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THE DEATH OF VISHNU by Manil Suri

THE DEATH OF VISHNU

By Manil Suri

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-393-05042-4
Publisher: Norton

Indian-born Suri’s imaginative first novel, set in and near a volatile Bombay apartment building, employs the figure of a drunken handyman as the catalyst for a linked series of charmingly improbable seriocomic catastrophes.

The eponymous Vishnu lies crumpled in a stuporous heap on a landing just outside his door. Scandalized neighbors throw covers over his offending carcass, checking occasionally for a pulse, or telltale snores. The life of the building at first proceeds pretty much as always: fastidious Mrs. Asrani and stolid Mrs. Pathak bicker over privileges abused in their communal kitchen, while their weary husbands attempt to keep the peace. Snooty Mrs. Jaiswal disapproves of everybody; reclusive widower Mr. Taneja warily emerges from his shell; devout Mrs. Jalal fears for her unbeliever husband Ahmed’s soul—and really despairs when Ahmed envisions Vishnu in the figure of his namesake deity (“with fire and smoke, and more heads than I could count”). Furthermore, the Jalals’ gorgeous daughter Kavati plans to elude an arranged marriage by eloping with the Asranis’ prematurely jaded son Salim—unless she becomes a film star instead. Meanwhile, Vishnu’s disorderly dreams revisit his chaotic past (notably his obsession with Padmini, a dictatorial prostitute with expensive tastes), and extend to a delirium presumably derived from half-overheard conversations: he decides he has become the god Vishnu. This transformation creates insoluble problems when his neighbors finally call an ambulance to remove him, and the slumberer “becomes” the last of Vishnu’s traditional avatars: Kalki the destroyer. Suri plots it all beautifully, and his suggestible characters’ varied eccentricities and delusions are often very funny indeed. But the crazy-quilt inner life of (the mortal) Vishnu seems essentially unrelated to their lives, as if it belongs to another novel that Suri hasn’t yet written.

An amalgam of early Naipaul and R.K. Narayan, with just a whiff of Kosinski’s Being There. A highly likable, if oddly conceived and assembled, debut novel.