Reality Meets Fantasy in Three New Novels
The Death of Vishnuby Manil Suri
Norton, 295 pp., $24.95
The Glass Palaceby Amitav Ghosh
Random House, 474 pp., $25.95
In Beautiful Disguisesby Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Bloomsbury USA, 192 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Novelist and mathematician Manil Suri was born into a city that no longer exists. The bustling and cinematic Bombay of his childhood, with its waters and streets overflowing with memory, has been removed from every current and accurate map in the world. Though Suri can scan each one of these maps, dragging his weighty eyes up and down the jagged coast of the Arabian Sea, and lingering so long just north of the Western Ghats mountain range, the town's bombast and grit is all gone, replaced by two mysterious syllables: Mumbai.
This is just something that time makes happen. St. Petersburg becomes Leningrad, and Leningrad ends up as St. Petersburg. Tenóchtitlan is punched into the shape of Mexico City, and even Austin, we know, was a Waterloo once. Suri's fortunate proximity to the supplanting of a city's most basic identity affords him an opportunity to examine historical motion from a position of delicate intimacy. Though his novel, The Death of Vishnu, is simple enough in its premise -- telling the melodramatic stories of apartment tenants in one building in Mumbai -- Suri clearly intends for the characters and their bickering lives to be representative of religious and social issues of present-day India.
Amitav Ghosh and Rajeev Balasubramanyam are two novelists who also experience India in the present. Ghosh, who was born in Calcutta and raised in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, writes with a much larger scope in his sprawling work The Glass Palace. Starting his tale with the British invasion of Burma in 1885, the author is most useful for his ability to construct a plausible, trustworthy, and instructive historical setting that details the formation of today's South Asian nations, focusing on India and Burma (now Myanmar). Balasubramanyam, for his part, chooses instead to show India through the perspective of one iconoclastic girl who struggles to grow intellectually in a completely oppressive society. His debut novel, In Beautiful Disguises, reads almost like a parody of the 19th-century romance, somewhere between the floral sarcasm of Austen's Northanger Abbey and the fire of Arundhati Roy. Examined in a shared context, these otherwise distinct novels by Suri, Ghosh, and Balasubramanyam create a complex and provocative image of their common nation.
"This is how power is eclipsed: in a moment of vivid realism," Ghosh writes in his novel, "between the waning of one fantasy of governance and its replacement by the next; in an instant when the world springs free of its mooring of dreams and reveals itself to be girdled in the pathways of survival and self-preservation."
Suri understands what Ghosh might describe as this tectonic motion of power. The Death of Vishnu serves as an extended moment of vivid realism in which every scent and scandal of Mumbai is present, in which each human hope and superstition falls flat onto a concrete floor and shatters. But Suri's is also a realism that opens itself to the powers of religious faith and cosmic powers. Heavily influenced by passages from the Bhagavad Gita, Suri uses his characters as minor avatars of Hindu and Muslim beliefs. "Previous to this I would always look with great skepticism at these people who suddenly find religion and go back to their roots, and now, horrors, it might even happen to me," he writes on his Web site www.manilsuri.com. "It's very scary."
The central character in Suri's novel is Vishnu, an erratic man who lives on a landing in an apartment complex and runs errands for the tenants. From the start of the novel, Vishnu is seen collapsed and lifeless on his landing, causing confusion and inconvenience for the residents who must step over him on their way up and down the staircase. As the tenants bicker over who will call an ambulance for Vishnu, the dead man begins his passage into the afterlife. He attempts to climb up the stairs and finds that he can no longer feel his body. He also begins to wonder if he might actually be the supreme god Vishnu, and his faith in his own divinity balloons until he discovers that he is incapable of even crushing a miniscule ant.
Suri explicitly intends for the building's structure -- and Vishnu's ascent through it -- to mirror the idea of the experiential stages that one must scale in this life and in lives that may follow. The author is keen in his placement of characters in appropriate locations throughout the building. There are the Asrani and Pathak families, for instance, living in close proximity and constantly bickering over responsibilities and societal rank. There's the widower Vinod Taneja, set apart from the rest of the lot and never daring to walk out his door into the unbearable world. And there, at the top, is the Jalal family, the only Muslims in the group.
The author is extremely adept at sustaining several deeply developed characters in a manner that renders them both despicable and completely sympathetic at once. His treatment of the head of the Muslim family, Ahmed Jalal, is a particularly successful example of his ability to shine both shame and honor on his characters simultaneously. Jalal starts out as a faithless Muslim who is married to Arifa, an ardent believer. Suri passionately reveals Jalal's deep desire to have some ability for faith. After seeking divinity through self-punishment (refusing to eat, sleeping on floors, etc.), he encounters Vishnu's dead body on the landing and believes that he has received a holy mandate (which Suri borrows from the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita) from Vishnu the deity: "Vishnu's body was metamorphosing. Into something liquid and luminous ... limbs kept emerging and Vishnu kept expanding, until he was touching the suns above and Mr. Jalal couldn't tell where he started and where he ended."
In comparison, the female protagonist of In Beautiful Disguises is far more likely to indulge in hallucinations of Hepburn's Holly Golightly than of a swelling Hindu god. Raised in a stifling provincial town, the young girl dreams of becoming a movie star. After her parents decide to arrange her marriage, she meets her overeager fiancé and, horrified, decides that she has no choice but to run away to what Balasubramanyam only refers to as the City: "Savitri had calmly pointed out her brother's rather obvious erection. I wasn't sure whether the others realized or not, but He understood and crossed his legs while unleashing his second sentence of the evening."
The threat of an arranged marriage sets the rest of the novel into action: The protagonist runs off to become a maid in the City, where she hopes to gain enough life experience to become a show-stopping actress. Suri also employs the arranged-marriage trope effectively. Kavita, the daughter of the Hindu Asrani family, runs away with her secret lover, Salim, son of the Muslim Jalal family. Prior to the escape, Kavita's mother arranges for a wedding to take place between the young girl and a man she has never met before. This plan for marriage leads not only to the flight of Kavita and Salim, but to the ultimate undoing of the building in its entirety.
Also important to all three novels is the influence of cinema on the writer's voice and plot. The obvious case is Balasubramanyam's work, which hinges on his protagonists' obsession with movies. But Suri, too, uses cinema in an essential way, as he has Vishnu's life portrayed as a feature film before the character comes in contact with the gods of the afterlife. "I think certainly Hindi movies dominate or pervade all of society," Suri said in an interview with Michael Cunningham that is posted on his Web site.
For a novel like Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace, however, the influence of film is more directly evident in the scope and composition of the work. Ghosh shapes a textual structure not unlike that of a large-scale epic film (think Indochine, for instance) that travels across huge expanses of land and time to achieve its goals. The narrative voice of the novel works like a panning camera over the intricate architecture and structural grid of imperial Mandalay. At the outset, Burma's King Thebaw and Queen Supalayat reign in elegance and excess over one of the strongest empires in Asia while their citizenry suffer in squalor. When the British attack over a dispute over the harvesting of teak wood, the royals are exiled to a remote village in India. The confidence of the Burmese leaders in the face of the vastly superior British empire is stunning:
His Majesty, who is watchful that the interest of our religion and our state shall not suffer, will himself march forth with his generals, captains, and lieutenants with large forces of infantry, artillery, elephanterie and cavalry ... his army will efface these heretics and conquer and annex their country.
In just a matter of days, the Empire of Burma no longer exists. Each of these three novels attempts an approach at exploring this type of historical, mental, and emotional loss of existence. What Ghosh calls "the moment of vivid realism," after all, that natural consequence of time's passage and erosion, can only be understood in light of the stretch of moments that preceded it. Before that realism, according to Ghosh's setup, there must be whole lives full of illusion and fancy. Vishnus sprouting heads and arms at an alarming rate. The extravagant Empire of Burma. The dream that your face will glow on a screen at the movies. And as Vishnu learns at the end of the book, that fleeting illusion always starts over again.