The Death of Vishnu
The Kathmandu Post, February 24, 2002
By Sushma Joshi
A man lies dying on the stairwell of a crumbling tenement house in Bombay. The twisted plot of The Death of Vishnu, mathematics professor Manil Suri’s creation, originates out of that, spiraling like a stairway into social realism and the myths of Bollywood. Drawing from the non-linear genre of Bombay film scripts, and the hyper-linked, multi-plot structure of Hindu mythology, the story works its way slowly but inevitably into the unforgiving politics of religious violence and communalism that dominates the politics of contemporary India.
While Vishnu lies delirious, in the throes of his last sexual fantasies before death, two Hindu neighbors play out their day to day rivalries and petty jealousies on his dying body, quarreling over who should pay for the ambulance. This middle class struggle is just another in a long tradition of jealousies and fights in their shared kitchen. Their husbands, meanwhile, ineffectually try to organize themselves into an alternate power bloc. A third neighbor, a religious Muslim woman, watches her husband helplessly while he turns into a celibate ascetic. The fourth, a Parsi widower, cannot forget his dead wife as he watches his life spin around and around like the record from an old movie. In the middle of all this, two teenagers play out their inter-religious romance, benignly unaware of the consequences. All these lives are tied together by the thread of two common denominators - Vishnu and Ganga, the domestics, who become privy to their most mundane habits. All four families, coming from different religious backgrounds and co-existing as neighbors, are ultimately brought together to a point where their private conflicts merges with the public violence of communal politics, forcing them to encounter their most entrenched prejudices.
The story is made up of exquisite little snapshots, in surreal Technicolor. Like the films of the Bombay film industry, the vignettes can seem vicarious and unrelated, but one realizes at the end that they are all part of the bigger scheme of things. Some of the writing is too processed, too colorful, like the orange American Kraft cheese that Mrs. Jalal serves to her guests to impress them, and yet it serves its function.
This is no neat math problem with an easy answer. Like the complexities of urban India, the story operates on many levels. The death of Vishnu becomes a metaphor for the death of other institutions - the death of religious harmony, the death of civic responsibility, the death of middle class co-existence in the age of globalization. With the death of Vishnu, named after the preserver in the Hindu trinity, life plunges straight into the chaos of destruction.
The riots against Muslims, the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and the increasing spread of a religious nationalist agenda from the Hindu Right has been a sobering reminder of how the ideal of a secular state has come under attack in contemporary India. The chilling finality of the ending, closing the book with a proof that is almost mathematical in its inevitability, remind us that the contemporary politics of Bombay, with its increasingly divisive ethnic and religious agenda, can insert itself very quickly and with devastating consequences from the public to the private domain. Vishnu, the god of preservation and love, can only die quietly on the stairwell when this happens.
Monday, February 11, 2002
THE BITTER TRUTH
Sushma Joshi, February 2002, Kathmandu Post
The stories are small, but with a spicy aftertaste that could be from nowhere else but the subcontinent. Talat Abbasi's Bitter Gourd and Other Stories is a collection of nugget sized, delectable tales laid out, in typical desi fashion, amongst the detritus of social stratification, family ennui, economic marginalization and diaspora. Gently dousing her stories with a generous portion of irony and satire, the Karachi born writer brings to the fore the small hypocrisies and the mundane corruptions of everyday life in Pakistan. Whether dealing with a birdman or a poor relation, a rich widow or an immigrant mother, Ms. Abbasi touches the mythic heart that ticks besides all these caricatures. The ghostly narrative influence of Virginia Woolf, with a pinch of Victorian lit thrown in for good measure, is discernable, although most of the voices are centered around the "how kind, how kind" echoes of South Asia.
The book starts, appropriately, with a story about a feudal patronage relationship between a poor relation and her wealthy patron, and ends with a diasporic mother struggling with a child with mental disabilities in New York. In between, there are treats like "Going to Baltistan", where a prominent leader of the women's movement reveals her location of privilege, her priorities for publicity, and her lack of interest in feminism and non-elite women's lives in a few sparse and brilliant pages. In "Simple Questions", a poor mother wonders about the arrogance of the school teacher who dares to barge into her house to ask her why she is taking her eldest daughter out of school. In "Mango Season", a fretful widow expatiates her responsibility to think about her dead husband by sending mangoes to the orphanage. This book is more a collection of parables told by great-aunts and grandmothers as they sit sewing around a quilt, and less the magnum opus literature of contemporary South Asian diaspora. And yet within the repetitive resonance of these stories lies the knowledge that the fault-line between the cultures of Pakistan and India, heightened by political tensions, melts under the mundane, everyday similarities of people's lives. Fundamentalists on both sides have tried to heighten the differences, but the simple truth of the matter is that Pakistan and India are shaped by similar social and cultural milieu, with the same material conditions, and the same obsessions. They share a long history, and more importantly, the same humor - and even the craving for the same fruits and vegetables. After reading these stories, one cannot help feeling that the mines being laid in the border between the two countries is like barbed wire erected between the houses of two siblings, with the same parables, the same concerns of family and society, and even the same eating habits. Including, of course, the bitter gourds.