The Age of Shiva, By Manil Suri

Indian mythology, post-partition history and a family saga intertwine in the follow-up to 'The Death of Vishnu'
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The Independent Culture

The early chapters of Manil Suri's novel are set in 1955, in a post-partition India where hopes run high. India is poised as a new nation, and anything still seems possible, despite the diverse interests of its people.

Meera Sawhney, the 17-year-old heroine , is the daughter of a wealthy publisher. Attending the festivities marking Independence Day, she meets her sister Roopa's boyfriend, Dev. Dev may be the son of a poor railyard employee, but he is also a promising singer, who croons sentimental ballads which send young girls into ecstasy. In the electric atmosphere of the celebrations, Meera determines to seduce Dev away from her sister. She succeeds but is then forced into marriage with him. It is the first major mistake of her life.

This is Suri's second novel, and like its best-selling predecessor, The Death of Vishnu, echoes tales from Hindu mythology. In one of these, Shiva withdraws from the world, and his wife Parvati, while yearning for him, creates a little boy through whom she can find happiness. Similarly, Meera, betrayed by her husband and her father, gives birth to a boy, Ashvin, and finds in him a new kind of fulfilment. The novel, written in the first person, is addressed to Ashvin, and attempts to explain to him how his mother has tried to shape and control her own destiny.

Unlike The Death of Vishnu, however, which took place over the course of a single day, and centred on the lives of the residents of a Bombay apartment building, The Age of Shiva is a novel of much wider scope, spanning several decades through to the 1970s, and set in a variety of locations, from Rawalpindi to Bombay and Delhi to Mumbai. Set against the development of India as a secular democracy, Meera's journey becomes a metaphor for her country's struggles, as its governments attempt to liberate it from the hold of superstition, custom, and religion, and as India maintains its independence from the interference of the West.

Suri's narrative is never less than involving as he weaves history and politics into Meera's story, though his novel's most striking achievement is its adoption of a female voice and perspective. Some of the characters, and the parts they play in the general scheme of things – such as Dev's elder brother Arya, active in the politics of Hindu nationalism and violent in the virulence of his anti-Muslim sentiments – appear too artificial and programmed for effect.

Meera's father, Paji, is the book's chief advocate of modernity. A supporter of Nehru, and later of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, he rails against the traditional imprisonment of Indian women in their domestic role, even to the point of ensuring that his daughter aborts her first child in order that she can pursue a college education.

The Age of Shiva isn't a sequel to The Death of Vishnu, except in the sense that both novels take the raw, bright colours of the real India, which seem almost demented in their vibrancy, and soften them with a tender humanity borrowed from the mythology of a more ancient past.

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