Apr/May 2001 Book Reviews

The Death of Vishnu

Manil Suri
Bloomsbury (Allen and Unwin) (Feb. 2000) 329 pages
ISBN: 0 7475 5270 3

reviewed by Ann Skea

Perhaps it was unfortunate that I was re-reading Salman Rushdie's first published novel Midnight's Children at the time that this book arrived.

The Death of Vishnu is also a first novel, but the difference between the two books is immense. Rushdie's was uniquely innovative at the time it was first published, twenty years ago. It is still vibrant, funny, experimental, political, and full of the life and sound of India. The Death of Vishnu is well written but its structure is ordinary and its drama pure Bollywood. It will be a popular success with those who are now addicted to "Indian" novels. And it will probably make a popular film, if the problem of a dying central character can be overcome.

We meet Vishnu, the odd-job man in a Mumbai apartment block, on the opening page. He is lying on a landing in the stairwell (this landing is his home) and has "not only thrown up, but also soiled himself". For the rest of the book he remains there; cleaned up—eventually; dead—eventually. Meanwhile, the lives of various tenants in the block are exposed to the reader in instalments, connected by times when Vishnu's spirit recalls his childhood, recapitulates myths and stories his mother once told him, experiences transcendental moments of communion with various Hindu deities, and (most frequently) enjoys sensuous sexual encounters with his prostitute-love, Padmini, and with various incarnations of Hindu goddesses.

Manil Suri is good at capturing the everyday tensions between neighbors who live in close proximity to each other in an ordinary Mumbai apartment block. The petty rivalries of the women; the various relationships between couples; the dreams and aspirations of their children; the suspicions, jealousies, revenges, plots and ploys—all no different in India to those of people everywhere—all are gradually revealed but with a very Indian flavour and a subtle humour.

The Mumbai setting may be a problem for a reader unfamiliar with India and Indian culture, but most of the time (not always) the meaning of words and actions can be understood from the context in which they appear. Class tension, religious tensions, social tensions specific to India are portrayed. Marriages are arranged and the horoscopes of prospective brides and grooms are consulted. Funeral practices are discussed. Religious tensions get out of hand. An elopement takes place. And there is cliff-hanging (well, actually balcony-hanging) drama. Young couples look to Bollywood as a model for their lives and loves, and meanwhile, one is never quite sure whether Vishnu is in the afterlife or still just getting there.

I must admit that I found the scene of religious bigotry and persecution of the Muslim family extremely unpleasant, and it bothered me that it was broken up by a passage of mythology in which Kalki, the final avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, exhorts him to kill infidel barbarians, including barbarian children—and he does. Manil Suri could well point to other episodes in the book where Hindu fraud and Hindu hypocrisy are equally exposed and which could be seen as balancing the picture, but this is a dangerous topic—even in fiction—as Rushdie would certainly tell him. The fact remains that the position of that passage from Hindu mythology made me uncomfortably aware that of all the families in the book, the Muslim family came off worst in the end. This is not an accusation—merely an observation about the structure of these chapters and my response to that.

Overall, I felt that this first novel was entertaining, funny, and well written, but it was certainly not the "breathtaking debut" that the dust-jacket blurb announced.


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