by Susan Sechrist
“Go Figure” is a regular feature at Bloom that highlights and celebrates the interdependence and integration of math and literature, and that will “chip away at the cult of youth that surrounds mathematical and scientific thinking.” Read the inaugural feature here.
1. The Zoom In
In Hindu mythology, Brahma is the creator of the universe and Shiva is the destroyer. In between Brahma’s explosive act of creation and Shiva’s implosive act of destruction is the god Vishnu’s much more delicate responsibility—that of the care and continuity of the universe. Vishnu not only maintains the universe, but also returns to earth in the form of an avatar to re-establish good and order whenever things become off-kilter.
In Manil Suri’s The Death of Vishnu, his award-winning 2001 debut novel, the titular character is also a man, a caretaker who sleeps on the landing of the stairway in an apartment building in contemporary Bombay (Mumbai). Like his divine namesake, Vishnu the man seems to be responsible for the balance of whatever passes for good and order in the building. He is at the center of virtually every character arc and relationship, often to his detriment. In fact, the novel begins with an argument about him between bickering housewives that seals Vishnu’s fate. Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak, two middle-class women already perturbed that they have to share a small kitchen, argue over who is responsible for paying the ambulance that will come to take the unconscious Vishnu to the hospital. The conflict goes unresolved, and Vishnu’s body remains in an unresponsive heap on the stairs for the duration of the novel.
Vishnu has inspired more than Mrs. Asrani’s and Mrs. Pathak’s anathema and disdain. His other neighbors have orbited close to him out of empathy, a need for protection, and even an expression of awe. In addition to the Pathaks and the Asranis, Vishnu has overseen the lives of the Jalals, a Muslim couple with a teenaged son, Salim; Kavita, the Asranis’ daughter, inappropriately in love with Salim; and a wealthy widower, Mr. Taneja, still in mourning for his wife after 17 years. These relationships suffuse Vishnu’s death thrall with a mix of reality, imagination, and memory. This mix makes the whole of the novel: part comedy of errors, part magical realism, and part allegory of modern Indian society.
Despite the physical stasis of his dying body, Vishnu is no longer a single, stationary center around which the others pivot. As he is dying and his luminous spirit is ascending the stairs, Vishnu contends with his real life through poignant memories of his lover, Padmini, and his mother, who used to tell him tales of the gods. He reflects on his past interactions with his neighbors: helping the lovely Kavita sneak out with Salim, bringing Mr. Taneja his groceries. But his memories are threaded together with something else, an emerging ecstatic insight that he is indeed his namesake—he is Vishnu the god returning to earth to set the world right.
As Vishnu grapples with reality and fantasy, so, too, do the people in his micro-universe of the apartment building. Suri’s vignettes of the building’s denizens feel a lot like the Indian films that he references frequently in the novel—full of spectacle and emotion, conflict and drama, all captured forever and unchanging in a ribbon of media. More and more, it feels as if daily life, with all of its suffering and desire, is merely an illusion, a flattened reflection of a more complex, more meaningful, but incomprehensible existence around it. Each character’s struggle to find equilibrium between fate and wish makes the reader also long for a glimpse of the larger underlying structure of it all.
Three characters specifically—Kavita Asrani, Ahmed Jalal, and Vinod Taneja—are wrestling with their own reality in a way that is similar to the vicissitudes of Vishnu’s near-death hallucination (or revelation?).
Kavita is in love with Salim, but she is Hindu and he is Muslim. Vishnu has kept her secret, serving as a kind of lookout when she and Salim sneak out together. Kavita’s parents expect her to marry a nice Hindu boy, like Pran, a meek and dutiful engineer. Her forbidden love is complicated by the fact that life with Salim doesn’t seem as promising as she’d hoped, something she discovers when they finally run away together one night. She fantasizes about life in an arranged marriage with Pran, but ultimately decides that she will marry neither—she wants to be in films.
Mr. Jalal, an intellectual curious about the constraints of religion, has recently become an ascetic, much to his wife’s consternation and dismay. He has had a vision that the unconscious Vishnu is indeed the next avatar of the divine god. Mr. Jalal sees himself as the prophet who must spread the word, but he is trapped between his practiced skepticism and his new vision, not to mention the complexities of being a Muslim evangelizing about Hindu gods. He offends his neighbors, who violently attack him, accusing him of having something to do with the missing Kavita Asrani. Mr. Jalal ends up in the hospital, weighing whether his vision was just a memory of reading the Bhagavad Gita mixed in with a Freudian dream.
Lastly, Mr. Taneja, the wealthy widower who lives on the top floor, is seeking relief not only from grief over his dead wife, but also the regret he feels for his lost life. He travels to an ashram, where the leader, the Swamiji, challenges his listeners to acknowledge both the folly and unavoidable fate of being human:
“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 realizes 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’s a sermon Mr. Taneja has heard before and internalized, but when the Swamiji tells him that it is anger and not grief that keeps him imprisoned, Mr. Taneja is not impressed, finding the Swamiji’s insights presumptuous. Over time, however, Mr. Taneja uncovers that hidden anger, and he performs a personal ritual to let it go. But the peace that he finds doesn’t liberate him from his penthouse apartment; rather he spends his days in quiet contemplation, watching the people in the streets congregating for church services and meditating from his terrace on the sight and sound of the distant sea.
Vishnu’s spirit ascends the steps in parallel with his neighbors’ experiences, testing his god-like powers and finding them wanting. He can’t even dispatch a few pesky ants that crawl up and down the stairs. Vishnu, like Kavita, Mr. Jalal, and Mr. Taneja, begins to question more deeply his understanding of himself and the world, balancing the inputs of desire and doubt to find some proof of what is truly real. What if he isn’t Vishnu returned to set things right? What if he is just Vishnu, a man dying? What if his life is just a movie that others watch, a ribbon made of reflections of reality, detached from the larger meaning of the universe?
2. The Zoom Out
So… what are the mathematical qualities of The Death of Vishnu? I struggled to find a foothold, an insight, a loose thread to start pulling. I’d thought it would be evident, since Manil Suri is not just a novelist, but also a mathematician. My last few features focused on mathematicians who write fiction—Stuart Rojstaczer and Janna Levin. I was spoiled, because Rojstaczer and Levin both write about characters who are mathematicians whose mathematics make up a huge part of their plots. I imagined I was going to have a similarly easy labor with this installment, but found Suri’s subtle narrative much more difficult to analyze.
Suri, a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, followed Vishnu with two other novels, also with Hindu gods in the titles: The Age of Shiva and The City of Devi. Suri is an ardent advocate for the intersection of math and literature and has written many articles and papers on the subject, including educational videos that highlight the hidden (or quite obvious) mathematical underpinnings in works of literature. I used some of his comments on Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia to write Too Little Margin for Proof.
So, imagine my chagrin, and panic, when after reading and enjoying The Death of Vishnu, I was clueless about what made this story mathematical. What is the numerate narrative here? What are the qualities of quantity that emerge from the complex system of this novel? I started to read summaries and reviews of The Death of Vishnu in hopes of getting some insight into what others saw in the themes and characters, thinking that maybe I needed to take a derivative approach—in the mathematical sense—to this problem: to analyze particular points on this narrative curve.
Then—a miracle happened.
I found a short paper written by Manil Suri for the 2012 Bridges Conference about using a geometrical approach to map out a metafiction that would unite his three novels—The Death of Vishnu, The Age of Shiva, and The City of Devi—into a fourth work he tentatively and cleverly titled The Trinity Quartet. Here was my mathematical relationship, only it wasn’t a scaffolding or underpinning within the novel The Death of Vishnu, but a much larger and more demanding fractal structure, of which the novel I had just read was a part. Rather than dissect The Death of Vishnu for internal mathematical meaning, the meaning was external to the novel; it was a two-dimensional node in a much larger three-dimensional system. Suri provided graphics in his paper to illustrate:
The challenge of connecting disparate story lines is evident in Figures 1a and 1b. If the stories are open-ended, one can connect them with a sinuous curve, but it may take extra and somewhat artificial convolutions to fit the arcs together. The overarching narrative feels strung out or wanders unnecessarily. If the stories are closed worlds, which Suri’s novels are, finding a way in and ways between each narrative world proves difficult, if not impossible. But, Suri argues, if we zoom out and go up one dimension, as in Figure 2, each novel becomes a two-dimensional plane that bisects a unique three-dimensional surface. Each novel defines a section of the larger metafictional wormhole and contributes to a path that the three novels all have in common. To complete the construction of this three-dimensional surface, Suri chooses an omniscient narrator who can pull it off:
The mythological basis of Books 1-3 delivers a promising candidate for the metafictional element. These books alluded to Vishnu, Shiva, Devi in metaphoric form—why not now view the previous action from the heavenly plane where these deities are supposed to reside? In fact, why not bring them to life, making one of them the narrator, the omniscient observer, who has not only seen the previous stories play out on earth, but is perhaps even the orchestrator of all this action? Surely the ideal choice would be Vishnu, the mythological writer of every story, future and past, on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of operating the entire universe?
I have not read Suri’s other novels, nor has he yet published this proposed metafiction, The Trinity Quartet. I can’t provide any solid analysis that his conjecture worked, that mapping a narrative onto a three-dimensional geometry is a sound literary technique for uniting previously unrelated stories. But I can see the seed of it in The Death of Vishnu; a self-similar structure is there, like how zooming in on a coastline reveals a repeating pattern or detail that also exists at a zoomed-out, higher altitude. There are many clues to this larger metafiction in Suri’s first novel, not just the allusion to the god Vishnu, but in the dreaming mind of the dying man. Vishnu’s struggles with fantasy and reality are self-similar to those of his neighbors, who are weighing the verity or falsity of their beliefs, motivations, and emotions.
Is life an illusion? Or a reflection created by a much larger, unseen system of light and mirrored surfaces? Or is it a series of illusions mapped onto the medium of something like a movie, reflected back at us? Maybe it depends on what we do with that flattened reflection or that story in motion, whether we accede that it is proof of a self-contained, unchanging, repetitive fate or a geometric clue to a larger, more expansive reality.
Susan Sechrist is a freelance technical writer and PhD student at the University of British Columbia, striving to better integrate her creative and mathematical sides. She published her first short story, the mathematically-themed “A Desirable Middle,” both in Bloom and the Journal for Humanistic Mathematics.
Feature photo courtesy of Liz Highleyman / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).