Friday, March 01, 2013

Reflections: The Death of Vishnu

Vishnu is a homeless man taking refuge in the first-floor landing of a middle-class apartment in Bombay. Thanks to the odd-jobs he does for the people in the apartment, he scrapes his way through life, barely living, but surviving. Now, he lies dying on the stairs. As the families in the apartment steadfastly neglect and wish him away from the stairs, Vishnu’s life flashes past him as a series of delirious visions that mingle and move in and out of the happenings in the apartment. Reality and delusion often thread in and out, and that’s a major theme of the novel. What’s an illusion, what’s reality, what’s faith, what’s reason, what’s ideal, what’s foolish etc. It’s a novel that brings out several different facets of middle-class life in Bombay with all the communal unison and rifts, disparities and equalities, cooperation and tension, prejudices and biases, superstitions and myths. Weaved into all this is a thread of spirituality and mythology that evokes questions on the bigger significance of life, and how we make sense of it. Is God, the powerful energy of creation, really within each of us? Even within a homeless, hopeless, miserable, pitiable man like Vishnu? What does it mean for this energy to be indestructible?

Too many themes, too many words, too many contradictory terms? True. There’s a lot going on. But it is a compelling and easy read that slips into several layers of meaning, if one is inclined to go into such depths. I love Manil Suri’s writing. It is one of the most captivating and beautiful styles that I have read. I gushed quite a bit on his other novel (Age of Shiva), and the same sentiments hold true with this book. I read it in two sittings, foregoing sleep and everything else because I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the words. It’s haunting, alluring, and incredibly sensitive. With his words, Suri touches on just the right notes of his characters’ emotions, and accurately taps on the pulse of their psyche. He hits the right chords deep within you to be able to recognize and understand all the flaws, the absurdities, and sentiments of his characters from. It’s his ability to evoke that deep lingering feeling of poignancy and even nostalgia, that makes his writing special to me.

None of his characters are particularly likeable, but the details and idiosyncrasies of his characters, even if they be unsympathetic, lend so much flavor and realism. All that said,  the story by itself is made to hang in an ambiguous, unfinished state. That’s probably because this is not meant to be a story with an ending. Just like all stories and experiences in life, the story never really ends or begins at a certain point, because there is always a past and always a future until time ceases to exist. So, Suri subtly gets into these philosophical, meta-spiritual levels and leaves the interpretations and symbolism to the reader (examples: the apartment could be seen as the human spirit. The lowest floor signifies baser instincts, the intermediate floor shows the ascent of the spirit through its tussle between faith and reason/intellect, and finally the highest floor marks the graduation of the soul to renunciate, self-actualize, and self-realize. And what awaits in the terrace/roof? That’s up to you). This sometimes makes the novel vague, because most of the social themes just float alongside the spiritual symbols, and the two don’t always come together. Besides, if one is not an Indian, I doubt if some of the social (or mythological) elements would make sense without much elaboration. For example, I thought the characters were developed realistically and thoughtfully, but I can understand how some would find them to be abominable caricatures, because there isn’t enough context to explain their motivations. Too many things are deep-rooted in India. The complexities aren’t always brought to the surface for a non-Indian to understand and appreciate.

It was indeed ambitious of the author to tackle so many disparate and few interconnected themes through one novel. If you expect to find a “tapestry” that arranges and hems all these themes into patterns, you would be disappointed. Everything is sown in subtle stitches that barely hold together. The reader is expected to feel the stitches and decide how the pattern should be. It would have been so much better if Suri had focused on a few themes, particularly through the lens of spirituality/mythology that dominates the book. I’m also not convinced if so many mythological elements juxtaposed alongside social themes add any value to his novels. Regardless, being an Indian who could perfectly understand the underpinnings and roots of these themes, I enjoyed reading the book. The writing was my hook. I’m addicted to the words, and perhaps biased because of it. If you think sentences such as this: “Perfumes perch along the periphery of his perception, flitting away at his approach”, is interesting and even beautiful, you would appreciate the book. If not, I’m not sure the book would sustain your interest. 

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