30 June 2009

The Age of Shiva

Author: Manil Suri
Pages: 454
Publisher: Bloombury
Price: 399
Published in: 2008

First things first. I think Manil Suri has a tremendous flair for creating drama and an astonishing ability of penetrating into human psyche. Which means, at certain points, The Age of Shiva touches the brilliance of V S Naipaul's A House For Mr Biswas in portraying human despair and chaotic family life with all its colourful and despicable characters. The author's biggest strength lies in creating interesting set pieces and keeping the narrative moving at a frenzied, rapid-fire pace. The language is simple yet wonderfully descriptive. All of this makes the book quite a compelling read.

And yet, the sum total does not add up to make this as ambitious a book as it would like to be.
For one, Manil Suri’s attempt to give the book an epic scale even while keeping it intimate is not always convincing. Spanning a period of 40 years since India's independence, the story somewhat awkwardly weaves in everything from episodes from the partition, the socio-political events around Nehru's time, the Emergency...all of it is there. Now, not all these events have a direct bearing on the characters which is what makes it nothing more than a contrivance. Then there is the evocation of myth, traditional rituals like karwa chaut explained in great detail. All of this makes the story a 'spiced up' Indian fare but authentically served nevertheless.

As I mentioned, Manil Suri has an acumen for dramatic plot points, which should make him a great script writer. The story's main thrust is on the mother-son relationship, so the author makes the unusual but intriguing choice of having the nondescript Meera as a narrator, addressing the story to her son, Ashwin. There are strong undercurrents of oedipal love as the reader will discover in the first page itself.
"Do you know how you thrust your feet towards me, how you reach out your arms, how the sides of your chest strain against my palms? Are you aware of your fingers brushing against my breasts, their lips trying to curl around something to hold on to, but slipping instead against my smooth flesh?"

It's a shock beginning and it would be easy to think of such writing as being titillating. No doubt, the author is a bit of a flame thrower - but the emotional audacity in Manil Suri's work is undeniable. And this is where the 'Shiva' allusion come in. It refers to the myth about Parvati creating her own son, Andhaka to keep her company in the absence of Shiva. That's the only connection here, so it's not really a title that encompasses the entire essence of the book. Not a strong allusion.

Meera, as she recounts her story, is the less fortunate daughter of the influential Sawhneys. Her elder sister, Roopa - blessed with superior looks - is pampered at home and she loses no opportunity in taking the nastiest jibes at her younger sibling. By a quirk of fate, however, Meera ends up marrying the guy who Roopa was going around with. Meera feels no particular love for Dev - though his quiet charm is attractive to her- and her decision to marry him is almost entirely driven by the fact that she managed to whisk at least one thing out of her selfish sister.

Meera, after being used to a lavish lifestyle, suddenly finds herself in very modest surroundings. Dev has a joint family, comprising a sympathetic mother-in-law, a vicious sister-in-law (Hema), Dev' brother Arya and his wife, Sandhya. (Surprisingly, Dev, who one supposes to be a very charming, articulate man going by the affection the two women shower on him, is relegated to the sidelines by the author). It's a bitter sweet life that Meera leads here, feeling frustrated at one point and at another time warming up to the affection she receives.

Meera's father, a well-to-do publisher and a proud rationalist, becomes an imposing presence in her life - something that she comes to grudge soon. Meera and Dev move to Bombay, so that the latter can try his luck as a singer. For all this while, there seems to be absolutely no passion between the couple. That is until their son Ashwin is born and things vastly alter. Dev- who so far is portrayed as a wimp - starts to acquire some positive shades, taking to fatherhood effortlessly. Meera - who so far was a picture of stoicism - is emboldened after turning mother. She sees her son as the sum total of her life, her only achievement and she would let nothing come in the way.

The book poignantly and sensitively portrays the lives of men and women - crushed and confused by their lot in life. The most heartbreaking episode is of course that of Meera's intense love for son, her conflicting emotions when she has to unwillingly separate their beds, her utter despair to see him move on with his life. These moments are wonderfully emotional and it's astonishing how Manil Suri can delve so deep into a woman's heart (his being gay could have a part to play here possibly).

The book really - for all its ambitions - is about a woman and her relationship with the men in her life. And to that extent, The Age of Shiva is a very engaging read. Not that it has no flaws. First of all, the novel has too many hateful characters - the kind of loathsome creatures that are hard to imagine. Again, there are other characters like Arya, Biji and to an extent Paaji that come across as being more real. In all this Meera's father's character (Paaji) is probably the most interesting one but the author burdens him with too much to do. He's supposed to be the political voice of the book and he single-handedly alters his daughter's fate at not one or two but five or six occasions. Otherwise also, some of the characters seem to slip out of their roles and behave in an unlikely manner.

Yet, The Age Of Shiva proved to be a riveting read where I'm concerned. It has some wonderful passages, great exchanges and superb conflicts.

-Sandhya Iyer


Shona said...

Great review. I must pick this up soon. Adding it to my TBR

sandy said...

Thanks Shona. You must indeed read this book. In spite of mixed reviews, I mostly enjoyed the book.

Ivana Džidić said...

great review