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The Death of Vishnu - Manil Suri

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Author: Manil Suri / Genre: Fiction

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    2 Reviews
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      04.10.2008 09:35
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      Such an unusual book

      With a mixture of Indian mythology, Bollywood storylines and an odd-job man with a difference; this novel was bound to be something different. The Bombay apartment block that is the setting for this novel has excellent characters living on every floor. There is a mix of religions and mix of cultural beliefs, with Vishnu lay dying on the landing. Through Vishnu we find out all about the lives of the families around him. On the first floor are two couples, warring over the shared kitchen and looking after Vishnu. The next floor has two families with teenagers from each in love with each other and finally on the third floor is a widower, still very much in love with his wife.

      It is unusual to read and one I struggled to get into but once hooked you are soon that involved in their lives that you wouldn't dream of closing the covers unfinished. The ending proves that all cultures and religions will unite when danger, or perceived danger, occurs and it is amazing to see how close nit they will become in a dreadful deceitful way. There are laughs and sorrows throughout the novel and I loved the mixture of Shakespearean references and the blurring of boundaries between his plays and Indian equivalents.

      If you don't like the mythological aspect (which was my least favourite) some of Vishnu's chapters reflecting back on his life will prove testing, yet the rest of the novel is great. Whilst I don't think it is wonderfully written, it will suck you in. This is a debut novel inspired by a real Vishnu that lived on the landing of the author's apartment block as he was growing up. The opening line is one I particularly loved, "not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet" and lets you know you are going to be reading something very different from the norm. Worth a read and perhaps other novels by the author may be more assured in style. Although not entirely my cup of tea, it is a novel I would happily recommend.

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      24.02.2002 17:51
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      It happens sometimes that a book is as good as its publicists say it is. So it is with "The Death of Vishnu," a book that has been energetically flogged by its publisher since last summer and that has elicited the kind of attention the book world usually reserves for J.D. Salinger sightings. "Vibrantly alive, wonderfully written" is what Michael Cunningham volunteered for the book jacket. "Sure to win readers and prizes" is what Amy Tan said. "An irresistible blend of realism, mysticism and religious metaphor" is what Publishers Weekly, an insider's guide, said. And then there is the irresistibility of the story behind the story: This is the first novel from a 41-year-old math professor originally from Bombay who is as photogenic as he is apparently brilliant. Such a pileup of good fortune is almost guaranteed to inspire heart-rotting envy among critics, who would rather not dwell on the $350,000 advance thrust at Manil Suri in an 11-house bidding war for the manuscript. And who would rather not remember that before this, Suri had published just one story. For critics and for readers, it is much better to consider the loveliness and pungency, the richness and delicacy, of the book itself. Vishnu is a poor handyman who sleeps on the landing of an apartment building in Bombay. Vishnu is also a Hindu god, the keeper of the universe, who takes on one of 10 incarnations depending on the level of corruption in the universe. Is Vishnu Vishnu? It is not an unreasonable question, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, we must let Vishnu die, which he commences to do on the first page and attends to in recurring, haunting chapters -- they are the spine and the heart of this book -- poised between this life and the next. Meanwhile, around him swirl the living beings of the building. On the ground floor are the merchants who supply th
      e residents with their small, immediate needs. Through them come the servants and hangers-on who, like Vishnu, glean a living attending to the more prosperous apartment owners. Theirs is an existence obsessed with subsistence, where a half-rupee financial advantage is always to be exploited. Next consider the plane one flight up, where the middle-class Asranis and Pathaks share a kitchen and an energetic feud, not the smallest focus of which is the debate over who is a better benefactor to Vishnu. (Mrs. Pathak brings him stale food; Mrs. Asrani brings him weak tea.) Theirs is an existence obsessed with the body -- Suri deliciously mocks their fixations with food -- and with status. Above them live the Jalals, a Muslim family in which a wife tries to understand a husband obsessed with salvation. He has read the world's religious texts and now believes enlightenment is to be found in starvation and self-denial, though he may never find that enlightenment himself. "Mr. Jalal wondered wistfully why pain had to be so painful," Suri writes, after Mr. Jalal aborts an attempt at purification through self-flagellation. And above all of them lives Mr. Taneja, a hermit coming to the last, accepting stages of obsessive grief over his wife's death 17 years before. His is the heartbreaking story that bridges the worldliness of his neighbors with the otherworldliness of the evolving Vishnu. The stories interlink seamlessly, even as Suri shifts tones effortlessly from one character to the next. The Asranis and Pathaks get the bite of Flaubert; Mr. Jalal gets the arms-length irony of Ha Jin. Suri's structure and perspective will make survivors of American lit survey courses think of Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying." When the Asranis' movie-mad teenage daughter decides to elope with the Jalals' son, all of the building's stories collide. But does everyone get the fate he d
      eserves? Karma, Suri appears to be saying, can be as capricious as it is inescapable. Of course, each family's story corresponds to a different stage in man's evolution, but Suri is too subtle to make the metaphor intrusive, not even he sends the spirit of Vishnu, unmoored from his lifeless body, to ascend the apartment staircase to ... what? Rather, Vishnu's quest has the poignancy of a half-remembered dream. He hears again his mother's stories about the god he was named for; he feels again his helpless love for a prostitute, Padmini. As he nears the end of his journey between life and death, his life flashes before his eyes -- the cliche has seldom been handled so well -- as a movie. "He wishes the movie would be more clear about what he is climbing towards. Whether he is the god Vishnu or just an ordinary man. He is almost at the terrace door when Padmini gets up suddenly, excusing herself to go to the ladies room. Vishnu feels like warning her to wait, they are near the climax, the movie is almost over." Suri has many things on his mind, such as real life versus reel life and the elusiveness of romantic love, but many American readers will be most intrigued by the book's foundation in the Hindu understanding of reincarnation. You don't need an education in the Hindu religion to read "The Death of Vishnu," but you do need to step away from a monotheistic belief in one life, one death and one reward or punishment. (But for a background on the god Vishnu, try www.hindumythology.com/vishnu.htm.) "The Death of Vishnu" is the sort of event that gladdens a serious reader, a complex, artistically rich book that is also warm, inviting and involving. Many years have only a handful of such books, and 2001 is blessed to have one so early.

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    • Product Details

      Vishnu, the odd-job man in a Bombay apartment block, lies dying on the landing. In his fevered state, he looks back on his affair with the seductive Padmini while around him is played out the drama of the apartment block dwellers. This novel blends Hindu mythology with acute social detail.