The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri sat on my bookshelves for five years. I bought it at Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, in 2008. I shipped it back to my home in Florida along with ten other books I couldn’t resist in this warehouse of a bookstore. I still have a few other books left to read. But I picked up The Age of Shiva a few weeks ago, and it’s opening page lured me in despite my uneasy feeling when I realized the very sensuous description of a woman being fondled was actually the narrator Meera describing to “you” how it felt to breastfeed “you” as a tiny baby.
Written in first person (although an argument could be made that it’s really second person), Meera is describing her life of sacrifice in India during the decades from the 1950s to the 1980s to her son Ashvin. The female narrator comes to life under the author’s careful sketch. After the first chapter, I read the biography of the author and discovered Manil Suri is a man – another off-kilter revelation. Suri pulls it off.
The book is at its best in the descriptions of India’s turmoil under the rule of Nehru and then Indira Gandhi. The racial and religious tensions is given life through the other characters close to Meera. Her brother-in-law belongs to the radical HRM, which hopes to drive out all other religions from India, leaving Hindu as the ruling majority class. Meera’s father is nonreligious and likes to flaunt his secularism in the face of his very nonsecular Hindu wife. He invites Muslims to the house for dinner and socializes with them in public. However, when Meera’s younger sister marries a Muslim, even the father has difficulty accepting it. Meera remains on the outside looking in, which gives an objective view and allows the reader to realize both sides will do anything to win.
Meera’s life is run by the men, which is most likely a true portrayal of an Indian woman, especially during the 1950s. She is passive aggressive with those men as she finds ways to defy them. The punishments inflicted on her are a steep price to pay for her momentary thrill in winning a small victory.
Suri paints a very complicated portrait of a mother and son. As Ashvin grows into a young man, the relationship becomes wholly unhealthy. Meera selfishly tries to keep him to herself and what ensues is difficult and horrifying to read. It is the son who finally has the guts to do something about the taboo broken in the sacred bond between mother and child.
I enjoyed this book most of the time, although the descriptions sometimes bogged down the reading. I thought the ending dragged on far too long. The conflicted relationships between Meera and her son, father, husband, brother-in-law, and sister took too long to resolve. And most of them were resolved unsatisfactorily.
If you love historical novels from the twentieth century set in another world from the one in which you live, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in this novel. However, be forewarned that parts of it may make you uncomfortable.
The Death of Vishnu is Manil Suri’s first book, and it received much more acclaim than this one. I like the author enough to read it one of these days, but hopefully I’ll manage to do that sooner than five years from now.