South Asia
Between life and afterlife

The Death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri

By Sreeram Chaulia

Ever conceived of a mathematics professor who teaches exotic subjects such as "Elements of the finite method" entering the swelling club of Indo-English writers and carving a distinct niche for himself in literature?

Somehow, algebra and fiction appear to be oxymorons when mixed into the same pudding. But then, the world had not expected Lewis Carrol either. Manil Suri's literary debut seems to vindicate the Greek philosopher Plato's ranking of mathematics as the most creative and original science that bestows metaphysical faculties on its practitioners.

Suri's themes in this novel are the supernatural and the ethereal, projected through the canvas of mundane 1970s urban India and decorated by a crafty use of Hindu mythology. A similar menagerie of working tools was employed unsuccessfully by Vikram Chandra in Red Earth and Pouring Rain (1997), but then, Chandra's undoing may have lain in not being a mathematician.

Vishnu is a homeless chronic drunkard, like thousands of poor immigrant stragglers in Bombay city. He buys his way to an unkempt staircase landing of a middle class apartment and makes it his abode for the next 11 years. His relationship with the flat owners of the building is peculiar. On one hand, he runs errands for the Asranis, Pathaks, Jalals and Tanejas and earns sympathy and some pocket money to get rid of "the rigors of sobriety" (p.18), and on the other hand his lies, tantrums and nocturnal ways give rise to notoriety that often leads the families to curse in his name and grumble about bearing his burden.

When Vishnu falls terminally ill, Mrs Asrani throws up her hands and rules out her henpecked husband bearing the expenses of calling an ambulance: "What good will it do now anyway? He's too far gone, the poor bechara." (p.27) Her arch rival and foe, Mrs Pathak, drops even this veneer of false pity and decides to not contribute to any medical treatment, but make an offering for Vishnu at the temple the next day if he passes away by then. The pettiness of middle class morals and barely concealed selfishness that the grown-up residents display for Vishnu is contrasted with the genuine affection Kavita, the Asranis' daughter, shows for the loveable thug. As a toddler, she plays Diwali with him and as a teenager depends on his chaperoning skills to arrange secret rendezvous with the Jalals' son, Salim. Only Kavita has the sense to try and help Vishnu monetarily when he is lying comatose, in the delicate zone between life and afterlife.

Sad and happy vignettes of Vishnu's own life filter back in his last hours, revealing a scarred past - a hideous father who cruelly spanks him in alcoholic stupor, a pious mother who fills his imagination with tales of Hindu goddesses and gods, an unattainable prostitute whom he loves but who does not requite any of his heart's feelings, quotidian struggles against ants, rivals and irritated residents attempting to expel him from the tiny strip of land that is home in the unforgiving city of Bombay.

As death is fast approaching, Vishnu's dreams and visions undergo a qualitative shift. He begins to detest the noise of the Asranis fighting the Pathaks over shared kitchen space and the endless rounds of housewives' warfare centering on allegations of stolen water and cooking oil. "The screams are so loud that Vishnu covers his ears. He thinks of children run over by cars, families crushed by buildings, people burnt alive." (p.83) He realizes he has to escape this worldly cacophony and begins visualizing the soothing calmness that heaven beckons and the ineffable pleasure of commingling with the celestial beings in vaikuntha (the Place where perfect Peace reigns).

Mr Jalal, the intellectual non-believing husband of staunchly devout Arifa, is fascinated by Vishnu's current state, believing "there was something holy, something exalted, about being so close to death". (p.92) In a bid to experience faith that has eluded his rationalist mind, he settles down to sleeping on the muddy floor beside Vishnu every night and hopes to commune with him. True to expectations, Vishnu rises in Mr Jalal's dream in the form of the sustainer of the Hindu trinity, Vishnu, and reveals his splendid vishwaroop (universal form) "until he filled all of space, and suffused all of time". (p.149)

Mr Jalal then takes it upon himself to be the new enlightened prophet who has witnessed true godhead. His attempts at converting Arifa or the Asranis and Pathaks fail disastrously, with a rowdy mob collecting at his doorstep accusing him of conniving in his son Salim's elopement with Kavita and covering up the crime with lunatic talk of the pauper Vishnu merging with the holy lord. All along, references to the Jalals by the Asranis and Pathaks and vice-versa are rife with communal motifs - "those Muslims" and "those Hindus". Once Salim and Kavita run away to evade Mrs Asrani's feverish schemes of arranging a suitable boy in marriage, the sub-tensions come out in the open.

The muhalla electrician, cigarettewala and paanwaala who used to salute Mrs Jalal decide to take matters into their hands, reasoning "who do they think they are, doing this in a Hindu country?" (p.218) They collect a ragtag band of unemployed bystanders and attack the Jalals' home. When Mr Jalal hopes this to be a crowd of would-be converts and preaches the merits of Vishnu, the incensed crowd abuses him: "What have you come here to do, you Muslim bastard, reveal Krishna to us?" (p.245). They beat Mrs Jalal unconscious and force the "prophet" to fall from the balcony and suffer hospitalization. He is left wondering how the vandals were complaining that he was blaspheming the Gita, and in the same vein committing crime. "Didn't the Gita teach that it was impossible to kill someone?" (p.267)

Mr Jalal's travails are visible to Vishnu, who by now is very much acting and seeing like an omniscient god, but he is impotent to prevent the violence. He is powerless to even hurt the ants that used to torment him when he was alive, giving rise to agonizing doubts as to whether he is still only a mortal and hasn't ascended to vaikuntha as his mother had promised. Vishnu feels sorry for having once stolen the Tanejas' car for taking his sweetheart Padmini on a dream ride, but in this condition of limbo between doomed life and impending heaven, he is again helpless to come to the rescue of the goodly Mr Taneja, who lost his wife 17 years ago and is unable to overcome that psychological trauma and grief.

Partly due to realization of his feebleness as a god and partly as a result of longing for the lost earthly pleasures, Vishnu probes his mind whether he really wants to leave the mortal state after all. How will he leave his body behind? "It is his agency for experience, his intermediary to the world." (p.76) The plot of his life, so full of little joys and tastes like those of a juicy mango, is simply too compelling for him to willingly court death.

Lakshmi and Garuda desert him, however, as the minute of reckoning arrives, and Yama (god of death) advances menacingly towards him. "Vishnu knows he must keep awake, he must not fall to Yama." (p.274), but some inexorable force pushes him over the abyss and he breathes his last. As if in compensation for being dragged from life against his will, Krishna (an avatar of Vishnu) tells him in heavenly Brindavan, "tomorrow, you go back", hinting that a rebirth awaits Vishnu. But there is no knowing what form he will take, because his karma was not all that positive in the last life.

The Death of Vishnu is engrossing in its overall subject matter. Mumbaiites in their thirties and forties are bound to feel nostalgic by Suri's clinical description of Dongri, Borivili, Lonavala, Colaba and Churchgate, to name a few memorable venues in the book. Younger readers are left to gape in amazement at a time when radios, gramophone records and Meena Kumari were the toasts of India's commercial metropolis. Western readers will be fascinated to observe how core ideas of Hinduism hold sway over all classes in society, with minor variations. Students of contemporary political history gain insights into the way religious identity communalizes the "other" - even in an age when the so-called "Hindu fundamentalist wave" had not swept India.

The underside of the book (I am not too convinced by indiscriminate praise some reviewers have showered on Suri) is that by page 100, the clarity of thought in Vishnu's visions transforms into razzmatazz. The surrealism and aimless wanderings of Vishnu's spirit stop appealing to the reader after a while, especially as they get intertwined with the regular story of day-to-day developments in the four flats of the building.

Suri's penchant for inserting redundant sexual content that does not in any way enhance the plot is unsettling. He is also unnecessarily and excessively reliant on Bollywood imagery, conveying the impression that Mumbai's tinsel industry is so all-pervasive that every single denizen, high or low, eats, drinks and sleeps movies.

There is a Meet Joe Black feel to the novel and I strongly suspect that the author has borrowed ideas from this 1998 Hollywood film where Brad Pitt dies, becomes death incarnate and descends to fetch Anthony Hopkins to the netherworld. Mr Death falls in love with the latter's daughter (Claire Forlani) and gradually develops reluctance to leave the titillating earth until Hopkins, prepared to die, drags Pitt back to where he belonged.

To retain readership, Suri must mend these shortcomings and choose to have fewer celluloid inspirations in the next two sequels of his trinity trilogy, The Life of Shiva and The Birth of Brahma.

Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu, W W Norton & Co, New York, 2001. ISBN: 0-393-05042-4. Price: US$13.95. 295 pages.)

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Jul 19, 2002




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