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. Jalals obsessive search for higher meaning; Vinod Tanejas 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 Vishnus ascent of the staircase parallels the souls 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.
NOT WANTING to arouse Vishnu in case he hadnt 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 Vishnus 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, ...
If you liked The Death of Vishnu, try these:
"Astonishing. . . . A rich and varied spectacle, full of wisdom and laughter and the touches of the unexpectedly familiar through which literature illuminates life." - The Wall Street Journal.
A novel about a man's search for meaning that illuminates our deepest concerns: love and death, marriage and family, and the mysterious tug of beauty on the human heart.
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