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The Death of Vishnu: A Novel Paperback – June 18, 2012
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âEnchanting. . . . Suriâs novel achieves an eerie and memorable transcendence.ââTimeIn Manil Suriâs debut novel, Vishnu, the odd-job man, lies dying on the staircase of an apartment building while around him unfold the lives of its inhabitants: warring housewives, lovesick teenagers, a grieving widower. In a fevered state, Vishnu looks back on his love affair with the seductive Padmini and wonders if he might actually be the god Vishnu, guardian of the entire universe.
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The story of a head-strong girl comming of age during India's partition and her disasterous marriage are simply new clothes on an old empress-how many times have we read this tale? The convoluted Father/Daughter relationship lays the groundwork for the incestuous Mother/Son incident that is (yawn) the pivitol point of the book.
The charactors are flat and very few take on a life outside the page. It became clear,after the middle, that the author was having a hard time trying to sustain the voice of a female protagonist. The voice becomes shrill, repetative and whining- a real bore to read and even the son fails to arouse sympathy within the framework of the tale.
Better luck elsewhere....
Suri is not afraid to reveal pettiness and cruelty, and some of the apartment dwellers, such as Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak, who seemed consumed by social status and by the need to steal foodstuffs from a shared kitchen, are contemptible and cruel, but I cannot say that I did not see traces of themselves in me.
But, for me, the most interesting, and funniest part of the novel centers around Mr. Jalali, an intellectually-disposed Muslim who began life as a skeptic of religions, but, prodded on by his wife's profound faith, bumbles towards belief through awkward but funny experiments in truth. For example, he determines that faith is based in a willingness to endure pain, and seeing a group of Muslim marchers self-flagellating, he decides to experiment, but gets the hook of his belt stuck in his back, falls to the ground in howling pain, and gives up on the whole enterprise.
But, Mr. Jalali is persistent, and he spends time with Vishnu even as he is dying and has a vision that Vishnu the person is really Vishnu the god, although his vision may be unconsciously borrowed from the Bhagavad Gita. Mr. Jalali's vision, and his willingness to sacrifice himself for this vision, drives the narrative forward with urgency and power in many parts.
To me, the books is about the endless quest for perfection- of the human desire to transcend the mediocrity of human existence and achieve god-like perfection. Suri's reflections on belief create a counterpoint to the petty meanness that he insightfully portrays. Hindu mythology teaches that man must die and be born again and again until he achieves a state of perfection that will allow him to leave this world behind. Mr. Jalali, although a Muslim, seeks to find the belief that will give his life purpose. And Vishnu, in prose that grows increasingly lush and evocative, sees him leave behind a constricted life to and begin an ascent to a different world that may end in godhood.
I sensed a profoundly class-conscious criticism about how poverty in India, even among the middle-class, crushes the horizons of many people. But, I may be wrong.
I thought that this was a great book that should be read, re-read, and reflected on. I hope it pasts the test of time.
To me, the story is about love and marriage, what it means and how it develops and grows--or fails to. Each of the characters has a unique experience of love. Vishnu's home is on the landing of the staircase in the apartment building. He is unloved. As he lies dying, the people he knows walk by him, not doing anything they don't have to. Another couple has been married for years, came close to loving each other, but then let it pass them by. Another man still mourns his wife who died many years ago. A young woman shares a forbidden love with a man of a different religion. This is what I think is the main exploration of the novel, and it is beautifully done.
On top of that is the callousness, jealousy, pettiness, and self-involvement of these average people living average, meaningless lives and making them more meaningless by their own actions or lack thereof.
The use of dialect and foreign words (I assume Hindu but there are so many languages in India that I am not sure). The author does this with just the touch that is necessary to bring the culture to life but not so much that it confuses or alienates the reader. This is how it should be done but seldom is.