In 1994, Manil Suri went back to Bombay for a visit, only to fall ill with chicken pox. This unfortunate event brought him exactly what every writer prays for-the idea for a story. For, outside his apartment, another man was gravely ill. Called Vishnu, this general dogsbody ran errands for other tenants and had been a fixture of Suri's childhood.
"Vishnu was always on the steps of my building when I was growing up and he was usually drunk. He would say Salaam Baba to me," Suri recalled in a recent interview with Rediff.com. After getting a degree from the Indian Institute of Science, Suri had left for the States when he was twenty. Now, years later, he was back and Vishnu was still there-but just barely.
"I was ill in bed and pampered and there he was just outside and dying. That was chilling especially when he passed away," Suri says.
It was when Vishnu died that Suri decided to write a short story based upon his death. "I knew nothing about him and I wanted to create some sort of history for him." He created a whole imaginary life for the dead man. "I am sure he had a hard life, but I also wanted to make sure that he had some parts that were good and fun," Suri says.
|In the novel, his symbols point to the esoteric--the Bhagvad Gita, the Koran, near-death experiences, Indian mythology.|
The short story he wrote in 1994 grew up and became a novel called-you guessed it-The Death of Vishnu. Last year, W.W. Norton wrested the rights to the book from ten of the nation's top publishing houses for a handsome $350,000 in one of the fiercest bidding wars seen in recent times.
Michael Cunningham, Pultizer prize winning author and Suri's writing workshop teacher, has compared him to literary heavyweights like Flaubert and Flannery O'Connor. This September, Suri was featured in Time magazine's People To Watch column.
Yet for Suri writing has added a whole new dimension to his life. "I liked knowing that I was not just a mathematician as everyone else seemed doomed to be," he says.
For all his urge to have what he calls his "secret life," the mathematician in Suri refuses to rest. He constantly loops back to comparisons between writing and math. "It's the writing of math that is correlated to writing. I do a lot of mathematics research and when I am writing a paper then I have to make sure everything is understandable and clean." Similarly when he writes, as he said to Time, "Every line should be correct and necessary as an equation."
|His current project also draws from Indian religion and is based around Shiva's dual aspects as the destroyer and the ascetic.|
One only has to look to The Death of Vishnu to see Suri's hankering for all that is correct and necessary unfold. The central character, Vishnu, lies dying on the steps of an apartment building in Bombay. As we acquaint ourselves with Vishnu's fantasies and reminiscences we also become immersed in the lives of the other tenants of the building, people he has served for most of his life.
Written in prose that swings between the hauntingly lyrical and the unsentimental thrust and parry of street-talk, Suri's novel bursts with the chaos, petty disputes and necessary accommodations that life in Bombay demands. Contrasted with the dream-state of Vishnu's dying moments are the gritty details of ordinary life-poverty, domestic and religious disharmony, class war. As we read on, the building transposes into a metaphor-it stands for Bombay and ultimately for India itself.
Even Suri's process is different from what most other writers practice. When he began writing The Death of Vishnu, he started with the ending, the last chapter of the novel. The beginning came much later. Suri has a mathematical explanation for his preference for this reverse order. "It is actually similar to math because you know what result needs to be proved and you are trying to get to that goal." Although he admits that writing also presents more surprises than math. "There are always these pesky characters who don't behave and insist on going their own way," he says ruefully.