Beneath the garish and unpromising Bollywood poster on the cover of this novel is a debut of real ambition and accomplishment. Manil Suri, a Mumbai-born mathematics professor, has taken the rather stale device of viewing an apartment block as a microcosm of humanity and, breathing new life into the form, has produced a tragi-comic gem.
In the stairwell of a rundown apartment block in Mumbai (Bombay), a man lies dying. His name is Shiva and for 11 years he has lived on the stairs and been the unofficial odd-job person for the inhabitants, performing his sketchy duties with drunken ineptitude. Now he is visited by feverish visions of the prostitute Padmina, the love of his life, as the building’s residents pass and swirl about his immobile body.
Suri’s depiction of the apartment block as a bubbling cauldron of resentment, pettiness and suspicion is both acute and touching. We see the vituperative bickering of the Asrani and Pathak families, the religious mania of the Muslim Mr Jalal, and the plans of his son Salim to elope with Kavita, the daughter of the Hindu Asranis. The undercurrents of tension erupt when a transcendent Shiva ascends the steps of the building and rumours begin that he is a reincarnation of the god Shiva.
Moving easily from farce and humour to pathos and social comment, The Death of Vishnu is a compelling portrait of human folly and prejudice which, nevertheless, succeeds in leaving the reader with a profoundly humane and life-affirming message.