Thursday, 31 July 2008

The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri

One of our book groupies has been to India and fallen in love with it. Now, back in grey skied England, she enjoys books about India instead, revelling in their colourful, magical quality. And The Death of Vishnu- her choice - certainly gets that across.

Vishnu – in this case no God – is homeless and lives on a landing of a small block of flats. He relies on the owners – four families – to keep him alive in return for errands. Unfortunately, they are not very successful because he lies dying on the landing. As he lies comatose he relives, as in a dream, his past: his mother, his lover and his life.

In alternating chapters of the book we are introduced to the families and how they interact with each other, and how they react to Vishnu in his dying state. Apparently, in Indian mythology, the God Vishnu is there to establish order when there is friction: in this story the man Vishnu – or rather his imminent demise – creates disorder where there is friction.

The inhabitants of the apartments represent a microcosm of life in Mumbai: Hindu and Muslim living in close proximity to each other, with all those unable to afford a flat living wherever they can, doing whatever they can to survive.

Mrs Asrani and Mrs Pathak share a kitchen but this close-proximity causes tension. They are arch rivals and vie for one-upmanship but their efforts are doomed. Both have ineffectual, hen-pecked husbands who constantly have to subjugate their finer feelings to agree with the petty demands of their wives. These are comedy characters, and although Sunil illuminates the small time mentality of these people and their lives it is difficult to empathise with them.

Their respective offspring, looking for romance and escape, rashly decide to elope. Their disappearance causes much speculation and leads to the most interesting part – and denouement - of the book. Mr Jamal, the boy’s father, is a Muslim but has a Hindu vision. This religious awakening leaves him more oblivious than ever to his wife’s feelings, which eventually has serious results.

The Death of Vishnu was not badly written but the characters were stereotypical caricatures that did not develop: it read like a TV sitcom. No-one felt any warmth towards the characters and many felt this was because they were not well drawn. However, the novel did give the reader a glimpse of how the different castes and religions rub along in India and, to its credit, ‘politics’ were refreshingly missing.

It was the dream sequence chapters – steadily more surreal and lurid as the book progressed – that annoyed many of the book group. They were rambling – as many dreams are of course – and some thought too odd to bear any resemblance to what Vishnu’s life could have been. Fortunately, those who did quite enjoy this aspect of the book reassured our host – who was feeling a little unsure of the wisdom of her choice - that the book had been worth reading!

The Death of Vishnu had certainly been wildly hyped: it is a poor man’s Midnight Children, a pale God of Small Things. Perhaps in Manil Suri’s next novel he will manage to balance creativity with believability and pull it off. I hope so.


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