Unsatisfying saga of destructive love
MANIL Suri’s The Age of Shiva opens with a confronting description of breastfeeding that at first reads like a drawn- out scene of sexual foreplay. That a male writer should attempt to express the voice and inner feelings of his novel’s female narrator and protagonist for such an intimate moment, let alone for 450 pages, is a brave undertaking.
As the title suggests, this chronicle of postPartition India as seen through the eyes of Meera Sawhney has a strong mythological underpinning. Shiva is a creator and destroyer in the Hindu pantheon. But he also spends whole epochs as an ascetic meditating in a cave high in the Himalayas. Feeling lonely because of these long absences, Shiva’s consort Parvati creates a son, Andhaka, to keep her happy.
In Suri’s book, Meera’s creation — her son Ashvin — becomes her sole source of happiness as her life as a traditional Hindu wife and then as a widow collapses around her.
Though she may be subconsciously acting out some cosmic drama, Meera’s fate is sealed through a series of earthly events. An unconsummated moment of erotic passion when she is just 17 leads her to marry Dev, an unemployed singer, much to the disgust of her domineering father. After growing up in a secular middle- class home in New Delhi, Meera is horrified to find herself part of a large extended Hindu family living in a crowded, cockroach- infested tenement in the capital’s old Muslim quarter of Nizamuddin. By now Suri has established the main threads of the story: the conflict between modernity and tradition, secularism and communalism, a young woman’s search for her identity and her husband’s expectations of how a wife should behave.
Much of the story takes place during modern India’s most formative years, from the mid- 1950s when people’s expectations after independence were still running high through to the ’ 80s when Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency to rescue her political career.
Along the way we witness the rise of Hindu nationalism, religious riots, wars with Pakistan and the stifling hold that socialism retained on the country’s development.
The characters in the book fall a little too neatly into these social and historical niches. Dev’s failure to break into Bollywood as a singer turns him into an alcoholic who spends his nights frequenting seedy dance halls. Meera’s father Paji is a publisher and a strong supporter of everything that the Congress Party and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru stands for. Though a liberal, he is so determined to control Meera’s life that he forces her to abort her first child rather than give up her university education.
Apart from her childless sister- in- law Sandhya, with whom she develops a close but ultimately tragic relationship, most of the other members of Dev’s family are venal. Her lecherous brother- in- law Arya joins a particularly fascist offshoot of the Hindu nationalist movement, is arrested during the emergency, and tries to rape Meera and indoctrinate her son.
The novel’s pace is also a problem. Suri’s first novel, The Death of Vishnu, was set mainly in the stairwell of an apartment block in Mumbai during the course of one day. The Age of Shiva alternates between the same sense of lingering too long on a particular day or event and fast- forwarding several years in the lives of its main characters without accounting for what happened in between.
Ashvin’s birth brings another unsettling aspect to the novel. Meera smothers the being she has created until he can’t breathe. Her possessive love for her son borders on the incestuous. The problem is not the rather mushy erotic suggestiveness sprinkled throughout the book. Whatever emotional resonance this could have brought is buried by the blandness of the other characters and even the setting. Suri underplays the texture and taste of Mumbai, the most vibrant and cosmopolitan of India’s great cities. The reader feels little excitement at the great social and political convulsions that the world’s largest democracy is going through.
By spreading out such a vast and exotic canvas, Suri has set out to write a classic. And while there are enough interesting historical subplots and insights into the Indian psyche to qualify for this status, The Age of Shiva ultimately fails to live up to its promise. John Zubrzycki is a senior writer with The Australian and author of The Last Nizam ( Macmillan).