Life has no message: only mess

The Death of Vishnu

If you want a novel which wilfully mystifies far-off places to make the middle classes think their reading tastes are exotic—think by authors like McCall Smith—then look for one whose quoted reviews talk of "characters smell[ing] of cardamom and clove." Such books wear their broadmindedness heavily, patronising reader and subject alike, adding layers of sensual description until there remain no hard edges. in the story. Even native authors are not immune, so it's a relief to find, after Meera Syal's comments on the back of the book, that Suri's inventions actually smell of body odour, fear, tobacco and worse: Vishnu has soiled himself before the end of the first page. And the cast of The Death of Vishnu live their lives through prose so bare and unpurpled that*#x2014;blissfully—at times the barrier of the printed page is almost invisible.

Vishnu's gradual decline, afflicted as he is by an illness too costly for the other characters—residents on the staircase for which he is the half-hearted, incidental caretaker—to treat, prompts flashbacks to the past and hallucinations in the present. On the rickety structure of a dying man's feverish thoughts hangs the rest of the novel: the lives of the other residents; their romantic, comedic, tragic or tawdry pasts; their intrigues and scheming with or against each other.

Is Vishnu transcending his body, to walk among them while he also lies on the stairs in a fever? Or does he dream his own ascendence, from storey to storey, towards what he imagines to be his fellow gods? No matter, as his knight's tour of the many rooms permits revelations about others, just as his own life is revealed through reminiscence. Meanwhile, the stories and plots accrete and silt upon each other, rather than being constructed, from page to page. Accumulating in this way, many are ultimately untidy and incomplete: whether a story resolves or not; whether a grief is fully assuaged or remains raw; whether a goal of social advancement is achieved, thwarted, or merely chased from chapter to chapter; seems entirely coincidental. Only Vishnu's personal arc properly finishes its span, far beyond life and death.

Maybe that's the point: that other people's stories are always partly ineffable, half finished or half begun with no concern of our own coming or going in the narrative. We pretend others' lives can be neatly framed by the novel—indeed, Vishnu's dying brain tries and ultimately fails to frame his own life as a film, watched by one-time lover Padmini—but only bear full witness to the full cycle of our own. Syal was right, at least, to say that The Death of Vishnu is "a love letter to Bombay and its people;" but what that letter really says to the beloved, we outsiders can only hope to overhear.