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The Age of Shiva

by Manil Suri

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The Age of Shiva
W.W. Norton, 2008

Second novels often fail to live up to first novels, especially when the first has been published to almost universal acclaim. The act of recreating or exceeding a previous success seems somehow to stifle an author's creativity. Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva is sure to be the exception to that belief.

Speaking to an enthusiastic audience during a recent reading at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC, Suri (interview with Manil Suri here) drew contrasts between the Death of Vishnu, his first, and Shiva. Whereas Vishnu is lively and energetic, Shiva is ascetic and romantic. Vishnu is literally vertical as the rise in building floors reflects a spiritual ascension. The horizontal element in Shiva is reflected in Meera's story and India's evolution as an independent nation. One takes place within 24 hours, the other over 30 years. The first is told in the 3rd person male point of view, the second in 2nd person female. Vishnu is not in control of his destiny. Meera is always in control, even though she makes bad choices.

The narrator of The Age of Shiva is Meera, a young woman from a well-to-do family who has married below her station. Her story is an interior monologue as told to her son Ashvin, skipping back and forth between the present time and prior events. Suri has captured her distinctive voice with a certainty seldom seen. The startling opening paragraphs clearly position Ashvin's primacy in her life, a conceit which foreshadows the final scenes.
Parallel to Meera's personal odyssey is the story of India's struggle after independence. The novel opens on January 25, 1955, the eve of India's 5th anniversary as a republic. Partition has caused families to flee what has become the Dominion of Pakistan. Both Meera and Dev's families (like many, including Suri's) fled Rawalpindi and relocated to Delhi with very different degrees of success. Gandhi wished for a secular society, but the Hindu and Muslim forces and traditions were simply too strong to allow that. Nehru is quoted as saying, "The spectacle of... religion... has filled me with horror... Almost always it seemed to stand for blind reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests." It is a struggle that has continued to this day.

This duality is reflected in the two families. Meera's family, despite its forced relocation, has regained its prosperity. It is a very modern family in which her father insists that people are innocent and forbids most of the traditional religious or daily activities which would place one into a subservient position. Even servants are to be treated with respect. Dev's family has fallen from a solid middle class position and now struggles to keep its head above water. Caste consciousness is very real and Dev's mother is religiously conservative to the point of keeping a fast at Karva Chauth and touching the feet of her husband. It is this latter act that causes a decisive split between Meera and her father, a remarkably non-traditional Indian father.
Meera had rebelled against her father earlier, when she and her sister Roopa attended a concert featuring the singer Dev Arora on that January day in 1955. Both sisters fall in love with him. Meera wins him, although he continues to pine openly for Roopa. They marry and eventually move to Bombay as Dev pursues his singing career.

The Age of Shiva provides us with an important lesson in the history of India as Suri provides us an appropriate amount of historical information to provide a back story to Meera's tale. This macroscopic view of India's evolution is juxtaposed over the microscopic view of Meera's story in order to "somehow bring out or have the reader have an experience which wasn't the traditional one," according to Suri. "I think that many authors still shy away from something very explicit so it is some of the new authors like me who are trying to push the boundaries. That is very much the key, pushing the boundary, and that is what I was trying in some of these works."
With its historical, religious, and mythological lessons amid the surface soap opera (Bollywood?) character of Meera's story, this is a brilliantly told tale, filled with deeper meanings and fully engaging for the reader. Suri's explanations of various mythological characters are always in context and always enhance the meaning of the story. It is, as Amy Tan has said in comparing The Age of Shiva to Anna Karenina, "both intimate and epic, a balance of sensual beauty and visceral reality."

Interestingly, when Suri read from the novel, his voice, his accent became more clearly Indian as he adopted the persona of the storyteller. It was an effective and evocative reading.

Manil Suri was born in Bombay (Mumbai). He came to the United States as a 20-year old student, receiving his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Carnegie Mellon. He is a tenured professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. While Suri continues his basic research and teaching, he is working diligently at bringing mathematics to public school children, and speaking about math, according to his website, in unlikely places - "writers' and artists' colonies, retirement communities, even literary conferences." More complete information about him can be found at manilsuri.com.
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