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Rechauffe Magic

Rechauffe Magic
The Death Of Vishnu
By Manil Suri
Bloomsbury (distributed by Penguin) Rs. 1,190; Pages 329
The Indian equivalent of the spaghetti western might well be bhelpuri fiction. Take some familiar elements—the scent of spices, mangoes, social divisions, a love interest, characters like Radiowalla and Man Who Sleeps on Lowest Step—mix them together with a dollop of mythology, a dose of Bollywood, serve tepid, and watch as the hordes gobble it up. In the wrong hands, it’s sure to give you severe indigestion. But once in a while, a writer comes along who can pick up the same tired ingredients and create magic.

The framework is a middle-class apartment building in Bombay. Two families, the Pathaks and the Asranis, live out a daily drama squabbling over a shared kitchen. The Asranis’ daughter, Kavita, scripts her life according to the Bollywood movies she loves. The Jalals grapple with the growing religious zeal of the father while his son, Salim, plots an elopement with Kavita. Vinod Taneja mourns his dead wife by listening obsessively to the Hindi film song that marked their post-marital courtship. On the landing, the local wastrel and part-time durban Vishnu lies dying, his life unreeling in his mind in jerky flashback.

This is a storyline that could easily descend into cliche in the hands of an awkward writer. But Suri is far too gifted to fall into those easy traps. He is the fly on the wall, enabling us to lift off the roof and look directly into the reality of the lives of his characters. His writing is sharp but not acid, the humour ever-present but unobtrusive, the characters shading into complexity just where you expected neat endings.

As Vishnu dies, we see him through the embarrassed eyes of the residents: a social problem, an unbudgeted expense, an opportunity to show off their charity. And finally, we see him through his own visions—a man whose affair with a prostitute has unexpected range and yearning, whose dying fevers produce a sense that he might truly be an avatar of Vishnu.

Beyond the fulsome cliches that unfortunately do sneak in, Suri succeeds in creating a world that endures. We urge his characters on as they negotiate the slippery slopes of the kitty party caste system, turn their lives into a Bollywood blockbuster, struggle with the day-to-day pitfalls and rewards of their ordinary, but touching, lives. This is one of the most deftly-crafted novels written about contemporary India. The ingredients are everyday, but the savour will last.

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