Novel of the week

The Death of Vishnu

Manil Suri <em>Bloomsbury, 256pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 0747552703

Manil Suri's first novel blends satire and spirituality to depict the lives of the residents of a Bombay apartment block. Vishnu, the handyman, lies dying on a landing; the other tenants, meanwhile, are too embroiled in a feud over suspected food pilferage to agree to pay his medical fees. The opening sentence mimics their hypocritical callousness: "Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, tea kettle in hand."

On one level, the novel is a savage yet hilarious anatomy of a society in which charitable gestures are complacently self-serving, destitution is accepted as part of the unchanging "scheme of things", and the misery of others represents an opportunity for exploitation.

The dying man's thoughts return obsessively to his sensual pleasure in his beloved. These erotic interludes symbolise the frustration of earthly attachments, but nevertheless have an intensity alien to the grotesque, warring neighbours. The interludes may also have a more spiritual significance: Vishnu has a number of visions of transcendent union.

The tone in which Suri writes of the Jalals, the Muslims upstairs, is less certain. Mr Jalal is a sceptic tormented by a desire for faith, and a coward who courts martyrdom. In a comically anachronistic pursuit of enlightenment, he submits himself to deprivation and, for his pains, is granted a vision of the divine nature of Vishnu. (The god Vishnu is a member of the Hindu trinity, and is said to have descended to earth in a number of avatars.) Vishnu's putative divinity perhaps serves as a metaphor for the Hindu sense that our essence partakes of the infinite, as part of a supreme universal spirit. The novel remains tantalisingly inconclusive on the subject of whether his divinity is metaphoric or actual. Vishnu feels his consciousness detach itself from his body, but is powerless to change events.

Mr Jalal seeks to spread the message that Vishnu is a god, but instead provokes a communal riot; while he hangs from the building in flight from his attackers, the narrative unaccountably turns to the story of Vinod Taneja, who lives above. Suri recounts the blossoming of Taneja's love for his wife, his grief at her early death, the widower's pursuit of meaning in good works and religion - which echoes, in a less frivolous vein, Jalal's quest - and his ultimate attainment of tranquillity.

The Bombay setting and diversity of incident inevitably invite comparison with the work of Salman Rushdie, but Rushdie is a more cosmopolitan and secular writer than Suri - and his novels more readily satisfy our formal expectations. Suri describes his novel in terms of a religious fable, with each floor of the house representing a stage on the jour- ney through attachment to the next level of enlightenment. V S Naipaul has argued that the novel is "part of that western concern with the condition of men, a response to the here and now", while Indians prefer to satisfy "the basic human hunger for the unseen". The Death of Vishnu may well bear out his contention.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up