30 April 2008

Myths Come of Age


The Age of Shiva
By Manil Suri
Bloomsbury
Pages 453
Rs 495

‘Every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, every time I offer my body.’

With this prayer-like faux-erotic invocation Suri opens The Age of Shiva, a sexy, sensual, well-thought out novel by the India-born, US-based professor of mathematics, the second of a trilogy he is writing based on the Hindu Trinity Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva. Not an opening of a lovemaking scene, rather it is a sampler of the exploration into a gamut of complex familial relationships contained in the myth of Shiva, Parvati, and their two sons Ganesh and Kartik, refracted through contemporary lives.

The novel tells the story of a woman’s tortuous journey to independence. And since the very act of writing a trilogy on the Trinity speaks of a soaring ambition, Suri does not restrict himself to mythology. Instead he wants to check out the possibilities of presenting India as an unbroken continuum from the mythological to the modern. To this end the protagonist Meera also becomes a representation of India, and in her striving is paralleled India’s own struggle as a decade-old independent nation to achieve a semblance of sovereignty as it did in the post-Emergency decades of Maruti cars with economic liberalisation just around the corner.

Meera Sawhney, daughter of a Daryaganj-based family with an uneducated mother and a father who is a manipulator, agent-provocateur, and an armchair political dilettante and poseur, tells her own story in first person. She is a curious younger sister who falls for her elder sister Roopa’s dulcet-toned boyfriend Dev Arora who sings S.K. Sehgal songs in an intercollegiate singing competition at Delhi University. Soon she is forced into an early marriage with Dev when rumours imperil family honour. Meera goes to live in Dev’s joint family at their Nizamuddin railway quarters where Dev’s father is the station master.

From here on its a case of circumstances taking over Meera’s life. She forced into an abortion by her father who does not want to see her tamely settling down into domesticity. He buys off Dev with a passage and place to live in Bombay where Dev could try fulfilling his long-cherished dream of becoming a playback singer. Thus began Meera’s relatively freer life in Bombay, a city who symbolic importance as a commercial capital of India way from the planned-economy freaks in the political capital of India becomes one of the many political air socks Suri hangs to reinforce the sense of direction of Meera’s life and against which her reactive choices are made.

The politics of the novel is maladroitly woven in. Yet it serves as air socks at the airport, sets the larger context of Meera’s life. Meera’s father is one of the biggest air sock Suri uses. He is the symbol of patriarchy, he is the symbol of popular politics that chooses and disposes and reinstates leaders like Indira Gandhi with their different phases of disdain to adulation to outright animus to reverence again. He is one of the most convincing characters in the book. Then there is Arya, Dev’s elder brother who had always eyed Meera lasciviously and it would seem in full view of his wife and other family members. Dev later becomes a right wing leader of a organisation modelled on the RSS. Together with her father, Arya serves as the liberal Nehruvian liberalism and the right wing ideology India flirted with, and spurned.

Though the act of Suri, a man, writing from inside a woman’s mind might be regarded as a tour de force, Meera remains a patchily imagined character. True, her irrational exuberance, her passivity and reactiveness, motherhood, not to mention her internal monologue is one of the most attractive parts of the novel. Yet she seems to act far beyond her experience, her education, or even her limited worldview allow. For instance her search for independence and her desire to shut her father’s influence out of her life is not very convincing. It seems she has a place to go back to, a person or a plan to fall back on. Perhaps she betrays the fact that her creator is an expatriate with an option to opt out of unsavoury circumstances.

The first book of the trilogy, The Death of Vishnu, was critically acclaimed and popular, translated in more than a dozen of languages. In it a man named ‘Vishnu’ dying on the stairs of a Bombay apartment full of tenants quarrelling over shared kitchen’s shelf space set the scene for a comedic, satiric look at the mores and manners of India’s middle and the low class. However, being his first attempt at it, Suri could not mix the myth smoothly into the narrative. The final result was a bit lumpy and not always easy to swallow.

The Age of Shiva benefits from that experience and is consequently one of its achievements is the deep burying of the myth of Shiva into its layered narrative. The myth guiding the action of the novel, create rich resonance. The more you know about Shiva and his family the more pleasure one derives from reading The Age of Shiva. This makes it a genuine reworking of an Indian myth for modern purposes.

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