The Death of Vishnu: A Novel
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65 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2001
On a breezy Sunday afternoon, I happened to read "The Death Of Vishnu" by Manil Suri. I picked up this book with great trepidation. Also, on the personal front, who would like to read about a man dying? That's what I thought until I read this one. As the title goes, the narrative also comes directly to the point - that of Vishnu, an odd job man, laying dead on an apartment landing of Mumbai. This is where the crux of the story lies.
Here we meet the Pathaks and the Asranis, two arch rival neighbours; what's worse is that they share the same kitchen and each claims to be taking care of Vishnu better.
Then on the other hand there are the Jalals - the husband who doesn't believe in any religion and just wants to gain spiritualism the easy way; the son Salim who is madly in love with the Asranis' daughter Kavita (here comes the Hindu-Muslim divide).
Not to forget the Tanejas - Vinod Taneja whose wife's death has left him with so much grief that he just doesn't get out of his apartment anymore...
And what's surprising is that all these characters are intertwined with one. And the connecting factor: Vishnu! The story binds itself based on what others perceive Vishnu to be - his mother, the Pathaks, the Jalals, the Asranis, Padmini, Kavita, and others like the scavenger and the sweeper working in the apartment. There is a holistic perspective to the point that it infringes on who Vishnu really is and what he embodies for all the bystanders.
There is a singular thread running through the book - that of isolation on various levels. The Pathaks and Asranis share a kitchen, almost to the point of invading each other's privacy and yet are so distant and cold. Vishnu is dead and yet no one wants to claim him and take him to the nearest morgue. Her husband and son, seeking refuge in intellectualism and staunch belief, leave Mrs Jalal alone.
Vishnu in another realm altogether believes that he is God (or rather is made to believe that by Mr Jalal) - Vishnu, who had ten reincarnations. His love for... Padmini, his longing for Kavita, and his thoughts on living make the book one delicious course.
This book is not an easy read. There are layers and sub-layers to this course though. On the surface, things are quite simple and easy to understand, but what Mr Suri has created is something else. He has created what one might call "a quilt of emotions" - right from love to the isolation one feels in the metropolis to the bare human nature. In short, Manil Suri has created a Universe in an apartment of Bombay - a city so huge and yet so cold and distant. So uninviting.
The spiritualism as one would expect from this book is on many levels rather ambiguous and unclear. In the sense that while the author tries to portray the elements of reincarnation and giving up on worldly pleasures - like Mr Jalal often tries doing - it all is actually a mockery of the same. One of the redeeming features of the book is that it is not written from an outsider's perspective. It is carved by an Indian living in India and breathing the air, which was what Vishnu did. An ordinary man elevated to something extraordinary to satisfy the superstitions and religious notions of the upper notches of society. This is where the element of comedy throws itself in your face.
The prose is certainly clever; however, the ending is left hanging. Possibly the author expects the reader to decide that for himself. In many ways, this resembles a grand chorus from a huge and wonderful comic opera, with all the inhabitants of the building singing at once. And underneath all the voices wailing about their personal concerns is the insistent bass of Vishnu as he prepares to die. Dealing with the most basic aspects of religion, love, and human kindness in a city setting which challenges its inhabitants to the limit, Suri creates a warm, funny, and very human drama of a every man's search for meaning in life.
Suri writes with obvious affection about a Bombay perhaps already lost, evoking easily its moods and attitudes, its light and smells. One can almost feel the heavy evening sea breeze, taste the roasted peanuts sold in paper cones along the sea wall, or see the Maharaja looking down from the Air India hoarding. A Bombay that rings true with its Irani Cafe, cigarettewalla, and radiowalla. Manil Suri's sharp eye for detail and natural ability to create a strong sense of place and time define his considerable talent, and one can look forward with a certain assuredness to its maturing in his promised books on the other two Gods of the Hindu trinity, Brahma and Shiva.
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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2002
The Death of Vishnu has become one of my absolute favorite novels. Although some reviews have called its characters a representative microcosm of India, I believe the message is much simpler and much broader than that. This is a book about human nature, in all its ugliness and glory. The characters are superbly well drawn--sometimes they come across as despicable, other times sympathetic, but they are always heartbreakingly real. Watch how all thier seemingly altruistic acts have selfish human motives behind them and you will recognize yourself. One of the nicest things about this book is the odd little quirks that Manil Suri gives his characters. Mr. Jalal (my favorite) trying to burn himself with pink candles in order to achieve spiritual enlightment, Mrs. Pathak serving kraft cheese as a foreign delicacy, Kavita's obsession with Hindi films, Sheetal's dying wish to make it into the Guiness Book of World Records...and of course Vishnu, who starts to wonder if he might be god. It's a rich tapestry, and so very different from anything I've ever read before...Despite the aimless nature of the plot, the novel still built up a great deal of suspense at the end, and unlike most supposedly "suspenseful" stories I honestly had no idea how everything was going to turn out. And when I finally finished it I was left with a greater understanding of how human beings can be so horrible in so many little ways. I believe this is a book everyone would benefit from reading, not just people specifically interested in India or Indian fiction. However, it should be noted that there is a great deal of Hindu mythology in this book. Being Indian myself I was familiar with most of it, but other readers might want to get a little background information beforehand.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
Difficult to believe - that this is a first novel! Manil Suri has chosen a theme both timeless and extraordinarily unique as he sculpts the life of a dying man (the proces is not morbid, just a fine substrate for weaving a tale) through the overheard conversations of the folk living in the boarding house on whose steps he lies. In many ways this short novel is like extending that flash of light when all of our life appears before us just at the moment of death - extending it long enough to relish the myriad aspects of living. This is a last gasp...but filled with so much treasure that you'll find yourself hoping it never ends. Suri's writing style is unfettered, concise, colorful, and always maintains a simplicity of style that begs for revisiting. An auspicious debut. Highly recommended.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2001
I read this book in one sitting. (Okay, I stopped to sleep from 2 am to 9 am.) And this is my first review on Amazon.com. What can I say ... the book inspired me.
Because of the incredible character details, Suri converts the the mundane into the sublime, the logic of his characters makes the impossible possible. Rarely have characters populated a world so foreign, yet so accessible. I am a filmmaker and realize the difficulty of the task that Suri succeeds at so effortlessly; his absoulute control of the visual images he invokes on every page. Radiowala's styrofoam, Mrs. Asrani's TruTone, the mango goddess and her sap-filled scars, and the glucose biscuits dipped in tea; fleeting images are immortalized in these pages.
I have already recommended this book to friends and am on this site to order some more copies as gifts.
Read this one, you can't go wrong.
And Mr. Suri, if you do read these reviews, I eagerly await your next book. I congratulate you on your act of creation and thank you for it.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2001
Nnd finally.. .after a while, a good Indian book. Lately, a number of Indian writers had fallen into the habit of letting their books become more of a tourist book than a honest book which tries to breathe life into its characters.
Not only did Mani Suri stay away from that trap, but crafted a very well written story, which does justice to the most basic foundation of a story - its actors ! One could argue that reading this book would need some understanding of Hindu and Islamic religions, but that is true of all books; reading a book based in America would need some basic understanding of customs here. The fact that Suri did not delve into giving an explanation every time he mentioned something that was typically Indian, instead made his characters say it for him.
Alternating between reality, and thoughts of the characters, can be quite daunting task, and Suri's done justive to it - be it Vishnu's slipping into his past as a kid with his mom, or with Padmini; or Mr. Jalal's attempts at unraveling the mysteries of the world !
I would recommend this book, not only to those wanting to read one with an Indian background, but just about anyone wanting to read a good book.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2001
DON'T judge a book by its cover, for if you do you'll probably write the paperback edition off as a lurid Bollywood bodice-ripper. However, The Death of Vishnu is a vivid snapshot of working class life in Bombay. Lively without being pulpy, it's an excellent debut novel by Bombay-born Manil Suri, which I hope will be a foretaste of more novels. Although it's about a pending death, it's a more cheerful novel than, for example, Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, and it's also a lot easier to read than Salman Rushdie's work. The Vishnu of the title is a derelict drunk who lives on the stairs of a block of flats in Bombay, eking out an existence by doing the odd job for the residents. The residents themselves consider themselves immeasurably superior: the bickering Asrani and Pathak wives are painfully conscious of social distinctions. They are not wealthy enough to have their own kitchens but they also, as Hindus in a predominantly Hindu area, unite to feel superior to the eminently respectable Muslim Jalal family upstairs. There's a lot of humour in the way Suri describes Mrs Asrani and Mrs Pathak as they joust for social ascent, and in the way the hapless husbands and children react. He creates a wonderful gallery of characters: seductive Padmini from Vishnu's past, the grieving widower Mr Taneja, the Asranis' rebellious daughter Kavita and a range of other smaller but just as memorable personalities. They all have stories which weave in and out, including meditations on religion and spirituality and the impact of Bollywood films on everyday life, making a book which is uniquely Indian but also universal. Most enjoyable.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2001
While my tastes tend to favor suspense novels or thrillers, I found 'The Death of Vishnu' to be funny, compelling, and enlightening. Mr. Suri's way with language is subtle, opening up layers of his characters' obsessions, dreams and biases, all set in one Bombay apartment building. The clear structure of the novel serves to give equal time to each voice, although Vinod is largely unseen until late in the novel. Vinod's experience and inner world are heart-breaking, and Suri evokes his loneliness in ways I can idenitfy with all too clearly.
I have always been fascinated by India and Hinduism, and although this novel is not a primer on either, it uses both to evoke Vishnu's journey and that of the others. (You do not need to be an expert on either to enjoy 'The Death of Vishnu'.) And Suri does build suspense in an understated manner; it's clear he has learned something about telling a good story. Read 'The Death of Vishnu' for its language, its metaphysical journey of the spirit, but mainly for the reasons we all love reading: people and stories that go to the heart of human experience, and illuminate us all.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2001
This is mesmerising book that I read in one afternoon and have been thinking about since. Suri has condensed the human cosmos into an Indian apartment building and to the journey of the dying Vishnu as he rises from the landing to the top of the building. The inhabitants of the apartment building are all very well drawn in all their human shortcomings and with their imperfect souls. As the story evolves tragically through the inevitable entwinement of the lives of the apartment dwellers, we witness, step by step, how evil unfolds in ordinary human experience. Although very much Indian in terms of its setting and the mythology it draws from (as far as I can tell, since I am not from India and have never been there, although I am from the east), I think this is a piece of writing that is universal in its appeal as its focus is really the human psyche. However, it does give us a very vivid window into the Indian society through the voices of the apartment dwellers. Suri's writing is like a woodland stream, light and appealing to the senses. His story takes you to another realm, to the River of Life, as you close to book.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2001
Given the title and the cover picture, I thought that this might be a serious and philosophical book but I was pleasantly surprised to see it filled with an interesting mix of comedy, pathos, and thoughtful observations set in an apartment building in Bombay. While many Indian novelists spend time discussing background and scenery of India, this novel focuses on characters and individuals which, if some of the details were changed, could be located anywhere. This is a book that I could have read in one sitting (if it were not for my children!) and have already recommended it to my friends. A wonderful debut for the author!
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2001
This was simply one of the best books I have ever read.
Having been born in Bombay, and lived in an apartment building in the area that Mr. Suri's book is set in, made it an even more wonderful experience.
I especially enjoyed Mr. Suri's ability to describe even the smallest acts in a way that made the reader almost able to taste the golgappas or samosas or paan (especially the sweet kind that Sheetal loved!).
In addition, Mr. Suri managed to weave together a multitude of things pertaining to Indian daily life: The movies, songs and stars of "bollywood"; the politics of husbands and wives; the politics of living in close quarters with other families; the psychology and realities of arranged marriages; love and all it's meanings at each life stage, whether maternal, physical or emotional; hope and hopelessness; and of course life and death.
Mr. Suri also gives a wonderful lesson in Indian Mythology, through Vishnu's dreams. He weaves all the stories of my childhood throughout the book and then brings it all together at the end. Very well done.
This is an incredible debut, I can't wait for Mr. Suri's next book.
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