Old Rooms, New Voice With The Death of Vishnu published in a dozen countries, Manil Suri is India's latest literary star

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Virtually all of manil suri's en-chanting debut novel takes place in or around a Bombay apartment house. Here Vishnu, the tenants' drunken factotum, lies in his appointed sleeping place on a stair landing either dying or perhaps already dead. The two Hindu families on the first floor, the Asranis and the Pathaks, squabble over who will pay for the ambulance to cart poor, unsightly Vishnu away.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Jalals on the second floor are in turmoil because husband Ahmed, after years of proclaiming himself a religious freethinker, has been behaving like a mystic, leading his wife Arifa to worry that he is the victim of an evil eye. And unknown to all the adults in the building is the plan of the Asranis' movie-besotted daughter Kavita to elope with the Jalals' son Salim.

Its clever structure allows The Death of Vishnu (Bloomsbury; 329 pages) to display a manageable cross-section of contemporary urban Indian life, inclu-ding class and religious frictions. But the author, who grew up in Bombay and now teaches mathematics at the University of Maryland, has more to offer here than gentle social comedy.

There's also personal catharsis. "The central character was inspired by a man named Vishnu who lived on the steps of the apartment building in which I grew up," Suri writes in an author's note. "He died in August, 1994, on the same landing he had occupied for many years."

During the course of the novel, Vishnu's soul disentangles itself from his earthly remains and begins ascending the apartment house stairs. As this spirit looks back on the life just ending, on the prostitute whom he truly loved, on the mother who named him after the Hindu god Vishnu ("keeper of the universe, keeper of the sun"), Suri's novel achieves an eerie and memorable transcendence.