Excerpt from 'The Death of Vishnu'

book.jpgThe Death of Vishnu

By Manil Suri

W. W. Norton & Company

Copyright © 2001 Manil Suri. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-393-05042-4

Chapter One

The Death of Vishnu

Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hadn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand. Vishnu lay sprawled on the stone, his figure aligned with the curve of the stairs. The laces of a pair of sneakers twined around the fingers of one hand; the other lay outstretched, as if trying to pull his body up the next step. During the night, Mrs. Asrani noted with distress, Vishnu had not only thrown up, but also soiled himself. She had warned her neighbor, Mrs. Pathak, not to feed Vishnu when he was so sick, but did that woman ever listen? She tried not to look at the large stain spreading through the worn material of Vishnu's khaki pants, the ones that her husband had given him last Divali. What a mess—the jamadarni would have to be brought in to clean up such a mess, and it would not be free, either, someone would have to pay. Her large frame heaving against the sari in which it was swaddled, Mrs. Asrani peered at Vishnu from the safety of the third step and vowed it would not be her.

    A more immediate problem had to be dealt with first—what to do about the cup of tea she brought Vishnu every morning? On the one hand, it was obvious that Vishnu did not have much need for tea right now. Even yesterday, he had barely stirred when she had filled his plastic cup, and she had felt a flutter of resentment at not having received her usual salaam in return. On the other hand, giving tea to a dying man was surely a very propitious thing to do. Since she had taken this daily task upon herself, it would be foolish to stop now, when at most a few more cups could possibly be required. Besides, who knew what sort of repercussions would rain down upon her if she failed to fulfill this daily ritual?

    Pressing the edge of her sari against her nose to keep out the smell, Mrs. Asrani descended gingerly to the landing. Using the scrap of brown paper she had brought along for the purpose, she fished out the cup from the small pile of belongings near Vishnu's head, taking care to always keep the paper between her fingers and the cup, so as not to infect herself with whatever he had. She placed the cup on the step above the landing and poured tea from the kettle. Hating the idea of good tea being wasted, she hesitated when the cup was half full, but only for a second, filling it to its usual level to fulfill her pledge. Then she ascended the steps and surveyed her handiwork. The cup lay steaming where she had left it—but now Vishnu looked like he was stretching out across the landing to try and reach it, like a man dead in the desert, grasping for the drink that could have saved him. She thought about moving the cup to correct this, but the scrap of paper she had used now lay on the landing, and she couldn't be sure which surface had touched the cup. There was nothing she could do anymore, so she turned and climbed up the remaining steps. At the door of her flat, it occurred to her that she still didn't know if Vishnu was alive or dead. But it didn't really matter, she had done her duty in either case. Satisfied, Mrs. Asrani entered her flat and closed the door behind her.

* * *

The steam rises lazily from the surface of the tea. It is thick with the aroma of boiled milk, streaked with the perfume of cardamom and clove. It wisps and curls and rises and falls, tracing letters from some fleeting alphabet.

    A sudden gust leads it spiraling down to the motionless man. It reaches his face, almost invisible now, and wafts playfully under his nose. Surely the smells it carries awaken memories in the man. Memories of his mother in the tin-and-cardboard hut, brewing tea in the old iron kettle. She would squeeze and press at the leaves, and use them several times over, throwing them away only when no more flavor could be coaxed out. Memories of Padmini, the vapor still devoid of cardamom or clove, but smelling now of chameli flowers fastened like strings of pearls around her wrists. After they had made love, and if she did not have another person waiting, the tea would be carried in by one of the children at the brothel, and they would sit on the bed in silence and sip it from metal tumblers. Memories of Kavita, the steam finally milk-rich and perfumed, her long black tresses framing her smiling face as she bends to fill his cup. For almost a month last year while Mrs. Asrani was sick, it was her daughter Kavita who performed the daily ritual. Vishnu would scrape a broken comb through his knotted hair every morning and wait to deliver a toothy "Salaam, memsahib!" when she came, winking at her with his good eye.

    All these memories and more the steam tries to evoke in the man. His mother discarding all her used leaves on festivals, even scooping out a few spoonfuls of sugar to sweeten the tea. Padmini pressing her lips against the metal rim, laughing as she offers him the tumbler stained with unnatural red. Kavita trying to keep her dupatta from falling off as she bends down, passing the kettle from hand to hand so as to not burn her fingers.

    A breath of exhaled air emerges from the man's nostrils, fraying the steam into strands. The strands shimmer for a second, then fade away.

* * *

It had been almost eleven years now that Mrs. Asrani had been bringing Vishnu his morning tea. Before that, it had been Tall Ganga for whom she had brought the tea, the old woman who had slept on the landing between the ground and first floors since as far back as anyone could remember. One day, Tall Ganga had announced to Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani that she would no longer be bringing them their milk bottles in the morning or cleaning their dishes in the afternoon. She had finally saved up enough money to have the last of her daughters married and would be going back to her village to live out the rest of her days with her eldest son. It would be Vishnu who would be taking over these duties in a week, and sleeping on the landing as well, so they should pay Vishnu and bring the tea and leftover chapatis for him after she had left.

    The news had been received with dismay by both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani. The problem was that Vishnu was a drunk, lolling around every afternoon on the small ground-floor landing that was a few steps above the street. They had entreated Tall Ganga to find a more reliable replacement, to leave their milk bottles and dishes in better hands. "You've been staying here with us all these years," Mrs. Pathak had reminded her reproachfully. "Surely you owe us this much."

    The last statement had outraged Tall Ganga. "What do you think, I've been staying here due to your generosity? I came here long before you did, Pathak memsahib. Every family that's ever lived in this building has eaten off dishes washed by my hands. I may not be rich like you, but I have more right to be here than anyone in this building!" The hot tears in Tall Ganga's eyes had silenced both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani. Tall Ganga had straightened out from her old woman's stoop and stretched to her full height, until her head was actually pinning the sari covering her hair against the ceiling. "I've already given my word to Vishnu," she had declared, staring down at them, "that he is to be my replacement. And I hope, as the person who brought the milk that your children grew up on, that you will preserve my dignity." Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani had been unable to do anything but nod their heads. It was only later, when Vishnu was entrenched on the new landing, that they learned from the cigarettewalla downstairs that Tall Ganga had exacted the sum of two thousand rupees from Vishnu to designate him as the official replacement.

    Within a week, it had become clear that Vishnu was not cut out to perform the duties of a ganga. The milk bottles, if delivered, would arrive late in the afternoon, their blue foil caps bulging from the pressure of the curdled milk inside. The dishwashing was a disaster, with pots dented, cups chipped, and plates covered with grease stacked up in the kitchen cupboards. Once, Mrs. Asrani had screamed upon finding a giant green cockroach with white innards squished between two dishes in the cupboard—they'd had okra the night before, and Vishnu had left an entire pod stuck to a plate. And almost every day, Vishnu would "borrow" a tumbler for his evening drink and Mr. Pathak or Mr. Asrani would have to go down to the landing to retrieve it. ("Glass affects the alcohol, sahib, gives it more of a kick.")

    They'd tried, without much hope, to dislodge Vishnu from the landing. But all the shopkeepers on the ground floor, from the electrician to the tailor, from the paanwalla to the cigarettewalla, knew about Vishnu's contract with the ganga. Since nobody actually owned the landing, it was clear that all inhabitation rights to it now belonged to Vishnu; it would have been ridiculous to usurp this order. Vishnu was perfectly entitled to store his meager belongings there, to eat, drink, and sleep there, even to spit paan juice on its crumbling walls if he wanted. (He did.) And at night, the occupants of the building were expected to carefully feel their way past the thin edge of his blanket in the dark, just as they did for the inhabitants of landings higher up along the stairway, even though Mrs. Asrani could not help prodding his reposing form accidentally a few times, such was her frustration with the situation.

    They did, of course, cut Vishnu off, both from his duties and the tea and chapatis. In his place, they hired Short Ganga, who while not particularly short was called that to differentiate her from her predecessor. Short Ganga wanted neither a place to sleep nor stale chapatis to eat; in lieu of these perks, she insisted on a higher salary, and this caused both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani some agony.

    It was Mrs. Pathak who finally integrated Vishnu back into the scheme of things. Noting that her stale chapatis (which she had started giving to the woman who begged next to the paanwalla shop) were not really getting her anything (except, she supposed, peace of mind), she brought the topic up with Mr. Pathak one day. "It's impossible to starve him out, you know—all he does is drink, anyway—he doesn't care about food. Why don't you tell him we will start feeding him again—even pay him once in a while—he can help in return—stand in the ration line, take the wheat to the mill, that kind of thing. We might as well make some use of him, if he's here to stay." Mr. Pathak, who had not been aware that they had been trying to starve Vishnu out, or even that they had cut off his chapatis, dutifully talked to him later that afternoon. Vishnu started performing chores for the Pathaks, then the Asranis, then the Muslim Jalal family on the second floor, and then for Vinod Taneja, the widower who lived alone in the large third-floor flat at the top of the building. Within a month, Vishnu had been able to pay back the first installment of the two thousand rupees he had borrowed from the cigarettewalla.

    Thus was Vishnu rescued from starvation, and, more importantly, from the rigors of sobriety.

* * *

The light shines through the landing window. It plays on Vishnu's face. It passes through his closed eyelids and whispers to him in red.

    The red is everywhere, blanketing the ground, coloring the breeze. It must be the red of Holi. He is nine, hiding behind a tree, fistfuls of red powder in each hand. He has been waiting for the festival for so many weeks. All morning he has played Holi—his hair is purple, his clothes blue, bright red and yellow streaks run across his face. He can taste the color on his lips—it is gritty, like mud, but more metallic.

    His father sits with friends on the other side of the tree. They have been drinking bhang since morning, the milky liquid in the earthenware pots is almost gone. They are all quite intoxicated by now; some of them are weeping, some are laughing. His father lifts a pot to his mouth, drinks deeply, then lets it smash at his feet.

    Vishnu has been saving the powder for his father. He emerges from behind the tree and runs to the squatting men. He opens one fist and hurls the powder at them, then goes over to his father and rubs the powder from the other fist on his face. He tries to run away, but someone catches his foot. He trips, his lip splits open on the ground. He feels himself being dragged back by his leg. The men are all over him, laughing and weeping, holding him down to the ground. He sees his father's face, all round and bloated, there is a pot in his hand. "Open his mouth!" his father says, and someone pulls his jaws apart. Fingers press into his torn lip, the blood trickles out into his mouth. His father tilts the pot and a stream of bhang splashes against the inside of his throat. He gags and tries to swallow; the liquid burns down to his stomach. The hands are pulling his mouth open wider, he feels the bones in his jaws will break. The liquid is spilling from his mouth, gushing through his nose, washing the color from his face. Finally the stream stops, he sees his father look down at him. Laughing, his father lets the pot go—it descends, and bursts on his forehead.

* * *

When Mrs. Pathak opened her front door, the first thing she noticed was the smell. "I think their toilet is backed up again," she announced to Mr. Pathak, sitting in the living room. "I'll bet she tries to take some water from the kitchen, you just wait and see!"

    The Pathaks were involved in a long-running battle with the Asranis over the first-floor kitchen, which the two families shared. It was the wives who did most of the fighting, except when things got so heated that spousal reserves had to be deployed. The main problem seemed to be the rusty green tank in the kitchen, water from which was supposed to be used for cooking purposes only, but which each side was tempted to raid on days that the terrace cistern allotted to each flat ran out. Coupled with this were the perennial skirmishes over counter and cupboard space—although several formulas had been suggested over the years, at least one (sometimes both) of the wives was always simmering under the suspicion she had been cheated of her rightful share. Frequently this simmer, stoked as it was by the fumes and the heat of the four kerosene stoves in the cramped kitchen, would come to a boil, and then the fight would erupt—charges of stoves being tampered with and dinners burnt, countercharges of utensils being pilfered and spices misappropriated, and accusations of meals being given the "evil eye," or even, on some occasions, poisoned.

    "She's going to take the water, you wait and see!" Mrs. Pathak said again, sliding the gold bangles up her arms and licking her lips. Her thin frame twitched. The kitchen had been very hot lately, and almost three weeks had elapsed since the last fight.

    "If she wants it, let her have it," Mr. Pathak suggested, without hope. He knew what was coming, this was going to be a big one. Possibly, he and Mr. Asrani would be required to serve as well.

    Mrs. Pathak stood at the door and wrinkled her nose. "It seems to be coming from downstairs, though...." There was disappointment in her voice. "I wonder...."

    Mr. Pathak heard her shuffle into her slippers and descend the steps. There was no sound for a few seconds, then Mrs. Pathak gasped, and he heard her running back up the steps. He looked up from his paper, just in time to see his wife burst through the door, her face red. "Are you listening?" she shouted. "It's Vishnu. He's gone to the toilet, all over our stairway!" Mrs. Pathak's eyes flashed ferociously. "I told you not to let him come back here."

    When Vishnu had fallen ill some months ago, he had come to Mr. Pathak and asked him for money to go back to Nagpur. "My brother said he will look after me, sahib—all I need is train fare—my brother said he can get me into the hospital there. Free." After he had given him the money, and Vishnu had gone, Mr. Asrani had informed Mr. Pathak that he, too, had given Vishnu "train fare." There had been no sign of Vishnu for some weeks, and both the cigarettewalla and the paanwalla had been eyeing the vacant landing. Then one day, Vishnu reappeared at Mr. Pathak's door. "Salaam, sahib!" he had said, saluting Mr. Pathak and giving him his toothy grin. "They said I didn't need to be in the hospital after all."

    Both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani had been most unhappy at this return. They had just completed negotiations with Short Ganga, promising her the first-floor landing if she agreed to lower wages. (Short Ganga had, in turn, paid off the paanwalla and the cigarettewalla to quell potential claims, and rented the landing to Man Who Slept on the Lowest Step, at a profitable rate.) However, neither Mrs. Pathak nor Mrs. Asrani had been willing to tell Vishnu he could not return; they had nagged their husbands to do it. The plan hadn't worked: Vishnu had been reinstated, much to their chagrin.

    He had fallen extremely ill almost immediately. "He was coughing quite badly this morning," Mr. Asrani said to Mrs. Asrani one day.

    "TB," Mrs. Asrani whispered to Mrs. Pathak that afternoon. "He was coughing blood when I took him his tea."

    "We're all going to be infected!" Mrs. Pathak screamed at her husband that evening. "Blood all over my sari when I went to feed him!"

    But the doctor Mr. Pathak had called in, at Mrs. Pathak's hysterical urging, had said there was no sign of tuberculosis, and further tests would be needed to diagnose what it was—tests that cost money, and which Mrs. Pathak quickly declared out of the question, it being bad enough that the doctor had charged his full fee and didn't these doctors have any heart, even for people who slept on the landings?

    And now that Vishnu had soiled himself on their steps, on the very day that she was hosting her kitty party, what was Mr. Pathak going to do, and hadn't she warned him?

    Mr. Pathak thought about continuing reading his paper, but he knew this would only infuriate his wife further. He put on his glasses to better appraise her anger. "I could call an ambulance ..." he ventured.

    At this, Mrs. Pathak got very excited. "An ambulance! An ambulance! We don't have money to send Rajan to a boarding school, and you're going to order an ambulance! For Vishnu!" For a second, Mr. Pathak wondered if he had provoked his wife into her occasional ritual of removing the gold bangles from her arms and telling him he might as well sell off her dowry. Fortunately, his infraction had not been serious enough, for Mrs. Pathak's anger seemed to quickly veer away. "We've already paid for a doctor—if anyone pays for an ambulance, it should be them!" She spat out the last word at the wall separating their flat from the Asranis.

    "Go talk to them," Mrs. Pathak ordered. "Tell them it's their responsibility now."

    Wearily, Mr. Pathak folded his newspaper. Summer weekends were the worst. The monsoons were still two months away.

* * *

It is a different red. He knows this color well. It is the red of her room: the ceiling, the walls, drip red. The girls are dancing downstairs, a film song rises through the floor. She dances with back toward a freestanding mirror, her arms swaying above her head. Her fingers caress the chameli on her wrist, they undo the string that holds them. She looks up at the flowers as they cascade over her face. Her hand slides down her arm with the music, her fingers move to her breast. She pulls open a clasp, her dress parts down the front. Rounded flesh peeks out from the cloth, the skin between is powdered white. Vishnu hears the ghungroos on the dancers' feet below chiming to the music.

    She turns around quickly and the dress falls to the floor. She grabs a side of the mirror with each hand and presses her body against it. Her back is swaying in front of Vishnu, he has still not seen her breasts.

    Slowly, she peels her body off the mirror. Her breasts rise from the surface, like moons emerging from a pool. Her hair swings free, her body arches back, and her nipples turn into view—they ascend into the air, crowning the twin mounds of her body. Vishnu stares at them in fascination: drops of blood against white flesh, they are painted a bright iridescent red.

    "Squeeze them," Padmini says, and Vishnu's fingers close over each nipple. He rubs them and the red comes off on his fingertips.

    "Taste them," she says, still bent backwards. Vishnu leans over. His tongue traces a path up her white breast and he tastes the chalkiness of the talcum. It reaches the nipple. The red feels sticky on his tongue, it is sweet colored syrup. She laughs as he bites her gently.

    "On the bed," she says, and he lifts her up and carries her to it.

    "Down below," she whispers, loosening the string of her skirt. Vishnu pulls down the cloth. Her thighs are powdered white, between them Vishnu sees a triangle of garish red. "Slut!" he whispers.

    "Do it!" she says.

    "Slut!" he says again, and begins to rise, but she pulls him back into the red.

* * *

Squatting on the floor in front of the dressing-table mirror, Mrs. Asrani was in the midst of applying Tru-Tone to her hair when the doorbell rang. "Can you get that?" she shouted to Mr. Asrani. "If it's the meatwalla, buy a kilo—and don't let him give you all bones like he did the last time."

    Around and under Mrs. Asrani, the floor was covered with pages of the Times of India. Six years ago, when she had started dyeing her hair, Mr. Asrani and the children had quickly learned that to venture into the territory delineated by the newspaper was to risk terrible consequences. As Mrs. Asrani's ire at her aging had grown, so also had the area she staked out. These days, she was up to the entire Saturday edition.

    The dye was not behaving today, it didn't look viscous enough—perhaps she had not mixed the two components in the right proportion. She dipped the old toothbrush wrapped in gauze into the saucer of black liquid by her foot and ran it over her hair. Black drops rolled down onto the faded towel around her shoulders. Her hair was getting grayer, she could tell: time was that a bottle of Tru-Tone lasted her a year, but now Mr. Asrani had to be sent down to the chemist for a new bottle every two months.

    Mrs. Asrani sighed. How many more bottles of Tru-Tone would she go through before she finally decided to quit? She hated the whole process—the chemical smell of the dye, the way it stained her fingers, the long wait for it to set while it seeped out into her skin. No matter how hard she scrubbed afterwards, the marks remained for days on her forehead, crude enhancements of her hairline that someone might have painted on to form a more decorative frame for her face. She wasn't even sure why she did it anymore—whom was she trying to fool, whom was she trying to impress? Certainly not Manohar—all he seemed to care about was his gods and his drinks. He had not commented on her looks for—how long had it been? In fact, when was the last time he had even brought her a string of jasmine—the blossoms she had come to expect every evening in those early years, tied around her hair by his own hand? The buds would glow creamily in her tresses, black as kohl back then, and he would squeeze the petals between his fingers to release their fragrance and perfume her hair.

    But that had been before her hair had turned, before her looks had thickened, before her body had begun to spill around her every time she sat down. Why had it happened to her? Manohar was no more plump than the day he first came to look at her—hair mostly gone, it was true, but the baldness only accentuating his babyish looks. And Mrs. Pathak, right next door, giving birth to her two children in the same two years she had—how had she retained the slimness of her figure, the immaculate blackness of her hair? It was all so unfair.

    She could feel the anger descending again, a curtain falling around, enveloping her insides in its folds. She wondered if it could be a chemical in the dye that caused this reaction month after month. She really had to give the whole thing up. She had tried to do so once last year, going an entire two months without using the Tru-Tone. Squiggles of white had sprouted all over her head, like some crawling infestation, but she had not reached for the bottle. The squiggles had turned into gaping patches, and she had tied her hair tightly into a bun to hide them. But Mrs. Pathak had taken to shaking her hair loose tauntingly every time she came into the kitchen, and she had finally succumbed. She had even tried using henna once, since it did not have a chemical base, but it had turned her hair a bright orange and she had ended up looking like one of the old Muslim ladies who came to visit Mrs. Jalal on Saturdays.

    Voices from the door brought her out of her reverie. "... and since he's in such a bad state, we thought...." It was Mr. Pathak, not the meatwalla—what was he talking about? Mrs. Asrani put down the toothbrush and held her breath, to make sure she heard every word.

    "... really should do something before Vishnu gets...." Of course. Vishnu. The steps outside. She should have told Mr. Asrani—it was Mrs. Pathak's fault—who'd ever heard of giving such dry chapatis to someone in that condition—her chapatis would make even a well man sick! Tell them they should pay for cleaning up, she felt like yelling to Mr. Asrani—what a mess—her head half covered with dye.

    "... and since we paid for the doctor, we think it's only fair that you pay for the ambulance." What a preposterous suggestion. Of course, Mr. Asrani would politely but firmly correct this silliness. The woman must be mad, to send her husband to say this. Poor Mr. Pathak—Mrs. Asrani felt a twinge of sympathy for him.

    "Of course." The two words, in her husband's voice, sent Mrs. Asrani into shock. But the situation was too egregious, and she was forced to quickly recover. She tried to speak, but the indignation made the word stick in her throat. "No!" it finally emerged, swinging through the corridor and speeding toward Mr. Asrani.

    "No!" Mr. Asrani agreed, as soon as the missive reached him. "Tell them that the only reason Vishnu threw up is because of those chapatis they fed him."

    "The chapatis," Mr. Asrani explained. "You see, he ate them and that's what caused the problem. Perhaps you shouldn't have fed them to him."

    "If someone is that sick, one can only expect—" Mr. Pathak began. "If someone is that sick, one doesn't feed them food fit for the dogs," Mrs. Asrani interrupted, still speaking only to her husband. "And if one does insist on feeding such things, then one must pay for the consequences." Mrs. Asrani was trying to keep her voice low, but frustration at her temporary incapacitation made it difficult.

    "Aruna, let me speak to Mr. Pathak," Mr. Asrani said, trying, without much hope, to sound assertive.

    "So really, they are the ones who should pay for the jamadarni even."

    "Surely you aren't suggesting we should be paying for everything. We already paid for the doctor, you know."

    "And for what, ask them, for what? What did the doctor say, that he's sick? I could have told Mr. Pathak that."


    "No, tell Pathak sahib that they are responsible. She is responsible. Tell him he should go to his wife and tell her—" Before she could finish her sentence, the door slammed.

    By the time her husband entered the room, Mrs. Asrani was calmly applying the Tru-Tone again. "Did you have to be so rude?" Mr. Asrani demanded, the anger giving his face a cherubic flush. "You really should at least—"

    "I should at least? Don't tell me I should at least. You should at least. You know how much ghee she's been stealing? Every day the level goes lower and lower, and I can't say anything. I can never catch her. And you're taking her side." Mrs. Asrani's voice faltered, as if she were about to cry.

    "Aruna, Aruna, I'm not taking her side. Don't be silly."

    "You said I should at least—" Again, Mrs. Asrani's voice wavered, threatening to dissolve into a sob.

    "All I said was Vishnu—the man's dying—on our steps—we have to do something."

    "So let them do it," said Mrs. Asrani, her voice hardening suddenly, like syrup cracking in water. "What good will it do now anyway? He's too far gone, the poor bechara—any fool can see that. And what makes you such a saint? Coming home drunk at one o'clock last night. Face so red it could have been a traffic light." Mrs. Asrani stabbed malevolently at the dye with her toothbrush. "Now can I please finish this?"

    Mr. Asrani fumed out of the room, drawing back the door as if to slam it, but closing it gently at the last instant.

* * *

As Mrs. Pathak dabbed at the sweat on her forehead, she wondered again why she had embarked upon the recipe for Russian-salad samosas. It was all Mrs. Jaiswal's fault, of course—serving those strange Mexican things at the last kitty party—"tocos" she had called them. They had been nothing more than fried chapatis wrapped around salad leaves and cauliflower curry, but the woman had been shrewd enough to mix in lots of mango pickle and chili, and the ladies (including Mrs. Pathak, despite herself) had just gone wild over them. "Rohit tells me that tocos are very popular in Omaha right now," Mrs. Jaiswal had crowed, lest anyone forget that her son was currently enrolled at the University of Nebraska, in the States. This had been particularly galling, given that Mrs. Pathak's elder son, Veeru, had just failed his first-year exams at Bombay University.

    Mrs. Pathak melted a quantity of ghee in a kadai, then quickly scooped out and added an extra two tablespoons from the plastic container on Mrs. Asrani's side of the kitchen. She regarded this as compensation for all the water she was sure Mrs. Asrani pilfered from the tankie every day—the endless string of pots that boiled away for hours on the stove—the family seemed to do nothing but take baths all morning. Mrs. Asrani would mark the level of ghee on the container with lines and codes using an eyebrow pencil, but this only served to stimulate Mrs. Pathak, who had become addicted to this daily larceny.

    As she waited for the ghee to heat, it occurred to her that her husband still hadn't reported back from the Asranis. Perhaps he had gone downstairs, to have a cup of tea at the Irani hotel. She had never understood why he couldn't just have the tea at home, instead of paying to have it in that tired old place. But at least he didn't get drunk at the drinkwalla like Mr. Asrani did twice a week, so she did not object. She hoped the question of the ambulance had been settled—Vishnu had to be out of there before her kitty party guests arrived this afternoon. She could just imagine the remarks behind her back if Mrs. Jaiswal saw something like that.

    Poor Vishnu. She felt bad he was going to die. She was going to miss his "Salaam, memsahib" every time she went down the stairs. Although his return from Nagpur had been a disaster, the years before had worked out well for the families in the building—even better than she had expected. Mr. Pathak had certainly been thankful he no longer had to stand in the ration lines or take the wheat to be ground. And both she and Mrs. Asrani had felt better having someone to look in regularly on Mr. Taneja cooped up alone in his flat upstairs. Even the steps and landings had acquired a cleaner look, once Vishnu had been weaned away from his habit of spitting paan juice on the building walls. She resolved to make an offering for Vishnu at the temple the next day, if he had passed away by then. They would have to decide about the landing, of course—perhaps Short Ganga would still be interested in the deal they had arranged some months back.

    The ghee was hot, so Mrs. Pathak rolled back the bangles from her wrist and added the first batch of neatly folded triangular pastries to the kadai. The batter made a sizzling sound which pleased Mrs. Pathak, and her bangles clinked together as she petted some of the samosas encouragingly with her ladle. She was glad she hadn't skimped on the ingredients as she usually did—a whole bottle of Dr. Writer's mayonnaise the recipe had called for, and she had tried to ignore the price tag as she had mixed it in. It would all be worth it, though—just the expression on Mrs. Jaiswal's face, as she brought in the platter piled high with her delicate, perfect, foreign samosas. Perhaps she'd even get another bottle of mayonnaise, to serve on the side. She had better hurry though, if she was going to go downstairs for the mayonnaise—she still hadn't selected the jewelry she was going to wear, or even the sari.

    Mrs. Pathak looked back into the kadai and gasped. The top of one of the samosas had unfurled. Peas, carrots, potatoes and the precious mayonnaise were being released into the swirling fat. Before she could do anything, the remaining samosas began unraveling as well, almost in choreographed succession, until the kadai was a bubbling mass of vegetables, batter, and rapidly vaporizing mayonnaise.

    Mrs. Pathak stood by the stove, her bangles bunching silently at her wrists. She stared impassively at the contents of the kadai. The Russian-salad samosas had disintegrated, they would not be debuting at her kitty party today. There was nothing left to do now but let everything crisp up. Then with lemon and pickle, it might yet taste good—she'd serve it as a side dish for lunch. And if nobody ate it, perhaps Vishnu was still well enough that she could give it to him.

* * *

The red is darker, more viscous now. It oozes into the shadows of the hut. It lingers at the cut on his forehead, and darkens the edge of his eye bruised shut. Somewhere through the red he hears a snore, it is his father sleeping in a corner of the hut.

    His sister enters through the doorway. She has brought a piece of ice from the market. She gives it to his mother, who wraps her dupatta around it.

    "It hurts, I know," his mother says, applying the ice to his swollen eye. "But you must be brave. Remember, you are Vishnu." The ice feels cold against his eyelid, but does not quell the fire underneath.

    "Vishnu of the ten avatars," his mother says, pressing the ice against his forehead. "Rama and Krishna are part of you."

    Rama and Krishna, he thinks, and tries to remember the other eight incarnations his mother has taught him. Matsya the fish, Kurma the tortoise, Varaha the boar ... His father suddenly snores loudly, and he stiffens.

    "Vishnu the fearless, Vishnu the merciful," his mother continues, "the Ganges flows from the feet of my little Vishnu. One day his Lakshmi will descend into his life, and Garuda the eagle will appear to fly them to Vaikuntha."

    Vishnu pictures himself with his mother riding the giant eagle above the clouds. In the distance lies their private paradise of Vaikuntha, gold spires glitter in the sun.

    "You are Vishnu," his mother tells him, "keeper of the universe, keeper of the sun. What would be the world without you?"

    "I am Vishnu," he says, "keeper of the universe, keeper of the sun. There is only darkness without me."

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