The Death of Vishnu
In recent years, most of the bad news from India has been supplied by Bombay. Once set apart from India by its metropolitan glamour and affluence and efficiency, this overbuilt island city is now host to all the great Indian problems: apart from overpopulation and poverty, it has an aggressively selfish Hindu middle class, a resentful minority of Muslims, an omnipresent mafia, religious fanatics, corrupt politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats, and a growing number of AIDS cases. Not surprisingly, the myth of Bombay’s decay has spread fast; the idea that Bombay was once a great cosmopolitan city and is now falling apart has become a commonplace.
Decay, however, has always been a much longer process in the Indian subcontinent; and it will take its time in Bombay, which remains the financial and cultural capital of India, the site of Bollywood as well as of India’s major stock exchange. In the meantime, life goes on, and people still have to work and love and dream.
This, at any rate, is the lesson offered by a remarkable recent collection of stories set in Bombay.1 The author, Vikram Chandra, spends much of his time in the city where his mother is a screenwriter of Hindi films; and his stylish stories about, among others, a computer programmer, an upstart socialite, and a policeman show a quick intimacy with the city and its diverse peoples, an intimacy which results in a refusal to judge, and a wish to find grace and skill and emotion in what others might see as the shabbiness and brutality of Bombay.
The longest of these stories follows a Sikh policeman called Sartaj who is investigating a murder while going through a painful divorce. His loneliness is drawn sympathetically—Chandra adapts quickly to the moods of his characters—but at one point we almost turn away from him when we see him provoked into assaulting a suspect in custody:
Sartaj felt in his arms a painful pulsing of blood. He took the patta, turned around, and with all the swing in his shoulder brought the strap up and around and onto Kshitij’s buttocks. And then again. The sound it made was like two flat pieces of wood dashing together.
It sounds like an appalling moment, but only because it has been extracted from the vigorous flow of the narrative. For, as witnesses of the scene, we stay close to Sartaj’s feelings of weariness and faint disgust. So deeply has Chandra taken the reader into Sartaj’s sense of alienation, his vision of a vast city full of the vaguely menacing mess of human lives, that the fact of torture remains for the reader what it is to Sartaj: an ordinary, almost banal, aspect of Indian life.
Chandra’s preoccupation with capturing the energy and emotion of the scene, his unwillingness to surmount it with explanation or judgment, makes him resemble the hard-boiled American novelists of the 1930s—the “poets of the tabloid murder,” as Edmund Wilson once called them. But what looks like a tough-guy pose actually expresses an uncynical acceptance of Bombay as a whole world in itself, so self-contained that it neither desires nor is in need of external assessment; it speaks of the confidence of the metropolitan writer, fully at home in his city, and perennially alert to its zestful possibilities.
In this, Chandra couldn’t be more different from Rohinton Mistry, another writer from Bombay, whose novels Such a Long Journey (1991) and A Fine Balance (1995)2 offer an unremittingly bleak account of the city of his childhood. But then Mistry, who has lived in Canada for the past two decades, brings to Bombay the critical eye of the expatriate. His vision has been refined by contact with the liberalism and humanism of countries more organized and egalitarian than India; it has been sensitized to injustice and cruelty—the same expatriate’s vision that came to Gandhi during his two decades outside India and made him the most devastating critic of Indian society in his time.
It is also what you find in a recent Indian-American writer like Akhil Sharma, whose first novel, An Obedient Father (2000),3 while describing the life of a corrupt government official, manages to detail the various breakdowns—moral, cultural, economic—that have occurred in North India since independence. Sharma spent part of his childhood in India, and is now an investment banker in New York. He belongs to the young, highly educated second and third generations of Indians in North America—a community which is distant enough from its ancestral country to be able to look at it afresh, and from which you expect more such precise moral histories of India as An Obedient Father and Such a Long Journey to emerge.
At forty, Manil Suri is a few years older than Sharma and Jhumpa Lahiri, another Indian-American writer, whose Interpreter of Maladies has received considerable attention in the US. But, like them, he has lived most of his adult life in the United States; he is now a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland. His first novel, The Death of Vishnu, portrays the lives of the middle-class residents of a building in suburban Bombay. He doesn’t specify what period the novel is set in, but the titles of Hindi films he scatters throughout it hint at the 1970s, which is also the time Suri lived in Bombay, in a residential building quite like the one he describes.
The novel begins with an odd-job servant called Vishnu dying on the ground floor landing. For several years he has performed little chores for everyone in the building, but his infirmity has now made him a nuisance. The first pages describe the resentment and fear the residents of the building feel toward him, and each other; and very soon you come across a scene involving Vishnu and Kavita, the young daughter of the Asranis, one of the two quarrelsome Hindu families living on the first floor.
Vishnu has known Kavita since she was a child, when she would come down the stairs on the night of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, to play with him. But then she grows up; she no longer sets off firecrackers on Diwali; she starts wearing a sari and high heels; and she barely acknowledges Vishnu as she trails “a group of laughing friends, their perfume sweet in the landing air.” Then, one day, he calls her name out loud as she goes past him on the stairs. She stops, “as surely as if he has physically intercepted her”; and then corrects him:
“Kavita memsahib!” she says, and looks at him daringly, to see if he will contradict her. Her hands are on her hips, and Vishnu can see the skin of her midriff exposed between her blouse and petticoat.
Vishnu looks into her face, past the defiance, and is struck by her vulnerability. His need to touch her has never been stronger. “Kavita memsahib,” he whispers, and folds his straying hands together.
Delight springs to her eyes. She turns from him to hide her smile. “Salaam, memsahib!” Vishnu salutes, as Kavita raises her head, tosses her hair, and begins to ascend the stairs triumphantly.
The forgotten servant longing to reclaim the intimacies of childhood; the grown-up child insisting on the hierarchies of the adult world (“Memsahib” was the Indian honorific for white women during colonial times)—the mix of melodrama and unselfconscious cruelty, so ubiquitous in Indian middle-class life, is as finely measured here as in the rest of Suri’s novel.
You see it again as the Asranis and their neighbors, the Pathaks, debate whether or not to call an ambulance for Vishnu. And it gets worse. When Vishnu soils himself, Mrs. Pathak gets the local scavenger to clean up the mess only because she is hosting a “kitty party” for her card-playing girlfriends. The Asranis and Pathaks reluctantly agree to split the cost of the ambulance, but won’t pay for Vishnu’s hospitalization, and so the ambulance goes back without Vishnu. They also turn down a proposal by the Jalals, the Muslim couple on the second floor, to have Vishnu looked after by a Muslim charity, fearing that he might be forced to convert to Islam. Mrs. Asrani tries to bully her daughter, Kavita, into an arranged marriage; but Kavita decides to spite her by eloping with Salim, the Jalals’ son. The Hindus around the building launch a murderous assault on the Jalals, suspecting them of having kidnapped Kavita. On the last pages of the book, Kavita abandons her Muslim boyfriend midway through their elopement and becomes a fluent liar before the police in order to clear the Hindus of complicity in the attack upon the Jalals.
The crude prejudice, the ignorance, the mutual suspicion, and the near total lack of charity—all these deeply unattractive aspects of daily life in urban India are apparent to Suri’s expatriate eye. His achievement lies in creating a kind of poignant comedy out of them, out of the superseded world of his childhood, without lapsing into caricature or snobbery. Certainly, it is not hard to mock someone like Mrs. Pathak, the overeager host of kitty parties; but Suri’s empathy with his characters rarely falters.
Mrs. Pathak had been assured by her mother that she was “destined to marry into riches, a bungalow and car”; but has ended up “at forty-three, with two children…, living in a two-room flat with not even her own kitchen.” She wishes to impress her kitty-party guests with “foreign” snacks and after a failed attempt at making “Russian-salad samosas” she opens the cupboard where her valuables are kept and pulls out a tin of Kraft cheese:
“Kraft” it said, in letters so proudly red and yellow against the bright blue curve of the tin that they practically screamed “Imported,” practically screamed “American.” (In fact, weren’t red and blue the colors of the American flag?) She had been saving it ever since her cousin had brought it for her from his trip abroad—if ever there was a time to use it, it was now.
Unfortunately, the much-cherished cubes of cheese end up being spilled onto the floor during a fierce argument with the Asranis over the issue of the ambulance. But then Mrs. Pathak spots a piece of cheese that has been flattened under the sandals of one of her more snobbish girlfriends:
She looked at it in her palm, as she would an injured bird that needed nursing back to health. “Pay him,” she said tonelessly to Mr. Pathak, pressing the cheese with her fingers to coax it into a cube.
There is more than comedy here; there is the pathos of a borrowed modernity and a certain rawness and vulnerability of character, commonly found in urban India, which, though modern in appearance, is still overwhelmingly inhabited by people only recently separated from their roots in the countryside, from old networks of loyalty and affection. These are people who have been thrown together by economic urgencies, and who haven’t yet found new ways of relating to each other, or indeed of defining themselves—ways of self-knowledge and communication that aren’t just new versions of the old prejudices and prohibitions of the communities they originally belonged to.
To attempt to be an individual in these circumstances, to attempt to break out of ancestral taboos, is a risky undertaking, as the example of Mr. Jalal demonstrates. Much to the alarm of his wife, who is a fervent believer, Mr. Jalal’s spiritual curiosity takes him far away from the Koran. But his dabblings in Hinduism, which include sleeping next to the dying Vishnu, are horribly misunderstood by everyone around him; they eventually lead to his degradation at the hands of a Hindu mob.
Suri never really loses sight of how tragically absurd aspirations for individuality and distinction can be in a limited, unresponsive world. His compassion for Mr. Jalal, an imperfect Muslim among hostile Hindus, is clear; so is his feeling for the reclusive widower on the third and topmost floor, Vinod Taneja. Taneja appears after almost two thirds of the book is over, but he quickly holds our attention, along with his dead wife, Sheetal, who, while daily dwindling with cancer, had attempted to get into The Guinness Book of World Records by memorizing the dialogue of a whole film.
Although equally sympathetic to Vishnu, Suri is less certain about what to do with him. For much of the first half of the book, he shows Vishnu remembering his life: the fables told to him by his mother; his adventures, many of them sexual, with Padmini, a prostitute. The reminiscences are full of the color and bustle of urban India, but there appears to be no pattern to them, except a generalized sense of nostalgia and loss; and for much of this half of the book Vishnu stays comatose in the margins of the reader’s mind.
It is only after the rest of his characters are in place that Suri turns toward him, and then we see Vishnu unexpectedly acquiring spiritual ambitions. Among other things, Vishnu begins wondering in his delirious state whether he is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the greatest of Hindu gods, the guardian of the universe, etc.:
I am Kalki, the white horse of Vishnu. His final avatar is known by my name. From the heavens I descend with Vishnu to gallop across the waning days.
In the same delirium, Vishnu imagines himself slowly ascending to the top of the building and meeting Lord Vishnu’s various consorts and incarnations:
The answer, he is convinced, is waiting at the top. He does not know exactly what he will find there. Perhaps the white horse, who will thunder away somewhere with him. Perhaps Lakshmi, who will transfer to him the energy that he needs from her own body. Perhaps Krishna, whose flute-playing will invigorate him.
Up to this point the building, with its social and religious conflicts, has been a kind of metaphor for India. Now, as Vishnu dreams of climbing to the top, the novel takes on the more ambitious aspect of a parable, with the unabashedly materialist Asranis and Pathaks on the first floor, Mr. Jalal, the fervent seeker, on the second, the introverted Taneja on the third, and the gods on the top. The building becomes a model for the spiritual evolution of mankind.
But this sounds too neat: you suspect the mathematician at work here. The imposing of such a grand metaphorical pattern onto the novel’s patchwork quilt of lived life is a bit jarring. It undermines the comedy and it further blurs Vishnu. This is particularly disappointing because before Suri deified him and spiced up his dreams, Vishnu has expressed enough human desires and disappointments to provoke your curiosity about him. There is a scene early in the book which describes Vishnu and Padmini, his prostitute consort, in Lonavala, a hill station near Bombay much frequented by young couples:
For a moment, Vishnu thinks that here they are, the two of them, or maybe a family of three. They have come up to Lonavala, like other people, for a long-awaited holiday. Back in Bombay, they are a real couple, and real lives await them. Not rich ones, necessarily, just ordinary lives. A flat or even only a room, with a cupboard and a bed. A toilet that is probably shared, a kerosene stove like the one his mother had. An address and a ration card, a postman who brings them mail. A job to go to every morning, a woman to whom he is wed.
Despite the sentimentality, it is a very moving moment: a reminder of how much Vishnu’s life as a lowly servant is a grim prison. Vishnu himself knows how hopeless the idea of escape is: he quickly wakes up to the “preposterousness of his images, the foolishness of his feelings,” and he laughs at the absurdity of his longings for the small joys of a middle-class life in Bombay.
It is his rigorous self-awareness at this moment that make his later fantasies so unconvincing. The pre-fab daydreams Suri burdens him with toward the end of the novel may seem like Vishnu’s way of escaping the desolation of both his life and death. As it turns out, it is Suri who manages to avoid a clear-eyed reckoning with Vishnu’s fate, and not Vishnu, who, once robbed of his human subjectivity, goes back to being a menial, easily bullied into carrying the load of other people’s ideas and obsessions: the long vision of chaos and destruction in North India which Suri grafts onto Vishnu illustrates little more than Suri’s own aversion to Hindu chauvinism. And Vishnu’s dreams of Hindi films and mangoes—“Mangoes. So full, so sweet, so scented, the oranges and yellows of sunlight. So this is the food gods get offered, Vishnu thinks. Ah, mangoes”—seem to come straight out of Suri’s own expatriate’s nostalgia for India.
In the end, Vishnu does get to the top of the building in his delirium, but runs into Yama, the god of death, there. It is only in the afterlife that he meets Krishna, the blue-skinned, flute-playing boy-god he has fantasized about; and things don’t turn out the way he had expected.
The boy raises the flute. “You must be tired. Tonight I will play for you. Tonight, you can rest.” He puts the flute to his mouth.
And tomorrow?” Vishnu asks.
“Tomorrow, you go back,” the boy says, and Vishnu hears the notes start up again.
You get out of a hard mean life only to be confronted with the prospect of reincarnation: this is the final comic irony of the novel. But the invitation to read The Death of Vishnu as a philosophical fable—about a world where everyone is forced to act out the roles prescribed by fate until they die, after which they start all over again—comes too late. We have stayed too long in the real world it describes to begin wondering about reincarnation and karma, to start looking up the Bhagavad-Gita, from which Suri draws most of the spiritual-philosophical speculation in his novel. Brilliantly ironic and unillusioned for the most part, The Death of Vishnu ends mystically, its precise realism abruptly blurred by the spiritual metaphors on the last pages. It remains, nevertheless, a considerable achievement, and shows what a writer working with memory, moral vision, an instinct for comedy, and technical skills can do, even as he remains somewhat uncertain about the larger significance of his material.