particularly in gustatory pleasures; food figures prominently, comforting characters and framing their memories. Rather than make love on their first night of marriage, Mr. Taneja and his bride steal past party guests to the kitchen, where the husband sees his wife exposed for the first time: "She was gnawing at the cartilage in a wingpoint, red specks of tandoori spice stuck to her lips." Mixing food and eros, Mrs. Jalal recalls the first night she met Mr. Jalal, "when she crushed that first golgappa in her mouth, felt the crisp papdi shards and the soft yielding chickpeas between her teeth, tasted the sweet and fiery chutneys on her tongue, closed her eyes as the gush of tamarind water exploded down her throat."
The Death of Vishnu is a great novel—both outstanding and large in scale—because Suri has captured what it means to live and suffer. Rather than encourage readers to condone his characters' selfishness, Suri cultivates their empathy. His giant accomplishment is not that he can convey the truth that people will repeat the same mistakes until they one day learn otherwise; it's that he can do so with such skill and with, more importantly, such heart.
Manil Suri reads at Elliott Bay Book Co. February 6 at 7:30pm.