Early in Manil Suri's dynamic first novel "The Death of Vishnu," Mrs. Asrani, one of two loathsome and warring Hindu housewives, cries, "If we can't all live in harmony in this building, what hope is there for the nation?" Then, in a singular moment of melodramatic tenderness, she embraces the Muslim boy from upstairs, Salim Jalal, and allows that he and her daughter Kavita may be friends. Of course, only a few years later, after Kavita and "Master Cockroach Jalal" have shared late-night love-ins on the roof, Mrs. Asrani viciously declares war.
In this three-floored microcosm of Bombay, however, that's just another skirmish on a battlefield of perpetual conflict and personal despair. Salim's unsophisticated, devout mother has lost faith in her intellectual, atheist husband, and it only gets worse when he decides to explore spirituality through self-flagellation. Mr. Taneja from the third floor grieves over his dead wife in utter solitude and inertia. Mrs. Asrani and Mrs. Pathak squabble entertainingly over the precious food harbored in the kitchen they share, then retire behind slammed doors to berate their husbands, tapping into years of resentment, bitterness and pretenses. (Mrs. Asrani frets much more about her graying hair than about the harmony of the nation.)
They also fight over Vishnu, the ailing drunkard who sleeps on the stairwell landing. As Vishnu's health deteriorates, his delirium peppered with memories of childhood and a beloved prostitute, he slowly ascends the stairway, pausing on each floor, in an allegorical pursuit of heaven. Neither Mrs. Asrani nor Mrs. Pathak want to pay for an ambulance to save him.
Maddeningly, none of Suri's women are admirable: Even the sweet Mrs. Taneja's dying wish -- to make the Guinness Book of Records by memorizing every line in a movie -- is hopelessly juvenile. Yet even in their frivolity, these women are strong-willed and self-assured. It is Suri's rather passive male characters, like Vishnu, who seek a greater spiritual understanding of their existence. Mr. Jalal, Salim's father, imagines himself the prophet of Vishnu, who he believes is actually a Hindu god; Mr. Taneja finds solace in intoning the word "om."
"The Death of Vishnu" happens almost entirely within the confines of this fractured apartment building; Suri's elegant, clever prose and emotional and philosophical probing carry the action of the novel entirely. In his characters' quests -- whether for faith, status or a glamorous career in movie musicals -- Suri has created an endlessly complex world that both breaks its inhabitants' hearts and occasionally holds out the prospect of redemption.