What would happen if Shiva never returned from his ascetic wanderings? Would Parvati and her boy spend the rest of their years in each other’s company? Leading a life that had need for neither husband nor father, that was fulfilled and immutable and carefree? Or would time change things? Would she notice his lip sprouting, his voice beginning to crack...Would her own beauty fade, her step begin to waver, the wrinkles start to form over her skin? Perhaps he would want to strike out on his own, explore the world beyond, leave the forest and his aged, unattractive mother with it?Two ancient myths, both involving the children of Shiva and Parvati, flow under the surface of the modern story told in Manil Suri’s beautiful new novel. The first is the myth of Ganesha’s creation – Parvati fashions him from the sandalwood paste on her body because she wants a sentinel who will be answerable only to her, not to Shiva – with its subtext of a father being excluded from the private world occupied by mother and son; the son even assuming at least one of the father’s responsibilities (that of protector). The other story, darker and more explicit, has the deformed Andhaka being separated from his parents and becoming smitten by his own mother when he grows to adulthood.
Central to Suri’s The Age of Shiva are the many facets of the mother-son relationship, including the ones that don’t normally come up in polite conversation. The book establishes its tone right away: its opening two pages contain a startlingly intense description of breastfeeding that emphasises the erotic connotations of the act – in fact, it’s only a few sentences in that you realise this isn’t a lovemaking scene but a prolonged, careful first-person account by a mother feeding her baby.
Your tongue pulls against my nipple. So practiced, so persuasive, so determined, how does it know what to do? I feel myself responding. Each tug brings liquid flooding up, engorging my breast, pushing out into your insistent mouth...There is nothing, I think to myself, as you let go and turn to me, filled. Nothing that can be as satisfying as this.This opening passage drew me straight into the book – not so much because of the quality of the writing or characterisation (that came later), but because it was so intriguing that a male writer had been brave enough to attempt a scene like this, much less pull it off. (Pop psychology alert: I subsequently learnt that Suri is gay; I don’t know whether that's connected with his being more in touch with his feminine side than most men are, or having greater empathy for women, but it might be worth keeping in mind.) As this tender yet disturbing book unfolds, the magnitude of his achievement comes into full focus: he has created a credible female narrator-protagonist and convincingly portrayed the various dimensions of her life – as a supportive but often unhappy wife, a rebellious daughter and most crucially a single mother raising a son through the awkward phase of adolescence.
Meera’s story begins in 1955 when, still a teenager, she meets her future husband Dev, an aspiring singer. Happenstance determines her fate, a minor tryst and a misunderstanding leading to an early marriage, sending her down a path where she will continually be manipulated by both her father and her husband. Her son Ashvin – the baby in the prologue mentioned above – is only born halfway through the book, but the 200 pages that go before help prepare the ground for his appearance, allowing us to understand the vital role he plays in his mother’s otherwise lonely life (“You are the hope and the fire, the absolution, the purifier”). Meera’s love for her son is also intensified by memories of an earlier child she was forced to abort, and whose shadow continues to haunt her. She is never as happy or as fulfilled as when she spends time with Ashvin, but her emotional over-dependence on him can have murky consequences.
Suri has a real talent for shining new light on familiar everyday incidents and, conversely, for showing the mundane side of extraordinary happenings - a carefully planned suicide attempt, for instance. The chapter describing Meera’s first karwa chauth in her new home is one of the most vivid in the book – comical, even frightening in places, if you don’t know much about the custom – as is the passage detailing little Ashvin’s mundan ceremony, traumatic for both the child and his mother, yet considered a necessary rite of passage by everyone else (because “the hair a child is born with is unclean from the mother’s womb”). He is also very perceptive about the nature of relationships in a large family living in cramped quarters – the demands of adjustment, the power struggles, the rigid observance of societal customs, the subtle overtures made to a new bride by her brother-in-law.
At the same time, he doesn’t make an easy target out of orthodoxy. Meera’s father Paji is a determined rationalist, very liberal on the surface (and so anti-tradition that he snaps the heads off any youngsters who bend to touch his feet), but his influence has just as stifling an effect on her life as anything else does. There’s a passage that can stir conflicting emotions in a reader who feels squeamish about the tradition that requires an Indian woman to touch her husband’s feet on certain occasions: Paji promises to help Meera on the condition that she won’t perform this subservient act during a particular ritual, and she instinctively rebels against his diktat when the moment arrives; in this case, her way of asserting herself (and breaking free from his hold) is by doing something that many of us would see as demeaning to women.
The Age of Shiva is full of such little moments that blur the lines between tradition and modernity, conformity and defiance. Despite not being a hefty 900-pager, it’s a true epic, full of interesting, well-delineated characters, moving between two very different cities, Delhi and Bombay, and spanning nearly three decades between the 1950s and the early 1980s (while also reaching back to include Partition and its effects on the psyches of millions of people). We stay with Meera throughout, but her story is placed against the backdrop of significant developments that transformed India – the wars against China and Pakistan, and the Emergency among them – and for the most part the personal and the political merge very well. It’s possible to argue that the book meanders in a couple of places and that a subplot involving Meera’s brother-in-law Arya, who works with a right-wing Hindutva organisation, detracts from the main thread of the story. But these are minor flaws in a work that is consistently engaging, compassionate and insightful.