Thursday, June 05, 2008

[Book Review] THE DEATH OF VISHNU by Manil Suri


Jesse Pool reviews THE DEATH OF VISHNU by Manil Suri (Norton, 2001)

At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Vishnu, an aging drunk who lives on the landing below the Asrani and the Pathak families. He's paid Tall Ganga, the former resident of the landing, for the privilege to live on the stairs and to do menial chores for the families in the building.

Vishnu becomes very ill, but the people in the building go on living their lives around him. Some hope that he is merely feigning illness, while others hope that he has already died. A very few feel empathy for him, although everyone seems to fear infection by coming to near him.

As Vishnu dies, he is separated from his body and ascends the stairs of the building. The novel alternates between Vishnu's vivid memories of his mother and his lover Padmini and stories of the residents of the Bombay building where Vishnu has lived. It's hinted that Vishnu may in fact be the final incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Through the interconnected stories, readers are exposed to many of the facets that make up modern Indian life. The Asranis and Pathaks, for instance, are bitter rivals as well as neighbors because they are forced to share a kitchen from which each believe the other to be pilfering. There is a forbidden romance between the Asranis' daughter Kavita and Salim Jalal, a Muslim boy upstairs. We see other conflicts between different faiths and traditions as well.

This novel is sometimes comical, and sometimes tragic, but always engaging. It may help to know a little bit about Indian customs and the Hindu religion, but it is not necessary to enjoy this novel.

Jesse Pool, Highland Branch Library

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