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Review: Love, death, spirit in engrossing 'Vishnu'


By Joshua Kuritzky
Special to CNN

"The Death of Vishnu"
by Manil Suri
295 pages

Like cloud formations and constellations, Manil Suri's novel, "The Death of Vishnu," can be interpreted as any number of things, read and enjoyed in many different ways, with each way as fulfilling as the others. There is no clear entry-point here -- no boy-meets-girl synopsis -- that will let us in. It is possible that two different readers, when asked what it is about, will answer with two different responses.

This much is clear: Our setting is an apartment building in Bombay. Sprawled on one of its landings is Vishnu. For years, Vishnu has been the apartment handyman, coming and going, drinking too much, but in the end a fixture. And now he is dying. Or, given that he hasn't moved in a while, he may already be dead.

Above and around him, apartment life thrives. The Pathaks and Asranis continue to fight -- the wives over water rations and stolen ghee; the husbands over how best to deal with their respective wives. And now they fight over Vishnu -- over whose cooking hastened his death and over which family should call (and pay for) an ambulance.

From here, the novel goes in many directions, each of which could lay claim to being the central story of "The Death of Vishnu."

Ending 'both subtle and grand'

There are the tragicomic goings-on of apartment life -- the processed American cheese served with chutney to impress card party guests; the secret inter-religious love of the Asrani's daughter, Kavita, and Salim Jalal, who lives with his parents beneath the flat of Vinod Tanjea, who constantly plays the same lonesome film score to remember his long-dead wife.

Or perhaps the story is about Vishnu, whose life is presented in hazy flashbacks, fever-induced remembrances of his love for a prostitute, the joys of driving, and the way in which Kavita Asrani brought him tea.

Or could the hero of the story be Ahmed Jalal, whose inability and unwillingness to be as religious as his wife has long marred their marriage? And now, in the interest of mending these wounds, he is giving it a try -- experimenting with self-flagellation (too painful) and fasting (just right). Soon he has left the marriage bed for the hard floor, and then leaves that to spend the night embracing the smelly, sickly and possibly deceased, Vishnu.

And now Mr. Jalal, who has tried to be a good Muslim for his wife, has a vision and awakes convinced that Vishnu, still somewhat alive, is actually Vishnu, a god of a religion that is not Mr. Jalal's.

All of these threads combine in a stunning way, leading to an ending that is both subtle and grand, asking old questions about life, love, and religion in new ways.

Although it is an oft-used cliche, Suri's novel has a cinematic feel to it. Not in presentation (indeed, with its stairwell- and flat-based scenes, it is more reminiscent of the stage), but in scope. The cliche is strengthened when what may be a dying and delusional Vishnu sees himself in a theater watching a film of himself rising above his body on the landing. This, together with the compartmentalized (apartment-alized?) life surrounding him, lends an almost voyeuristic tint to the novel.

Suri's lyrical prose and skill at expertly portraying all his characters allows one to feel that this apartment building could be in any city, and that these people could be in any environment, but that the underlying feelings and motivations are universal.

These things -- the hatreds and jealousies, the ease with which we lapse into mob violence -- are things we often refuse to see in ourselves, things best glimpsed in others, through the windows of an apartment building.

And all this with what may be a god underfoot. The song asks about God being a stranger on a bus, but perhaps that is too distant. What about the gods closer to home? Those we reward with stale samosas and those we sneak past when eloping with our secret lovers. Suri reminds us how much we need them, and how much we miss them when they're gone.

• W.W. Norton & Company
• The Death of Vishnu
• Manil Suri's Home Page

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