Un­sat­is­fy­ing saga of de­struc­tive love

John Zubrzycki

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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).

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