An Indian apartment building. A bunch of gossipy old women. An ailing drunk who sleeps on the stairwell and causes a lot of concern for the occupants of the apartments. A mismatched duo of lovers and the mother of one trying desperately to break them apart after having once given them a blessing. These are just a few of the myriad characters who work their lives around THE DEATH OF VISHNU, the celebrated debut effort from novelist Manil Suri.
India could be New York for all we care as we read about the traumas of these folks living together under the same roof. Mrs. Asrani, one of the Hindu housewives, cries, "If we can't all live in harmony in this building, what hope is there for the nation?" Her mood changes often between embracing the unique individuals who share her living quarters and shunning them for insecure and picayune reasons. Suri, to his credit, manages to give everybody good and bad days and thus offer this three-floored microcosm of urban India an emotional resonance that many readers will happily relate to --- especially those of us who have spent time living in urban America in apartment buildings where your neighbors are way too close for comfort.
Their concerns are not large --- gray hair and memorizing all the lines in a movie for a Guinness Book of World Records mention are more important than the harmony of the nation. And yet, as the ailing drunk Vishnu becomes more and more decrepit, he wanders from floor to floor revisiting moments of his life through delirious remembrances of loves and horrors. Although the neighbors are not always interested in sharing his memories with him, he moves from landing to landing as if descending into a private hell, taking their abuse or kindness in whatever amount they wish to hand it over.
Suri does not offer us cliche characters --- none of the women are particularly warm and friendly, but their confidence and wills are strong, and they don't take things lightly. It is the men who sit around pondering the spiritual fate of themselves and their nation --- they are living for the hereafter while the women are living for the present. Suri gives us an elegantly stated perspective on the state of the relationships between men and women, on religious pursuit and the daily grind, on the reality of death amidst the gold-tinged dreams of Bollywood, that will knock a reader for a loop with its grace and wisdom. THE DEATH OF VISHNU is a strong and powerful first work, an obvious indicator of what will surely be a long and successful writing career.
Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on January 21, 2011
The Death of Vishnu: A Novel