News & Politics

The Death of Vishnu

Novel of India written “with mathematical precision . . . surprising poetry.”

Throughout Suri’s first novel, the central character, Vishnu, lies dying on the landing of a Bombay apartment building. Around him swirl his neighbors’ accusations: The Pathaks and the Asranis quarrel over who should pay for an ambulance, and both Hindu families direct their anger upstairs at the Muslim Jalals when the Asranis’ daughter disappears with the Jalals’ son. When Mr. Jalal—whose quest for spirituality takes him through the holy books of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam—has an apocalyptic vision of Vishnu as a god and appoints himself evangelist to his outraged neighbors, the arguing reaches a fever pitch.

Suri—who lives in Silver Spring and teaches math at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County—writes with mathematical precision, crafting images of surprising poetry, as in this flashback: “Vishnu came up after everyone had left, to find Nathuram fast asleep, the radio still on in his arms, waves of static whooshing through the landing like an ethereal tide.”

Visions and sensations pass through Vishnu’s dying dreams: the prostitute Padmini’s body covered with pulpy mango juice, the scent of cardamom-scented milk tea, the sound of rain pouring outside a hut as Vishnu’s mother regales him with stories of the Hindu gods’ aquatic incarnations. His life becomes a vivid pattern of images that emanate sensuality and earthly pleasure.

While Vishnu’s neighbors’ fights keep them earthbound, Vishnu’s soul pulls itself free of his body and ascends the staircase. Is there, as Mr. Jalal suggests, “something holy, something exalted, about being so close to death”?

Manil Suri

W.W. Norton