'Death of Vishnu': cosmic caretaking

January 21, 2001|By Joan Mellen | By Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

"The Death of Vishnu," by Manil Suri. W. W. Norton. 295 pages. $24.95.

The fad for fiction from India by Indian writers beats on, the latest example being "The Death of Vishnu," by Manil Suri, a University of Maryland mathematics professor. For this first book, steeped in the requisite exoticism, W. W. Norton paid a whopping $350,000 advance. Rights were promptly sold to 13 countries and counting. The mathematics professor told Time magazine, modestly, that he did not see himself giving up his math.

In the current publishing environment, American authors of literary fiction are finding the pickings slim -- even when they have earned name recognition. Yet publishers in a spectacular failure of nerve are taking a breather from publishing those celebrity memoirs which rarely earn out their elephantine advances, not by returning to support of fine fiction, but by seizing on what they perceive as the next sure thing: writing -- good, bad or indifferent -- from India.

It began not with the universalist Salman Rushdie, but with "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy, which won the British Booker prize in 1997; a slew of imitators followed, among them Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy," and "Freedom Song: Three Novels" by Amit Chaudhuri, a nice example of juvenilia, but hardly deserving of the praise it garnered. "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. Works with titles like "Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee" have followed. Anything from India will, it appears, win the advances.

"The Death of Vishnu" is set in a Bombay apartment building. The servant who runs errands for the tenants is a homeless alcoholic named Vishnu, who, throughout the story, lies dying on the landing where he lives, to the utter indifference of all but one of the neighbors. None, however, is willing to pay for a hospital bed. Interspersed are flashbacks and visions, from Vishnu's childhood, and from Hindu mythology surrounding the figure of the god Vishnu, the preserver and caretaker of the universe. The irony is heavy handed.

With the familiar "The Women of Brewster Place" as one model, Suri cuts back and forth in short sections among the neighbors. Two petty couples, the Pathaks and the Asranis, squabble over a shared kitchen. A Muslim boy and Hindu girl elope, only to part within hours not out of religious differences, but those of class. A husband and wife, the Jalals, find themselves hopelessly incompatible, leading to the husband's crisis of faith, and the melee which is the novel's grand finale.

What sustains the fragmented narrative is the exoticism, the author's voyeuristic view of Indian-ness. The Muslim boy Salim is called an "eve-teaser." There are samosas and chili bhajias, everything spicy. The satire is predictable: a man who would martyr himself has no tolerance for pain. On the landing, in his death delirium, Vishnu recalls his childhood and concludes that he is the God Vishnu, 500 feet tall. Sheetal, a young wife on her deathbed, in an interpolated tale recounting the early life of the reclusive upstairs neighbor, the mysterious widower Vinod Taneja, wants to memorize a Bombay film so as to make it into "The Guinness Book of World Records." "The Death of Vishnu" is comic, absurd, faintly tragic. The mixture of tones is disconcerting.

Suri has written a book of some anthropological interest. It is not without humor. While "The Death of Vishnu" is very well written, it also reveals the structural hesitations of a first book. It is on the whole more sentimental than affecting. Other than its poking fun at the easy target of religious bigotry, its riffs on the god Vishnu seem more desperate than redolent of conviction. As for that advance, it seems preposterous.

Joan Mellen is working on a biography of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison. She is the author of 15 books, including a novel, three biographies and seven volumes of criticism. She is a professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she teaches in the graduate program in creative writing.

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