(Review of ‘The Death of Vishnu’ by Manil Suri)


Michael Gorra in his review of ‘The Death of Vishnu’ on January 28, 2010, wrote: “The novel offers plenty of satire, but barely a rupee’s worth of social criticism. Politics plays no explicit role in his characters’ lives, and neither do the issues of Westernization; the novel’s action can be dated only through its references to Hindi movies. And Vishnu aside, Suri seems content, like Narayan, to let his characters remain comic types, depicted with a verve that doesn’t reveal their depths so much as it does their shallows.”

Let me add here that the blurb mentions from Irish Times, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and Sunday Tribune, calling it ‘exquisite’, ‘a delightful tale’, ‘sparkling’, and one having ‘all the elements of great story telling’ are all excellent PR stuff but they don’t really make any work worth a re-read! However, I must admit that every page did urge me on to the next until the book was read completely. I felt as though I had met most of the characters in the novel but I had to complete them through my own experiences and exposure. I did have to go back in time and resurrect some of the characters and tweak them to match what Manil was trying to build… and it made me dislike the exercise. It was compelling though. It was as if I were forced to get inside the book and fill in the blanks just to be able to see if there was indeed any conclusion to be discovered there. There was none except that I wouldn’t like to re-read this book. The only redeeming factor is that I’d certainly like to read his other work… just to see if it has the same power or not.

First I thought of just flinging the book back into the rows of books – both read and unread – in my collection at home. The idea of writing a review seemed loathsome as I’d have to go back to the sordidness of parts of my own past experiences to do it, but not doing it would let the contents of this book shadow me day in and day out.

Go to any DDA colony in Delhi and you’ll be able to find not one but a lot of Pathaks, Asranis, Jalals, and even Tanejas… whispers of Kavita-Salim romances can also be heard echoing between the crumbling facades of LIG and MIG flats. All this doesn’t happen only in Mumbai. The love-hate relationships existing between the occupants of any DDA block of flats, the I’ll-do-it-before-you-do, and the I’ll-get-it-before-you-get-it attitude, the distance between people physically so near, the proximities of people mentally so far from each other, the consistencies of hollowness, the reverence to appearances… all these can be felt and understood in just a few days of stay in any such place. However, can all this be woven into a story and presented to the world? This is what Manil attempted… and this is what he was unable to do. Simple. One keeps getting a feeling of incompleteness as one travels from one page to the next.

I too searched for the sordidness of the truth of such locales in all the trances of Vishnu, the stances of the Pathaks and the Asranis, the glances exchanged between Kavita and Salim and then between Kavita and Pran, the nuances of Hindu mythology spouted sporadically, and the perceived fences of religion. Manil, it appears, was more interested in applying the tenets of basis functions and Fourier Series to the creation of fiction. Mathematics can surely be used to understand a work of creation, which includes this universe and the timelessness of infinity, but one cannot theorize a principle for actually going ahead and creating. All his characters are in place but they don’t seem to actually move. They seem to come and disappear without making their presence felt. They are all like Kavita who ‘did not know if she wanted to accompany Salim down that stairway, into the city waiting below. She needed more time – more thime to breathe, more time to think, more time to understand.’ Page after page of potential came, stood, and faded away like some unrecognized model on the ramp, but it was always ‘too late, already too, too late’ for the characters to be buzzing with anything. In a review of this book (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/42778407), Ivy points out: ‘The Death of Vishnu had promise but it never delivered… The problem from my point of view was the character development. None of the characters were fully developed. They were all caricatures. Suri’s female characters were the biggest disappointment. The females are petty, mean, vindictive, manipulative, and/or silly. I wonder if this is how Suri really sees women?’

Michael Gorra writes that his ‘last line made me laugh out loud. But after closing his beguiling and deceptively ambitious novel, I began to wonder if perhaps that laughter ought to shade into a sob.’ A foreign reader and an Indian reader sob for entirely different reasons! The former sob because they get a glimpse, however incomplete, of middle class existence in a city in India and the latter because the descriptions were incomplete. Abby Liao’s review on the net also says: ‘As the reader you are shown the paths the characters have walked and then are allowed to briefly walk beside them.’  This being the case, the Independent was surely quite off the mark when its review likened Manil to Narayan, Coetzee, Naipaul, Chekov, and Flaubert. Though one must admit here that Manil is developing a voice of his own… even though this voice needs a fairly powerful amplifier in his first attempt!

Marika too writes (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/110262122): ‘I kept comparing this reading to the challenge of reading Midnight’s Children (Jessica). This was much more accessible and thus much more enjoyable for me. This book had all the same mystical, lyrical qualities. It had the same beautiful, almost poetic language. What it didn’t have is the scope.’ Let me add that the missing ‘scope’ that is mentioned here is Manil fascination with additional characters instead of going deeper into the ones that were already there. Not that all of what is there in the novel is despicable. I’d agree with Isa’s opinion because I too ‘loved its rawness and its honesty for contributing to a feeling of emotional understanding for a place I have never been. The characters were more symbols than people sometimes, but I didn’t get bored with them because the language kept them beautiful.’

Manil’s website (http://www.manilsuri.com/suri-vishnu-book.htm) goes on to say: ‘Blending incisive comedy with Hindu mythology and a dash of Bollywood sparkle, The Death of Vishnu is an intimate and compelling view of an unforgettable world.’ The mythology that Manil dabbles in jogs on the periphery of either short definitions for dummies, or tries to convert them into a mango goddess who appears to direct Vishnu to enter mythology through a drug-induced route! Manil allows Vishnu to lustily reach out for ‘another mango, growing between her thighs. He touches it and pulls on it, anticipation plays on her lips. He detaches it with a snap, and sees pain twinge across her face. Sap flows out again, more abundant, more fertile this time, filling his mouth with her feminine nectar.’ This is certainly going to make a lot of readers laugh out loud. The rest of his tryst with mythology is a hurriedly worded description of Lord Krishna giving Arjuna a glimpse of what is already destined. The mythology fever seems to pick up pace as the novel nears the concluding pages and gets firmly entangled with the multiplicity of religions that co-exist in India. There are some stereo-typed responses that are obviously a result of Manil knowing India more through the Bollywood movies than his annual short stays in Mumbai and other cities here.

I’ll tell you why I expected more and something different from Manil and why he just left me disappointed. I had read about his prowess in the field of numerical analysis and I had seen his presentations on infinity… so I expected the book to somehow weave in the mathematics of philosophy with the metaphysics of existence. He has certainly hobbled through the metaphysics of existence but the mathematics of philosophy is simply not there at all. Another problem with the book is that the characters seem too clinical and too deliberate… they adopt a characteristic simply because Manil wants them to go ahead and do something that only a person with this trait can do. Most of the male characters in the novel follow this dictum as they don’t have any defined path. Well, some may argue, life is like that… a mix of good, bad, and ugly… with a dash of unpredictability. True, but this doesn’t make us all go through life like undecided wimps.

The book is there in front of me as I write this review. I also know that his ‘The Age of Shiva’ is in the bookstores. I think I’ll go and buy it… I’d want to know if Manil’s writing instincts have evolved or not.

A book review by Arvind Passey
27 October 2010
© Arvind Passey