Slumdog Bombay, Coma, Bollywood and More
I had read 'Death of Vishnu' many years back, having purchased it a railway station to kill time on a boring journey across interior Maharashtra. I really loved it so much that I not only reviewed it for a book portal but also bought additional copies for many of my American clients who had a peculiar penchant for anything desi. Years later, I found it again yesterday at a small second-hand book joint and I couldn’t stop buying it again.
An outstanding debut novel that I am told has been translated into more than 20 foreign languages, ‘Death of Vishnu’ beautifully depicts the last few hours of a dying alcoholic mixing Indian mythology with archetypal cultural flavours that can only be experienced in India. Speed read a few pages and the title of Manil Suri's first novel gets right to the point. The central character – Vishnu, having procured the right to sleep on the ground floor landing of an emblematic Bombay apartment, lies dying slowly slipping from a coma into the inevitable death. As our blacked out hero departs from his earthly abode, the apartment dwellers surround him, arguing over who gave him a few dried chapattis, who called the doctor and who will pay for the ambulance to lug him away.
Manil Suri, the author who was named a “Person to Watch” in 2000 by Time magazine brings Mumbai to life in its frenzied dissonance of sounds and smells, mapping the path of the human spirit from birth until death in a very inimitable method blending subtle comedy and tragedy. Suri skillfully paints daily life in a crowded apartment building, complete with joys and sorrows, neighbourly petty disputes and small wars over water and the shared kitchen, adolescent lovers and anguished widowers. His wonderfully drawn characters cover a wide range of human emotions and possibilities but never seem two-dimensional.
Suri also infuses his story with the sights, sounds, smells and tastes, so distinct of India. Whether it is the Cigarettewalla with his radio playing desi music, eating ripe mangoes, gulab jamuns or the cacophonic soundtrack to an Indian film, Suri creates sensory snapshots that stay and linger in the mind throughout the story and beyond. If you like this, also read the “Age of Shiva” from the same author.