The Age of Shiva
By Manil Suri
Norton, 455 pp., $24.95
"The Age of Shiva" begins with an invocation of such fevered intensity that it takes a moment to realize that the speaker is addressing not her lover, but her infant son. "Every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, every time I offer you my body. . . . Do you notice" the tender offering of mother's milk "down the slopes of my chest?"
This discomfiting voice belongs to Meera, the narrator of Manil Suri's beguiling yet frustrating second novel. Beginning in 1955, when Meera is 17, and ending in 1981, when her son is nearly the same age, "The Age of Shiva" is about the struggle toward self-definition after India's independence - for both the protagonist and her country.
As a national coming-of-age tale, the book is powerful. Suri, an Indian-born math professor, vividly depicts a nation striated by religion and caste, where tradition and modernity battle for dominance. Women, especially, are torn between custom and the cosmopolitan example of Indira Gandhi.
Meera is no exception. The daughter of a stubbornly secular, intellectual father and a proudly illiterate mother, she inherits her parents' obstinacy as well as their clashing worldviews. But while Suri's protagonist embodies the political tensions of her era, she lacks motivation of her own. She is almost purely reactive, by turns obeying and rebelling against the men who rule her world. Her only passion is an increasingly unsympathetic one: her smothering, semi-incestuous love for her son.
As a teenager, Meera impulsively seduces her older sister's working-class boyfriend, Dev. When they are caught, she demands to marry him, assuming her father will forbid it. Instead, he calls her bluff. "You may not realize this now, but you've just ruined your life," he tells her.
Suri admirably captures Meera's culture shock as she moves into her in-laws' devout, modest household, where the bride and the refrigerator that is part of her dowry are shown off to the neighbors with equal pride. Meera eventually finds kinship with Dev's mother and sister-in-law, if not with her husband. A scene in which the three women stuff themselves with food before a ritual fast is one of the book's most delightful.
But Meera soon bows once more to the men in her life. At Dev's urging, she accepts a terrible bargain with her father in exchange for money to move to Bombay. There, Dev vainly pursues a singing career and turns to drink, while Meera works odd jobs and indifferently attends college. Finally, their son, Ashvin, is born, and with him a maternal love that knows no bounds. We have waited 200 pages for the fulfillment of the book's titillating opening, but when it arrives, it is monstrous. Meera drinks Ashvin's tears. She forces Dev from the bedroom so her son can sleep beside her. She will do or say anything, no matter how destructive, to bind him to her. After Dev is killed in an accident, Meera's intimacy with Ashvin increases until, to her despair and the reader's relief, the teenager engineers an escape.
Suri, whose graceful prose carries the book through its moments of melodrama, shows a deft touch with the larger social canvas as well as with sensual details. What we never learn, however, is what Meera wants, besides to keep Ashvin forever at her breast. The author nearly acknowledges this himself. After Ashvin's departure, a friend of Meera's confronts her, exasperated. "The way you've built your life around him, the way you've dissolved your existence in his - where has Meera's spirit been hiding in all of this?" she asks. Suri's tale is an impressive portrait of an era, but in the end, the reader is left with the same question.
Amanda Katz is a writer and editor who lives in Providence.