The Death of Vishnu – Experience and Worldly Pleasure

Considering Manil Suri’s ‘The Death of Vishnu’ further, exploring the various characters inhabiting the apartment block on which stairs Vishnu lays feverish seeing out his final days, I find a lovely subtle emphasis on experience. As my last post illustrates, Mr Jalal is seeking a religious experience through his bare-foot wanderings in the park, quiet moments under a banyan tree and sleeping on the floor, while Vishnu reminisces past sensuous encounters with his lady of the night Padmini, and the widower Vinod on the top floor has accepted the transcience of his marriage experience, acutely aware that ‘he had already experienced whatever there was to be experienced between a husband and a wife, that he had shared a part of himself with another person in a way too profound to be duplicated’ (256).
         I suppose we find a host of characters at different points throughout life looking back fondly at experiences gone, ploughing forward in search of new half-known experiences, existing without experience, or in the case of the Asrani’s daughter on the cusp of experience hoping to run away with the boy she loves while also meeting suitable marriage candidates to satisfy her mother.

        I’m not really sure if I have a neat concise point to convey, but I’m sure there is something to be said about the way everyone in some way is experiencing or reacting to experience, especially in India where there is so much stimulus to be filtered and absorbed whether it’s customs, religion, love, relationships, family life or city life, essentially trying to deal with it all. It’s nothing like the simplicity of the West where in contrast to the heat in anything and everything there is a permeating coldness that disconnects people and isolates them to an extent, perhaps a more easily manageable extent.
        And so we come to a passage in ‘Vishnu’ where Vinod visits an Ashram [a kind of monastary, a holy place] to pass his time in retirement and takes in the words of a Swamiji [a religious figure]:

”How long can man live for himself?’ he would ask his audience. ‘How long can he allow the rule of the jungle to govern him? Plundering the pleasures he fancies, acting on every pinprick of desire, a slave to the promise of wealth, a puppet to the callings of the flesh?
        ‘And yet. If he doesn’t sate himself at this stage, he will never graduate to the next. He must drink from the pool of selfish gratification until he is sure he will be thirsty no more. Until he realises that his body and all it desires is just maya – no more real than the reflection that stares back from that very pool from which he is drinking. It can take many lifetimes, but I have seen it done in a single existence, or even half an existence.’
        ‘And there will come a day, when all attachment is relinquished, when there is no memory of desire, of hunger, of pain, and then, only then, will he know what true freedom is.’ – p.283

Experience and the negation of experience – we indulge so we no longer need to indulge, in fact indulgence ceases to exist – once again there’s something of Freud’s Death Instinct in these concepts. And like Mr Jalal’s religious journey and the short-lived elopement of the Asrani’s daughter and Vishnu’s life and death on the steps, there seems to be a poignant cyclical quality to it all.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Death of Vishnu – Religion; rationality & reason vs the primitive force of faith

In the apartment building, the Jalal’s live on the floor above the petty warring Asranis and Pataks are perhaps the most intriguing couple, married together despite glaring differences. She a simple muslim, he a philosopher and intellectual compelled by a romantic desire to craft her into ‘a multifaceted jewel, able to hold her own with razor wit and glittering personality’ (142). This ‘Pygmalion-like’ project ultimately fails however as Mr Jalal in spite of his persistence realises that Arifa, his wife, is far from the blank slate he had once perceived, ‘she came programmed with ideas of her own, convictions he had not been able to dislodge, beliefs he might never exorcise’ (143). Mr Jalal perhaps restricted in understanding fails to appreciate the nature and extent of this ‘flaw’, religion:

‘What was it about Arifa’s faith that had such tenacity in the face of his efforts? How could he have underestimated it so disastrously? He had always been proud of his conversance with not only Islam, but all the major religions of the world. He could explain how different beliefs arose and melded with their parent philosophies, detail obscure rituals from Africa to  the Amazon practiced in the name of worship. Why, then, did he not understand the mechanism of faith? What did religion do to people, to provoke such obstinacy, such hysteria – how did it push people to the stage of torturing themselves and killing each other?
        He had always assumed it was a flaw in people, a human failing, that created this need to believe in something beyond the ordinary. Religion existed to control society, to monitor those without the capacity to think things through for themselves, to provide promises and shimmering images in the sky, so that the urges of the masses could be calmed and regulated. What, after all, did the word ‘faith’ connote, except a willing blindness to the lack of actual proof? It was only natural that Arifa, with her untended intellect, had to lean on the crutch of faith to negotiate the inscrutability of life. Whereas he did not, in fact could not, have any use for the same.
        But then an unexpected doubt arose in Mr. Jalal’s mind. What if he was being too arrogant? What if there was another dimension to faith, another way of understanding it, of experiencing it, of which he was simply not capable? What if the shotcoming lay not with Arifa’s outlook, but his own – if it was he who was limited, closed-minded? After all, wasn’t he constantly amazed at the number of very smart people who were believers – hadn’t even Einstein professed the existence of God?’ -pp.143-4

So begins Mr Jalal’s attempt, investigation and experiment into enlightenment, involving a healthy programme of renunciation, deprivation and discomfort.

I wonder what Suri’s narrative concludes regarding Mr Jalal’s journey.

Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 8:56 am  Leave a Comment  

A Passage to India – Life Between Worlds

There’s a wondeful passage that seems to define life as a transcient trifle where what is really important is the snatching and appreciation of moments of beauty, for it is beauty that characterises this quick burst of humanity and makes it beyond bearable, but enjoyable:

‘The poem had done no ‘good’ to anyone, but it was a passing reminder, a breath from the divine lips of beauty, a nightingale between two worlds of dust. Less explicit than the call to Krishna, it voiced our loneliness nevertheless, our isolation, our need for the Friend who never comes yet is not entirely disproved.’ – p.119

Religion vs Beauty. It recalls a particular metaphor in a poem I can’t for the life of me recall where life is reduced to a bird flying in from the cold to enjoy the warmth and tremendous excitement of a festive feast in an instant before exiting through another open window. Two worlds of dust separated by life.

If anyone knows the poem, please put me out of my misery, there’s a connection awaiting conclusion.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment