The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri
The Death of Vishnu

The Death of Vishnu

by Manil Suri


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A National Bestseller

"Enchanting…Suri’s novel achieves an eerie and memorable transcendence." —Time

In Manil Suri’s debut novel, Vishnu, the odd-job man, lies dying on the staircase of an apartment building while around him unfold the lives of its inhabitants: warring housewives, lovesick teenagers, a grieving widower. In a fevered state, Vishnu looks back on his love affair with the seductive Padmini and wonders if he might actually be the god Vishnu, guardian of the entire universe.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393342826
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 06/18/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Manil Suri is a distinguished mathematics professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Author of three acclaimed novels, including The Death of Vishnu, he is a former contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, for which he has written several widely read pieces on mathematics. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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, teakettle in hand. Vishnu lay sprawled on the stone, his figure aligned with the curve of the stairs. The laces of a pair of sneakers twined around the fingers of one hand; the other lay outstretched, as .if trying to pull his body up the next step. During the night, Mrs. Asrani noted with distress, Vishnu had not only thrown up, but also soiled himself. She had warned her neighbor, Mrs. Pathak, not to feed Vishnu when he was so sick, but did that woman ever listen? She tried not to look at the large stain spreading through the worn material of Vishnu's khaki pants, the ones that her husband had given him last Divali. Mat a mess-the jamadarni would have to be brought in to clean up such a mess, and it would not be free, either, someone would have to pay. Her large frame heaving against the sari in which it was swaddled, Mrs. Asrani peered at Vishnu from the safety of the third step and vowed it would not be her.

A more immediate problem had to be dealt with first-what to do about the cup of tea she brought Vishnu every morning? On the one hand, it was obvious that Vishnu did not have much need for tea right now. Even yesterday, he bad barely stirred when she had filled his plastic cup, and she had felt a flutter of resentment at not having received her usual salaam in return. On the other hand, giving tea to a dying man was surely a very propitious thing to do. Since she had taken this daily task upon herself, it would be foolish to stop now, when at most a few more cups could possibly be required. Besides,who knew what sort of repercussions would rain down upon her if she failed to fulfill this daily ritual?

Pressing the edge of her sari against her nose to keep out the smell, Mrs. Asrani descended gingerly to the landing. Using the scrap of brown paper she had brought along for the purpose, she fished out the cup from the small pile of belongings near Vishnu's head, taking care to always keep the paper between her fingers and the cup, so as not to infect herself with whatever he had. She placed the cup on the step above the landing and poured tea from the kettle. Hating the idea of good tea being wasted, she hesitated when the cup was half full, but only for a second, filling it to its usual level to fulfill her pledge. Then she ascended the steps and surveyed her handiwork. The cup lay steaming where she had left it-but now Vishnu looked like he was stretching out across the landing to try and reach it, like a man dead in the desert, grasping for the drink that could have saved him. She thought about moving the cup to correct this, but the scrap of paper she had used now lay on the landing, and she couldn't be sure which surface had touched the cup. There was nothing she could do anymore, so she turned and climbed up the remaining steps. At the door of her flat, it occurred to her that she still didn't know if Vishnu was alive or dead. But it didn't really matter, she had done her duty in either case. Satisfied, Mrs, Asrani entered her flat and closed the door behind her.

The stream rises lazily from the surface of the tea. It is thick with the aroma of boiled milk, streaked with the perfume of cardamom and clove. It wisps and curls and rises and falls, tracing letters from some fleeting alphabet.

A sudden gust leads it spiraling down to the motionless man. It reaches his face, almost invisible now, and wafts playfully under his nose. Surely the smells it carries awaken memories in the man. Memories of his mother in the tin-and-cardboard hut, brewing tea in the old iron kettle. She would squeeze and press at the leaves, and use them several times over, throwing them away only when no more flavor could be coaxed out. Memories of Padmini, the vapor still devoid of cardamom or clove, but smelling now of chameli flowers fastened like strings of pearls around her wrists. After they had made love, and if she did not have another person waiting, the tea would be carried in by one of the children at the brothel, and they would sit on the bed in silence and sip it from metal tumblers. Memories of Kavita, the steam finally milk-rich and perfumed, her long black tresses framing her smiling face as she bends to fill his cup. For almost a month last year while Mrs. Asrani was sick, it was her daughter Kavita who performed the daily ritual. Vishnu would scrape a broken comb through his knotted hair every morning and wait to deliver a toothy "Salaam, memsahib!" when she came, winking at her with his good eye.

All these memories and more the steam tries to evoke in the man. His mother discarding all her used leaves on festivals, even scooping out a few spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten the tea. Padmini pressing her lips against the metal rim, laughing as she offers him the tumbler stained with unnatural red. Kavita trying to keep her dupatta from falling off as she bends down, passing the kettle from hand to hand so as to not bum her fingers.

A breath of exhaled air emerges from the man's nostrils, fraying the steam into strands. The strands shimmer for a second, then fade away.

It had been almost eleven years now that Mrs. Asrani bad been bringing Vishnu his morning tea. Before that, it had been Tall Ganga for whom she had brought the tea, the old woman who had slept on the landing between the ground and first floors since as far back as anyone could remember. One day, Tall Ganga had announced to Mrs. Pathak and Mrs...

The Death of Vishnu. Copyright © by Manil Suri. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are Saying About This

Andrea Barrett

Sympathetic, penetrating, comic and moving, this fine and unusual first novel unexpectedly braids Hindu mythology and traditions...
—Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal

Reading Group Guide


A member of the Hindu trinity, the god Vishnu is the sustainer of the universe, the center between Brahma, the creator, and Shiva, the destroyer. However, in The Death of Vishnu, the title character is only an impoverished alcoholic who is dying on the stairwell while the residents of the building squabble over who will pay for the ambulance. And yet, perhaps there is much more to this Vishnu-just maybe, he is indeed the god Vishnu, the one who sustains the entire world.

The enormous implications of the answer to this question, and others raised in the novel, infuse its drama, comedy, and tragedy with a unique importance, a special gravity. Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani go to war over who is stealing butter in the kitchen. Mr. Jalal physically tortures himself in an obsessive search for an elusive faith, though he cannot fathom what the results will be when he reaches his goal. Kavita goes to great lengths to fashion her life after a heroine, any heroine, from the romantic world of Bombay cinema.

As the life of the building literally swirls around his body on the stairs, Vishnu's own life flashes before his eyes and takes him through the stages of life in the Hindu universe. Eventually he comes to the question: Am I an avatar of Vishnu? Am I one of his incarnations on earth, and if so, which one? Will a goddess be waiting for me on the other side? If not, will death be the end, or is another life waiting for me beyond the door at the top of the stairwell?

The novel takes place over a short period of time in the life of a Bombay apartment building. Through this window, we learn the stories of its residents and the forces that haveshaped their lives as Manil Suri creates an intimate and intricate portrait of life in a great Indian metropolis.

Discussion Questions
  • What was actually happening during Vishnu's out-of-body experience in the stairwell? Was this the dream of a dying man, informed by his experiences in life, or was it an authentic transition away from his body, in line with the Hindu concept of death? What evidence is there of either position?

  • As the only Muslim residents, the Jalal's are outsiders in the building, and are occasionally referred to with suspicion by the rest of the building and the neighborhood. They are also the most religiously fervent-demonstrated in Mrs. Jalal's piety and wish for her family to join her in religious observance, and in Mr. Jalal's enthusiastic conversion to a spiritual life. Is there a relationship between isolation and spirituality being drawn?

  • How are the Asranis and Pathaks different in this respect? Is their membership in the dominant Hindu culture the cause of their very different relationship to religion? Or, is that an unfair assessment of middle-class families struggling to do what they feel is right?

  • What resemblance does The Death of Vishnu bear to the works of other Indian authors you've read? How is it different? For instance, does it contain the qualities of "magical realism" found in Salman Rushdie's books?

  • Who is Padmini to Vishnu? Despite his unfailing devotion to her, he still laughs heartily at the absurdity of his own romantic fantasies when they steal the Jalal's car and drive to Lonavala. Was it physical attraction that kept him coming to her, or something else? Why was she so appealing to him right up until she disappeared from his life, even after he was overwhelmed by the absurdity of it all?

  • Why is Mr. Jalal obsessed with experiencing faith? The power of his yearning is stronger than the intellectual pursuits that drove his prior life, even leading him to acts of violence upon himself. Did his "awakening" represent an authentic change for him, or was his previous adherence to the doctrine of reason an equally faith-based position?

  • Why does Mr. Taneja mourn the loss of his wife for so many years? Do you think he should have given greater consideration to the marriage proposal he received while working for the social agency? He often seems to be above the anxieties of the other families in the building-is this because of his financial comfort, or his lack of a family to worry about, or simply his personality?

  • Kavita's final "performance" for the police investigator paints an unflattering, self-absorbed picture of her, one which is in line with the petty hostilities displayed between the Asranis and Pathaks throughout the novel. However she also does appear to have genuine sympathy for Vishnu-in fact she probably called upon those feelings in order to render her final performance more authentic. What criticism is being made of these rivaling families throughout the novel?

  • Does the conclusion of the novel give you the impression that it took place in a Hindu universe, or was the scene in the forest another aspect of Vishnu's dream? Is it a Hindu world, or is the recurrent Hindu mythology a mere vehicle for understanding the culture that the characters live within? Given that all of the action involving Vishnu takes place within a flashback, is it possible that the entire novel is his dream? Is he perhaps, like the god Vishnu, supporting the universe, by imagining it?

    About the Author: Manil Suri, born in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1959, studied mathematics at the University of Bombay, and later received his M.S. and Ph.D. at Carnegie-Mellon University. A professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, his work as a writer of fiction helps him cope with the "horror" of being a mathematician. As a cook and a painter he dispels the horror of being a writer. First excerpted in The New Yorker in 2000, The Death of Vishnu is his first novel.

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