In 1995, the mathematician Manil Suri, then 36, began writing a story about a man named Vishnu, who lived on the steps of the building where Suri grew up in Mumbai. At a writer’s workshop he was attending at the time, a passing suggestion determined Suri’s approach to storytelling in the next decade. “[Someone said] I couldn’t call a character Vishnu without connecting him somehow to the god Vishnu—it was too potent a name,” recalls Suri. “That’s when I started reading Hindu mythology and using it in my fiction—it was really the title that fuelled the story.”
The Age of Shiva: Random House, 290 pages, Rs695
Not content with imbuing one character with mythological nuance, Suri determined to write a trilogy in which relationships would reflect the powers and the turmoil; the godliness and the humanity as it were, of the Hindu Trinity—following Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma.
Seven years after his debut, The Death of Vishnu, Suri’s sophomore effort, The Age of Shiva, reflects this commitment, alongside ambitious plans to expand the length and landscape of his narrative. From Vishnu’s single building and shared kitchen, where two women squabble over ghee as a man lies dying in a miasma of memories and dreams in a span of 24 hours, The Age of Shiva develops in a newly independent India, its primary cast—young, in love and bristling with optimism—ageing as India does when its first flush of freedom begins to fade.
It is Delhi in the early 1950s, and 17-year-old Meera Sawhney is trapped in the shadow of her vivacious sister Roopa, on whose paramour, Dev, she has a crush. After Roopa finds herself a suitable husband—Dev, after all, wants to be a playback singer, and his father “blows whistles after trains”—Meera steps in, believing herself victorious in a race she wasn’t tipped to win. Not so. Not only does Dev’s ardour for Roopa remain constant, Meera finds herself in a wretched reversal from the comforts her publisher father, Paji, with his books and basmati biryani, had her accustomed to.
Trying to regain control of her life, Meera merely relinquishes it further. She aborts her first child on Paji’s demand, in exchange for an apartment in Mumbai, which would allow Dev to pursue his dream. When it becomes clear that at his best Dev can only sing along to K.L. Saigal on the radiogram, she stops resisting his growing alcoholism. It “helped dull the keenness of his disappointment.” Meera also indulges the whims and schemes of her extended family—her father-in-law’s anti-Muslim tirades, her mother-in-law’s fondness for ritual—wanting to fulfil, if not her own, then someone else’s wishes. As Dev’s depression spirals out of control, she resigns her job, hoping, unsuccessfully, to ease his self-derogation.
The set: After Meera’s marriage to Dev, the action in the novel shifts from the Capital to Mumbai, where Dev aims to fulfil his music dreams.
The despair promises to lift with the birth of their son Ashvin, to whom Meera recounts this story. Ashvin is expected to erase the disappointments of Meera’s life. She asks him, “You will deliver me, will you not, from this life I find myself in?” As Ashvin grows up, Meera courts him as she might a lover. Ashvin, however, is his father’s son, making himself unattainable to Meera by enrolling in a distant boarding school.
It is a pivotal moment for Meera. She must ask herself whether her life, never lived by her alone, is worth reclaiming.
Unlike The Death of Vishnu, in which a single character typified the spirit of the deity, Shiva’s contradictory qualities are expressed across the novel’s entire cast of characters.
When the advances of Dev’s brother towards Meera are thwarted, he attempts to claim Ashvin by indoctrinating him into the right-wing Hindu Rashtriya Manch (HRM), which Meera deplores. He is the wrathful avenger. Not surprisingly, given her twisted relationships with the men in her life, Meera finds solace outside of convention. There is a singular, erotic scene involving Sandhya, her sister-in-law, whom she imagines enfolding “in the liquid warmth of her sari”; and with Ashvin the adolescent, of whom she says, “I let you cover my face with kisses on these nights.” They are the sensualists.
Although drawing from the trinity, Suri’s books couldn’t be further from a religious treatise. Like his debut, The Age of Shiva is an affectionate portrait of family life, threaded with comic sparks. There is a fine engagement with detail, in his description, for example, of Meera’s first Karva Chauth. Above all, the writer’s ability to maintain authenticity and uniformity in the voice of his female narrator, Meera, over several decades, exemplifies his command over the story. It isn’t Meera alone who enjoys Suri’s empathy, but all his female characters who, in their own way, get the better of their male counterparts. While (the then) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi doesn’t hesitate to accept Paji’s generous donations, her aides at an Independence Day function deny him access to the VIP enclosure and its delicious promise of pakoras. Through several startling incidents, including Meera’s abortion, Suri invites us to witness a woman’s position in Indian society, and the ways in which she must subvert the patriarchy.
If there is a fault with The Age of Shiva, it’s that in the second half it begins to drag its feet and by Part III, threatens to lose the intimate tone which so efficiently reels in readers. Although richly envisioned, its sprawling storyline tends to wander off, and Suri’s fascination with the political and social milieu of the time distracts from his main plot. Despite the engaging cast of characters Suri has crafted, it is Meera’s story that the reader will want most to listen to.
Discounting these minor diversions, readers will find that The Age of Shiva fulfils the promise of Manil Suri’s debut.
Sonia Faleiro is the author of The Girl. Her non-fiction book on Mumbai’s bar girls is forthcoming.
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