Stairway to Heaven

Manil Suri’s oddly compelling first novel so clearly has the structure of an allegory that sensible readers, weary of overambitious debuts, might be tempted to avoid it. That would be a mistake. The Death of Vishnu opens on the first-floor landing of a Bombay apartment building, where a beggar named after the sun god Vishnu lies dying. One of the two feuding middle-aged ladies who live on the first floor, the graying Mrs. Asrani, occasionally brings him tea, more to assuage her conscience than out of real concern; Mrs. Pathak from across the hall similarly offers gifts of stale food. (She’s aging better than Mrs. Asrani, who’s been accusing her of stealing ghee from their shared kitchen. She is.) On the second floor live the Jalals, an estranged Muslim couple – she’s devout; he’s an ardent rationalist – whose son, Salim, is secretly planning to elope with the beautiful young Kavita Asrani from downstairs, a girl whose ideas about life are derived entirely, hilariously, from schlocky movie musicals. (When Kavita shows up at their rendezvous on the appointed night, Salim asks where her luggage is. “Why would I need anything when I have you?” she replies.) And on the third floor lives the reclusive Mr. Taneja, a middle-aged man whose perpetual mourning for his long-dead wife has taken the form of an almost complete withdrawal from everyday life. In his final hours, Vishnu imagines himself to be ascending the steps of the building: a symbol of a great spiritual journey from the material pettiness of the first floor to the spiritual confusion of the second to the self-sufficient abnegation of the third and, presumably, best. (Mr. Taneja’s first name, Vinod, means “happiness.”)

But if it doesn’t take long to realize that the apartment building, with its feuding neighbors – religious fanatics and skeptics, beggars and businessmen, Muslims and Hindus, traditional wives and would-be movie stars – is meant as a symbol for Indian culture itself, with its delicate balances between the past and the present, religious and secular culture, the desire to change and the paralyzing “loom of inertia,” then it’s equally clear that Suri is a writer of vivid gifts. His larger thematic preoccupations are balanced by seductively beautiful prose and, particularly, a way with drawing nuanced and poignantly flawed characters. This isn’t one of those novels of big ideas where the ideas overwhelm the novel.

What Suri’s book does so well, in fact, is to show you how densely and sometimes disastrously intertwined big and small things, large historical currents and individual actions are. Not much happens in The Death of Vishnu: The Asranis and Pathaks quarrel over who ought to call an ambulance for Vishnu; Kavita elopes but comes back; the dying Vishnu has flashbacks to his childhood and a passionate love affair with a prostitute; the Hindu neighbors, outraged over the “abduction” of Kavita, incite a riot against the Jalals. But by the time the novel is over, we’ve seen how small irruptions of human weakness, no less than gigantic cultural fissures, can change everything.

On the one hand, you could say that what brings the carefully balanced world of the apartment building down at the climax of the book is contemporary culture itself – symbolized here by the movies that Kavita’s infatuated with. (The only material result of her silly cinematic plan to run away – she returns the next day, traumatized by a glimpse of an impoverished young mother on the train – is the book’s climactic act of violence.) But Suri knows that there’s no historical event without its small and poignantly human trigger. And so we see how the vain Mr. Pathak, henpecked at home and, perhaps for that reason, eager to whip up the neighbors against the Jalals, knows that the riot is wrong – but is “loath to relinquish the position of leadership” that his new role as rabble rouser gives him.

As a foil to such small but momentous human foibles, the author weaves in various characters’ attempts to find some higher meaning. Mr. Jalal, the longtime atheist, begins experimenting with self-flagellation, and by the end of the book believes that the dying man at the foot of the stairs is the god Vishnu; Mr. Taneja copes with his grief by focusing on the word om. The difficult search for something beyond the ordinary is the novel’s religious allegory, symbolized by Vishnu’s ascent up the stairs. (Mr. Jalal also tries to climb – literally – as high as Mr. Taneja’s apartment, but falls off the balcony. It’s worth noting that only the men are preoccupied to any significant degree with the higher planes. As much as I liked this book, I can’t help wondering what woman readers will make of Suri’s treatment of his female characters, who are either waspish or vacuous.)

All these big ideas are stimulating, but they wouldn’t be worth thinking about if it weren’t for the impressive delicacy of small things in Suri’s writing. From the first arresting line, which, characteristically, underscores a character’s pettiness even as it seems to forgive it (“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”), it’s clear that this is a particularly assured and stylish writer. I’ve complained in the past about the annoying, effortful faux lyricism, unchecked by any apparent editorial intervention, that has marked a lot of recent literary debuts; Suri reminds you what the real thing feels like. This author’s metaphors call attention not to themselves and their own cleverness but, properly, to the thing they’re describing. The morning sunlight passing through Vishnu’s closed lids “whispers to him in red”; vain Mrs. Pathak, preparing some special treats with which she hopes to impress a wealthy hostess, “petted some of the samosas encouragingly with her ladle”; Mr. Jalal wakes from a slumber filled with unexpected religious visions “looking as disoriented as an insect emerging from its pupa.”

Such moments of lyric intensity aren’t gratuitous. They delineate, with noteworthy economy, intricately flawed yet somehow utterly winning characters. The way in which Mrs. Pathak lovingly pets her samosas tells you more about her social aspirations than any number of pages of clunky exposition could.

It’s less of a complaint than a tribute to Suri’s artistry and deeply humane vision that perhaps the least compelling thing in his book is the death of Vishnu itself. This is partly because Vishnu isn’t all that textured; he can’t compete with Mrs. Pathak, as far as I’m concerned. But that’s not entirely Suri’s fault: Vishnu’s climactic reveries are clearly so bound up in the arcana of Hindu mythology that anyone not terribly familiar with it is likely to miss the significance of the visions that present themselves to his dying eyes (if not of his final vision, which suggests that he has in fact died and will be reborn). But you don’t need to be an expert on Indian religion to feel the impact of just about everything else that has happened by the time this novel is over. For that, you merely need to be what this author and his creations so richly and memorably are, and what his book, whatever its heavenly preoccupations, fiercely esteems: human.

The Death of Vishnu
By Manil Suri.
Norton; 298 pages; $24.95.

Stairway to Heaven