Summary and book reviews of The Death of Vishnu by Manil Suri

The Death of Vishnu

A Novel

By Manil Suri

The Death of Vishnu
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  • Hardcover: Dec 2000,
    256 pages.
    Paperback: Jan 2002,
    304 pages.

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Book Summary

At the opening of this masterful debut novel, Vishnu, the resident odd-job man, lies dying on the staircase he inhabits while his neighbors the Pathaks and the Asranis argue over who will pay for an ambulance. As the action spirals up through the floors of the apartment building we are pulled into the drama of the residents’ lives: Mr. Jalal’s obsessive search for higher meaning; Vinod Taneja’s longing for the wife he has lost; the comic elopement of Kavita Asrani, who fancies herself the heroine of a Hindi movie.

Suffused with Hindu mythology, this story of one apartment building becomes a metaphor for the social and religious divisions of contemporary India, and Vishnu’s ascent of the staircase parallels the soul’s progress through the various stages of existence. As Vishnu closes in on the riddle of his own mortality, we wonder whether he might not be the god Vishnu, guardian not only of the fate of the building and its occupants, but of the entire universe.



From Manil Suri

The Death of Vishnu is the first in a trilogy of novels I plan to write.

As I mention in the front pages of the novel, The Death of Vishnu started with the death of an actual man named Vishnu, who lived on the steps of the building in which I grew up. I began it in 1995, and soon after took my first writing workshop, at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD with Jane Bradley, author of the searing works "Power Lines" and "Living Doll." Jane was the one who told me that I could not call a character "Vishnu" without connecting him somehow to the God Vishnu -- it was too potent a name. That's when I started reading up on Hindu mythology and using it in my fiction -- it was really the title that fueled the story.

Sometime after finishing the third chapter, it suddenly struck me. The Hindu trinity, known as "Trimurti" (or "three forms") consisted of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. With it were the three ingredients of the cycle of existence: life, death and birth. Matching them gave three titles, so that the next two books could be The Life of Shiva and The Birth of Brahma.

So now I have two more titles, that have both sprung up from the original event of Vishnu's death, and are waiting to generate stories of their own. The goal will be not to write treatises on Hinduism, but create narratives and characters that throb with the spirit of what each deity represents. Shiva, for instance, is not only the destroyer, but also the ascetic, and since he is unattainable, this asceticism makes him an erotic figure. The second novel will therefore involve characters who experience unrequited attraction, set against the backdrop of Shiva exercising his tremendous powers of purification. To renew the cycle will be regeneration, as represented by Brahma. This will be the opportunity to explore the process of creation -- not only in a cosmic sense, but also by ordinary flesh and blood characters, whether they be artists or writers or scientists, or (dare I say) mathematicians.

PS: I could, of course, have called the other two books The Birth of Shiva and The Life of Brahma -- but I think it's Shiva's life as an ascetic that is more interesting, and the moment of Brahma's birth that resonates most with the idea of creation.

Chapter One

NOT WANTING to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn’t died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand. Vishnu lay sprawled on the stone, his figure aligned with the curve of the stairs. The laces of a pair of sneakers twined around the fingers of one hand; the other lay outstretched, as if trying to pull his body up the next step. During the night, Mrs. Asrani noted with distress, Vishnu had not only thrown up, but also soiled himself. She had warned her neighbor, Mrs. Pathak, not to feed Vishnu when he was so sick, but did that woman ever listen? She tried not to look at the large stain spreading through the worn material of Vishnu’s khaki pants, the ones that her husband had given him last Divali. What a mess -- the jamadarni would have to be brought in to clean up such a mess, and it would not be free, either, someone would have to pay. Her large frame heaving against the sari in which it was swaddled, ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Compare Manil Suri to other Indian novelists writing in English. In what ways does he use similar devices and tropes as Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy? In what ways is his writing unique?
  2. Which characters did you find the most compelling? The least?
  3. The Death of Vishnu is envisioned by Suri as the first part of a trilogy. Did it feel like the beginning of a larger work? Were there, for example, issues that remained unresolved at its end?
  4. Considerations of space figure prominently in the novel. Whether it’s the landing that is Vishnu’s “home” or the running dispute between the Pathaks and the Asranis over their shared kitchen, there is a constant feeling that no one has enough room. What ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Salon - Suzy Hansen

Suri's elegant, clever prose and emotional and philosophical probing carry the action of the novel entirely. . . . Suri has created an endlessly complex world that both breaks its inhabitants' hearts and occasionally holds out the prospect of redemption.

San Francisco Chronicle Book Review - Elizabeth Kadetsky

[A] provocative tale of spiritual seeking in contemporary Bombay. . . . [Suri] reveals not only a collusion of modern and mythic India but a commingling of them. . . . His story succeeds by challenging a sitcom like cast of characters to greater depths with a change of setting. . . . Suri contributes to our understanding of what it means to believe.

USA Today - Carol Memmott

There is an exquisite beauty in Suri's prose. . . . An extraordinarily insightful look at human relationships.

Newsday - Dan Cryer

Marvelously life-embracing. . . . In just a few pages, Suri immerses us in a world almost unimaginably foreign from our own, yet universally understandable. . . . A seamlessly constructed, quietly eloquent work of art.

New York - Daniel Mendelsohn

Suri is a writer of vivid gifts. His larger thematic preoccupations are balanced by seductively beautiful prose and, particularly, a way with drawing nuanced and poignantly flawed characters. . . . By the time the novel is over, we've seen how small irruptions of human weakness, no less than gigantic cultural fissures, can change everything.

Time Out New York - Catherine St. Louis

A wonder. . . . Vibrant characters and freshly observed psychological insights illuminate The Death of Vishnu. . . . The breadth and assuredness of Suri's first novel will surprise you.

Elle - Francine Prose

Vivid and engrossing. . . . Though the book is anchored, fascinatingly, in the daily life of Bombay, the depth of Suri's characters lifts The Death of Vishnu out of its sociological and cultural background, takes it beyond the confines of its particular setting, and raises it into a work of fiction that seems not only universal but absolutely cosmic.

New York Times Book Review - Michael Gorra

[A] deft and confident first novel. . . . The Death of Vishnu reminds me of the work of an earlier writer, the deliberately modest and beautifully constructed novels of R. K. Narayan. . . . the finely burnished plots, the oblique irony and understated prose; above all, the sense of equipoise. All this The Death of Vishnu has, and more.

Boston Sunday Globe - Anna Mundow

Enchanting. . . . In the complex world created by Suri, few human, or even divine, motivations are completely pure. . . . Suri's penetration of his character's lives is as precise and cunning as that of a master surgeon like J. M. Coetzee.

Washington Post Book World - Lee Siegel

[A] full, sweet-scented novel. . . . Juxtaposing the mundane with the comic, Suri evokes these characters with intelligence, compassion and humor. The comedic exposure of thier vulnerabilities and frailties, their pettiness and silliness, ultimately reveals the poignant beauty and grace of their essential humanness.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Suri, a mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, has entered the realm of literature with assurance, agile humor, and an impressive breadth of social and religious concerns. . . . The gospel of the movies is just as influential as the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita in Suri's tenderly comic, wryly metaphysical, and hugely entertaining tale, in which profound longings for romance and deliverance shape even the most modest (perhaps the most precious) of lives.

Publishers Weekly

Few have invested their fiction with such luminous language, insight into character and grasp of cultural construct as Suri does in his debut. . . . This fluid novel is an irresistible blend of realism, mysticism and religious metaphor, a parable of the universal conditions of human life.

Author Blurb Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club
A wonder of a book. From the first page I could tell that this is an astonishing debit, sure to win readers and prizes.

Author Blurb Andrea Barrett, National Book Award winning author of Ship Fever
Sympathetic, penetrating, comic and moving, this fine and unusual first novel unexpectedly braids Hindu mythology and traditions into the daily life of a broad cast of wonderfully drawn characters. The result draws on the best storytelling traditions of both east and west.

Author Blurb Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours
Vibrantly alive, beautifully written, full of wonderfully rich and deeply human characters. . . . The depiction of the Asranis and the Pathaks, in all their convincingly human awfulness, brings to mind such masters of scrupulous meanness as Flaubert and Flannery O'Connor.

Author Blurb Vikram Chandra, author of Love and Longing in Bombay
A man named Vishnu lies dying on the staircase of a Mumbai apartment building. . . . Through the maneuverings of the building's denizens, Manil Suri has created an intimate and intricate portrait of life in this metropolis.

Author Blurb Jim Crace, author of Quarantine
Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu finds the Universe in a block of Bombay flats; it is tender, caustic, witty, and inspired.

Reader Reviews
Bernard Zandovsky

Death of Vishnu: Good Book
This was a really good book. Really well written. I liked this book a lot.

Sandipa

The Death of Vishnu
This is one of the best book that I have read recently. Manil Suri has managed to justify each of his character in depth. While reading, you wait for a new chapter to start and next action from each of the character. Be it Mr. Jalal trying to search ...   Read More

Diriye Osman

Manil Suri's The Death Of Vishnu is a subtle balancing act in which the ordinary world, that of death, that of birth and that of re-encarnation are superbly suffused together with the melodramatic extravagance of Bollywood, adolescent lust, religious...   Read More

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