Vishnu, like the Vishnu of Hindu mythology, is a caretaker. He does odd jobs for the residents of an apartment building in Bombay in return for a space on the landing to sleep. But Vishnu hasn't been much help as of late. He lays dying on the steps of the building, unresponsive to the comings and goings of the residents.
The husbands of the first floor, after much debate over whose responsibility the dying Vishnu is, call for an ambulance to carry him away. It is when the ambulance arrives at the building that Suri got stuck in the writing of the novel.
'The ambulance person had to come and I just could not figure out why he would not take Vishnu with him. And of course if he took him with him that would be the end of the story,' Suri says.
The resolution, Suri concedes, was simpler than he expected. When the ambulancewalla asks the families who will sign to cover the expenses at the hospital, they both refuse and the ambulance leaves without Vishnu who is still asleep or perhaps unconscious on the steps.
It took Suri two years to move on the next chapter, during which he took time to outline the three floors of the building and how they would echo the conflicts in India both socio-economic and religious, as well as reflect the stages of Hindu enlightenment.
Suri is also a mathematician at the University of Maryland. Although there is no direct way to confer this from the novel, it did figure into the writing of the novel. 'In mathematics you're always dealing with variables and you're looking at ways they can behave, you're looking at connections between them,' he says.
'Here I think it's more with characters. Again you have these threads and you're looking for ways to tie them together.'
Vishnu is the common thread of the story even though he's seen only through his memories and his thoughts. The building he lives in represents a microcosm of Indian society and interweaves the storylines of each of the families on the three floors of the building.
The Pathaks and Asranis share the first floor and its kitchen. Their relationship is prone to bickering and nastiness and the wives constantly accuse each other of stealing. The two couples are very similar and Suri had to find some way to distinguish them from each other.
'This is one of the few places where I use physical descriptions. Mrs. Pathak is thin and Mrs. Asrani is more plump and there are some other physical things like that,' Suri says. They represent the first stage of enlightenment where people are interested in the material world.
The second stage is a progressive detachment from the material toward the spiritual as shown by the Jalals who live on the second floor. Mrs. Jalal is a devout Muslim who is scared that her husband's search for religious fulfillment will ultimately bring bad luck on the family. He's constantly discussing the histories of different religions with a curiosity that shocks her. He subjects himself to various hardships from sleeping on the floor instead of his bed to intense fasting to deprivation from the radio, hoping this will bring on religions visions.
Vinod Taneja occupies the top floor and the third stage: complete engrossment in spiritual matters. He is a widower who has enough money to support himself for the rest of his life without working. Something of a recluse, Vinod rarely leaves his apartment.
The language and concepts of the novel are as foreign as the land. Suri, who grew up in Bombay, remembers that as he was working on his novel, he shared the opening chapters with his American writing group. 'They had several objections which I didn't really try to fix. They were uncomfortable with this man just lying on the steps and no one doing anything,' he says. 'I wanted to just immerse the reader into the experience of being in India where things like that happen.'
The release of the paperback edition includes a three-page glossary explaining some of the common Indian words that are used, but more importantly providing footnotes on some of the concepts of Hinduism. 'We didn't put that in the hardback. The reason I really wanted it there was more the references to mythological characters and so on,' Suri says.
Suri wrote the book with neither an Indian nor an American reader in mind. 'When I was writing the book I didn't really have a formed idea of the readership in mind simply because I was never published before. So I was writing it for myself one could say,' he says.'
One striking aspect of the novel is its timelessness. Aside from constant movie references and a few appearances of the Ambassador, the traditional Indian automobile, nothing about the people or places marks the story in time.
'There are so many things that are timeless in India, like the religious animosity has been going on forever, movies just keep playing out the same plots again and again, and people like Vishnu would just remain on these landings and nothing would really change for them and that's what I was trying to capture somehow,' he says.
The influence of movies is prevalent in the book and many of the characters imagine themselves as stars of their own drama. Kavita, daughter of the Asrani's, daydreams of her arranged marriage to Pram during which Salim, the Muslim son of the Jalals, interrupts from atop a white mare with the oft-repeated line of Indian cinema: 'This marriage cannot take place!'
The book wavers between these comical moments to some very touching moments, but avoids too much social commentary. 'I think the social commentary is in the background. It's more metaphorical I would say because I am looking at the society that is divided by class and I'm looking at the religious differences that are really prevalent in India,' Suri says. 'Especially at the end I think this really surges up and almost ends in an outcome that could be tragic.'
Manil Suri signs and discusses The Death of Vishnu at 7 p.m. Monday at Books & Co. in Dayton and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers.