THE AGE OF SHIVA
By Manil Suri
Norton. 455 pp. $24.95
The Age of Shiva is a perplexing novel, though any sympathetic reader will recognize its obvious merits: a sure command of all the registers of prose, from the lush and poetic to the ironic and witty; an important historical theme -- the drama of Indian politics and Hindu-Muslim conflict between the mid-1950s and 1980; multiple perspectives on the tensions within Indian family life during this same period; an ingenious use of classic Hindu myths as a template for certain plot developments; and, not least, an unsettling account of the joys of motherhood. All these indicate a novelist of real scope and ambition.
But Manil Suri's greatest triumph is Meera Sawhney herself. For more than 400 pages -- from adolescence to early middle age -- we are continually inside the consciousness of this likable and long-suffering, if not particularly intelligent, woman. Yet, astonishingly, there isn't the least sense of imaginative strain in Suri's depiction of her interior life. This is not a male author imagining a female character; this is Meera herself before us.
Given so much that is impressive in The Age of Shiva, why, then, is the novel perplexing? The overall answer will seem completely shallow: The book simply isn't a page-turner. Not only does the narrative move slowly, sometimes it grinds to a halt. Suri will linger far too long over a scene, describing with guide-book precision a sports competition, a Hindu wedding ceremony or religious ritual, an erotic encounter. His descriptions often go beyond local color to dogged, anthropological exactitude. We weary of the onslaught of foreign terms and alien practices.
By burdening the reader with such laborious detail, The Age of Shiva loses any sense of urgency. The pace is leisurely, the action relentlessly domestic. Years go by, and nothing much happens. Meera, born to a well-to-do family, marries the poor but handsome Dev, after stealing him away from her older sister Roopa. She then goes to live with her new husband's clan in their crowded hovel and almost immediately realizes that she has made a terrible mistake. Meanwhile, Dev dreams of becoming a singing star. In due course, Meera's father cuts the young couple a deal so that they can take an apartment in Bombay. And on and on. Only Meera's brother-in-law Arya -- full of lust and anti-Muslim fervor -- provides a modicum of danger, of threat. Most of the time we just feel sorry for everybody.
Much of the novel focuses on Meera's complex feelings, first for her sisters and parents, then for her husband and finally for her child, Ashvin. When she looks at her beloved son, Meera launches into soliloquies that are half dithyramb, half goo and suffused with obvious sexual innuendo. For instance, the novel opens this way:
"Every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, every time I offer you my body, Ashvin. Do you know how tightly you shut your eyes as with your lips you search my skin? 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 breast, their tips trying to curl around something to hold on to, but slipping instead against my smooth flesh?
"Ashvin. Do you notice the wetness emerge from my nipples and spill down the slopes of my chest? Is that your tongue that I feel, are you able to steal a taste or two?"
This is, again, a mother and her baby son, and Meera's dreamy account of nursing goes on for another page and a half, all of it made slightly yucky by the erotic suggestiveness. No doubt, some women will testify to such a sexual component in their physical connection to an infant. Yet whatever the truthfulness of these feelings, and however much Meera's attitudes may be modeled after the relationship of Shiva's wife, Parvati, to her son Andhaka, such gushing, lyrical effusions embarrass and annoy.
To my mind, the novel is also too earnest, made over-symbolic by just such analogies to Hindu myth and slightly burdened by info-dumps about Indian politics and Hindu-Muslim conflict. While Meera eventually reenacts aspects of the Parvati story, her friends and family repeatedly scrape up against momentous historical events -- the separation of Pakistan from India, the ambiguous reign of Indira Gandhi, periods of martial law and repeated riots in the streets. After the Partition, families like that of Meera's sister-in-law Sandhya endured harrowing death marches to refugee camps in Hindustan. Right-wing groups, like that to which Arya belongs, trained for civil war and spread racist hatred. Certainly, the interlacing of actual history with archetypal patterns is a central ambition of the modern novel and should be applauded. Nonetheless, Suri's book feels just slightly programmatic, its developments somewhat forced.
Not least, there's precious little fun for the reader in The Age of Shiva. Only Paji, Meera's father, reveals a dry wit and flair for irony that recall Mr. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. (Both men regularly retreat to their libraries and are sadly disappointed in their daughters.) When we first meet Paji, he is recalling his early days in publishing, when his father's printing business was mainly devoted to religious calendars -- "garish pictures of Lakshmi and Ganesh (Guru Nanak for the Sikhs), at the bottom of which were stapled a year's worth of tear-off dates." He adds: "Imagine my horror -- I, who had always fancied myself an atheist -- suddenly surrounded by these divine elephants and goddesses and their dozens of arms all day. I was so depressed I could barely drag myself to the factory. I got my clothes caught in the machinery. I developed allergies to the smell of ink. Fortunately for me, the Partition came." Paji may be overbearing but he brightens the novel whenever he appears.
Similarly, Dev's younger sister, Hema, is delightfully thoughtless and cruel, and her chatterbox ways bring a little vibrancy into a gray and gloomy household. Here she is on the day after Meera's wedding, finally sitting down to talk to her new sister-in-law:
" 'Even Arya bhaiyya was upset. He said Babuji should never have agreed to the marriage. He called you' -- again, Hema giggled -- 'a tramp. He said your sister was trying to mesmerize his brother, was doing magic on him, and casting tantric spells. And when that didn't work, the family set you instead upon poor Dev bhaiyya.' Hema's eyes widened: 'Do you really know magic? Will you teach me your tricks?' "
Suri's deftness with Paji and Hema makes clear that he can be sly and amusing. The critical and popular success of his first novel, The Death of Vishnu, further attests to his gifts. So it feels almost churlish to be disappointed in a book that is obviously the product of hard work and much thought: Its longueurs must be deliberate. I hope that my experience of Meera's story is an aberration, that others may not crave as much excitement in their fiction as I do, or will find what I judge tiresome to be rich with subtle Jamesian insight and historical understanding. Unquestionably, Manil Suri has written an ambitious and even admirable book. Still, I found myself unable to do more than pick up The Age of Shiva with dutiful resolve. Alas, this is not how one wants to read a novel. *
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.