24 February, 2002

The Death of Vishnu

By Sushma Joshi
The Kathmandu Post, 24 Feb 2002

A man lies dying on the stairwell of a crumbling tenement house in Bombay. The twisted plot of The Death of Vishnu, mathematics professor Manil Suri’s creation, originates out of that, spiraling like a stairway into social realism and the myths of Bollywood. Drawing from the non-linear genre of Bombay film scripts, and the hyper-linked, multi-plot structure of Hindu mythology, the story works its way slowly but inevitably into the unforgiving politics of religious violence and communalism that dominates the politics of contemporary India.

While Vishnu lies delirious, in the throes of his last sexual fantasies before death, two Hindu neighbors play out their day to day rivalries and petty jealousies on his dying body, quarreling over who should pay for the ambulance. This middle class struggle is just another in a long tradition of jealousies and fights in their shared kitchen. Their husbands, meanwhile, ineffectually try to organize themselves into an alternate power bloc. A third neighbor, a religious Muslim woman, watches her husband helplessly while he turns into a celibate ascetic. The fourth, a Parsi widower, cannot forget his dead wife as he watches his life spin around and around like the record from an old movie. In the middle of all this, two teenagers play out their inter-religious romance, benignly unaware of the consequences. All these lives are tied together by the thread of two common denominators - Vishnu and Ganga, the domestics, who become privy to their most mundane habits. All four families, coming from different religious backgrounds and co-existing as neighbors, are ultimately brought together to a point where their private conflicts merges with the public violence of communal politics, forcing them to encounter their most entrenched prejudices.

The story is made up of exquisite little snapshots, in surreal Technicolor. Like the films of the Bombay film industry, the vignettes can seem vicarious and unrelated, but one realizes at the end that they are all part of the bigger scheme of things. Some of the writing is too processed, too colorful, like the orange American Kraft cheese that Mrs. Jalal serves to her guests to impress them, and yet it serves its function.

This is no neat math problem with an easy answer. Like the complexities of urban India, the story operates on many levels. The death of Vishnu becomes a metaphor for the death of other institutions - the death of religious harmony, the death of civic responsibility, the death of middle class co-existence in the age of globalization. With the death of Vishnu, named after the preserver in the Hindu trinity, life plunges straight into the chaos of destruction.

The riots against Muslims, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the increasing spread of a religious nationalist agenda from the Hindu Right has been a sobering reminder of how the ideal of a secular state has come under attack in contemporary India. The chilling finality of the ending, closing the book with a proof that is almost mathematical in its inevitability, remind us that the contemporary politics of Bombay, with its increasingly divisive ethnic and religious agenda, can insert itself very quickly and with devastating consequences from the public to the private domain. Vishnu, the god of preservation and love, can only die quietly on the stairwell when this happens.