Book Reviews

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A god on the landing

Navtej Sarna

THE DEATH OF VISHNU. Manil Suri. 244pp. Bloomsbury. £16.99. TLS £14.99. 0 7475 5270 3

Death is always a tragedy, subtle or grand, and it lends itself only reluctantly to farce. In his debut novel, Manil Suri bravely juxtaposes a comedy of neighbours around the death of Vishnu, the odd-job man in a Bombay apartment block, half wastrel, half God. Using a refreshingly sardonic voice, Suri turns his ironic gaze on life at its most middle-class, as it proceeds all around the dying man, almost oblivious of his pain.

The kitty-party-obsessed Mrs. Pathak shares a kitchen, as well as much middle-class meanness, with the Trutone-tinted Mrs. Asrani. They fight with each other over the cost of the ambulance for Vishnu with the ferocity of Bombay fishwives at suburban stations, while their stereotyped pusillanimous husbands duck and squirm. One floor up, a Muslim couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jalal, supply the religious diversity, and their son Salim, abetted by Vishnu, throws in some excitement by carrying on an affair on the terrace with Kavita, the Asranis' daughter. Their eventual elopement nearly sets off a Hindu-Muslim riot, but ends rather tamely when Kavita returns home because Salim will not take her first-class in the train.

Mr. Jalal, believer and sceptic at the same time, is better developed than the rest of the characters who inhabit the apartment block. Having failed at several earlier attempts at purification through self-flagellation, he sees in Vishnu's death a grand opportunity for spiritual redemption. When he spends a night next to the dying man, he is rewarded with a vision in which the wastrel turns into Vishnu the God, the preserver in the Hindu trinity.

Jalal sees himself as a prophet destined to spread Vishnu's truth. A few blows quickly rid him of his delusion, and, chased by a mob, he hangs by his fingertips from a third-floor balcony for six pages, ruminating, somewhat unrealistically for one in that position, on life, failed relationships, Freud, the Gita, and so on. The chosen balcony belongs to Mr. Taneja, a confused widower, who struggles to free himself from an abiding grief several years after his wife's death, until a swami comes to his aid.

These dramas intersect obliquely at the staircase landing where Vishnu is dying. Then, suddenly, as if the author had run out of stories to tell, the book ends with Vishnu and his prostitute lover, Padmini, watching the whole story replayed as a Bombay movie, with the dead Vishnu's soul meeting a calendar-art depiction of the child Krishna, famously stealing butter. The narrative, loaded with dated images from Bombay films and interspersed with free translations of film songs, alternates these tales with the pre-death visions of Vishnu, as he recalls his childhood and somewhat repetitive sexual encounters with Padmini. The Death of Vishnu is saved from descending to the level of a television miniseries by the author's gentle mocking tone which assures us that it is all in good fun and should be read as such; the set scenes, two-dimensional characters and the occasional awkwardness of the language ("The hairs on Mr. Jalal's arms suddenly stood up") can be ignored. It is when the novel attempts to give itself a deeper meaning, to explore the godly dimension of Vishnu with injections of Hindu philosophy and mythology that it staggers. The spiritual cliches hang heavy: "Vishnu began to expand even more, until he filled all of space and suffused all of time. Mr. Jalal felt himself becoming one with Vishnu, not only in this, but in all his previous existences as well." And the sexual cavorting of gods and goddesses can begin to cloy:

"She touches her lips to his: he tastes the lushness of forests, the sweetness of springs . . . . His body enters hers. It is like earth opening to admit him. He finds himself carried away, up snowy Himalayan slopes, through valleys of teak and pine, down streams of ice-clear water that surge into the Ganges."

Suri writes with obvious affection about a Bombay perhaps already lost, evoking 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. It is a Bombay that rings true, with its Irani cafe, cigarettewalla, paanwalla and radiowalla who listens, as most people there did in the 1960s, to Radio Ceylon. Suri's 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.