The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

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The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An intimate story of a mother’s love set against her struggle to be herself, all of it against the turbulence of Indian politics in the post-partition years. Vivid, yet gentle.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishinhg PLC
ISBN: 978-0747596394

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Shiva might be the Destroyer in the Hindu trinity which gives us Brahma as the creator and Vishnu as the preserver, but life is never that simple. It is never made explicit what The Age of Shiva refers to in the title of the novel. Who is the analogical Shiva who wreaks such destruction on the lives we encounter?

Is it Meera herself, who tells this tale, or maybe her father whose interference in her life gives her all the blame-space she needs, or perhaps it is Dev, the husband she should never have wanted, let alone achieved, or again perhaps his brother, whose wandering eye falls upon her lasciviously?

Or maybe the point is that Shiva still holds sway and we must submit to whatever destructive forces await us.

Pause, though. Destruction is too strong a word. These are lives trialled and tribulated, stressed and sent in wrong directions, but with a couple of exceptions, not, quite, destroyed.

Above all, these lives are lived in love. This is a collection of love stories woven into one. Meera's initial passion for Dev, singing in the spotlight, erupts into a sibling rivalry which abruptly ends when her sister calmly bows to her parents' wishes and marries for… well, for something other than eroticism and restrained physical attraction. Meera however envisages herself in love, and is caught. To maintain a façade of truth that is somewhat less than the real facts would actually support, she submits to marrying her hero.

And how are the mighty fallen, when we see them as real people. The glamour fades so very quickly.

That the marriage also takes her from her well-off, secular, academic, father's house into a semi-squalid existence among her new, extended family of devout Hindus is just one more shock along the way.

There is love, selfless and selfish, in both families. Enduring love, that serves and seeks, but endures and matures all the same. There may even be love between Meera and Dev, but that sours – when his ambition overrides her principles, creating a ghost that will always come between them.

The ghost, however, is nothing compared to the true centre of the story. The real object of the love upon which the Age of Shiva rests: Meera's son: Ashvin. Described by his uncle as the living embodiment of the struggle between Shiva and Vishnu, Ashvin is a much loved child. A too-much loved child. This is a story of mother love.

Although the novel slips seamlessly at times into third-person narrative, it is mostly written as an extended letter from mother to son. Told in present and past tense with a skill that makes the scene-shift natural and right, it starts with a mother suckling her newborn babe, to move into the past and then forward, past the early years to the point of motherhood having almost served its purpose. It is such a female telling, that if the debate as to whether male writers can tell a female perspective still lingers, The Age of Shiva should put it to rest. Suri's insight into feminine thought is faultless in its complexity of self-delusion, self-pity, self-assertion and self-righteousness. Our ability not only to shift through these stances but to hold them all simultaneously about the same issue is captured perfectly.

Meera is a wonderful character. I agree with scarcely a single one of her decisions, but I can believe I would love her all the same, and much like one of her Muslim friends I might just eventually feel the need to give her a jolt up the jaxi to get her life back on track. Or maybe right on track for the first time ever.

The other characters are caught equally well, although it is clear that we never see the whole of who they are but only have Meera's interpretation of them. To that extent, they are not fully rounded and some of their motivations we are left to question.

As it turns out that questioning is no bad thing since it makes us ponder how and why people did what they did in those times. The backdrop is the childhood and youth of modern India. Starting in 1955 when Partition was at least being accepted as an ongoing reality, even if the scars would never heal, Suri takes us through the turbulent years of the sixties and seventies as India struggles as a nation to find an identity on the world stage that satisfies its disparate population. Political struggles, racial ones, religious conflicts. Amongst all of this the gender question might be treated almost as an irrelevance, were it not for the fact that it is used by all and sundry to justify other parts of their arguments.

At once political and very human, The Age of Shiva is so full of the life and colour and warmth of India, you can smell it. Slow and sinuous, a satisfying read.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For other tales from the sub-continent try An Atlas of Impossible Longing by Anuradha Roy, or for a harsher reality - Animal's People by Indra Sinha.

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