By Mark Harris
Updated February 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

On the landing of a small apartment building in Bombay, a man lies dying. Perhaps he’s just the old, only semi-trustworthy odd-jobber who subsisted on scraps from the tenants; perhaps he is the god Vishnu; perhaps both. In any case, as his spirit begins its three-story ascent up the staircase to a higher plane, we meet the quarrelsome, passionate, diverse residents of the building, and witness the debut journey of a remarkable writer. The structure of this novel is overly schematic, alternating between Vishnu’s mystical journey and the more workaday lives of those around him. But the Indian-born Suri, now a mathematics professor in Maryland, unlayers the jealousies, vanities, longings, and embarrassments of ordinary people with a combination of ruthlessness, insight, humor, and wickedly perfect pitch, as well as an almost tactile sense of language that can neither be faked nor learned. For once, all the hype about a major new literary voice isn’t wrong. A-