Monday, May 05, 2008

"The Age of Shiva" -- a Review

I was surprised by how much the others in my book group didn't like Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva. The biggest complaint was from the mothers in the group (including my better half), who didn't like Suri's use of a first/second person narrative method (the novel is written in the voice of a woman named Meera, addressed to her son, Ashvin). Several people said they didn't think Suri really pulled off the trick of writing about the intimate space of family life from a woman's point of view.

Reading as a man, I didn't notice any particular moments where I felt there was an unrealistic perspective, though obviously I can't be the judge. Certainly, some of the intimate passages regarding things like Meera's breastfeeding of her son (the opening paragraphs of the novel) are quite risky -- stylistically overwrought but certainly plausible, to my eye.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, reviewing the novel in the Guardian, wasn't bothered by this aspect, but by other things. Jabberwock, whose opinion I respect, loved the novel, and found Suri's attempt at a woman's point of view convincing. Then again, both reviewers are men. The only review of the novel by a woman I've come across is by Caryn James, in the New York Times -- and she doesn't take issue with Suri along these lines.)

Though I suspect other readers may share my book group's distaste, I did think The Age of Shiva had some real strengths. My friend "SN," for instance, liked the psychological complexity of the bond between mother and son in the novel, something I also appreciated. The Age of Shiva is, more than anything else, a novel about the overwhelming, consuming love a parent can feel for a child, especially in a situation where the parent has little else to live for. With this as its central theme, the novel is actually somewhat unique (most contemporary Indian writers tend to balk at this much psychology -- where 'nothing really happens').

A second theme will be more familiar: the changing circumstances and possibilities for Indian women in the years after independence. On the one hand, some major cultural transformations seemed to be underway, symbolically represented by Indira Gandhi's rise to power. In the novel, the main agent for "progressivism" is actually Meera's father, who champions what the Congress party says (it takes time for him to learn that there is a big gap between what Congress says, and what it does). But for ordinary women, even in cities like Delhi, not much had really changed through the 1960s, and even "progressive" ideologies can come across as coercive. To illustrate what Suri is after regarding gender relations, here is a representative passage from shortly after Meera's marriage into the Arora family, as she's observing the customs practiced by her much more conservative in-laws:

Each morning after her bath, I would see Sandhya [Meera's sister-in-law] in the courtyard, performing her pooja of Arya [Sandhya's husband]. She would swirl an earthenware lamp resting on a round metal thali in a circle before Arya's face, as one might in front of a picture of a shrine. She would mark his forehead with ash from the platter, and sometimes dab on some vermilion and a moistened grain of rice. She would bend her head and wait for him to color the parting in her hair with a line of the vermilion. Then she would bend even lower to touch his feet--first the right, then the left. She would run the same hand over her head to bless herself as she began to rise.

The first time I saw this pooja, I stood in the kitchen transfixed. The touching of feet was a ritual strictly forbidden by Paji [Meera's father] in our house. 'All this scraping, all this servility--hasn't anyone in this country heard of human dignity? Aren't there enough gods in the temples already to satisfy this national hunger for groveling? We spent two centuries licking the boots of the British--did you ever see them prostrating themselves at anyone's feet?'

Meera's father, referred to in the novel as Paji, is a "reformer" who sharply limits the role of religion, specifically these kinds of religious rituals, in his house. Clearly, part of his distaste at the type of pooja Meera witnesses in her in-laws' house derives from a kind of colonial hangover -- the British didn't do this, so why do we? On the other hand, quite separate from the British, isn't he right about the insidious effects of "servility" and "scraping"?

Interestingly, Paji's character turns out to be coercive and sometimes flat-out cruel. By contrast, the kind of deep devotionalism embodied by Sandhya in the passage above is linked to being utterly disempowered, but it is at least honest. The tension between the two ways of thinking -- two ways of being -- is really the central tension in Meera's mind, as she attempts to survive her unhappy marriage and limited prospects.

* * *

There are other things to appreciate in The Age of Shiva. Meera's husband Dev, for instance, is a singer who tries to make a go of it as a playback singer in Bombay in the 1960s. His idol is the great 1940s icon, K.L. Saigal, who was best-known as a singer of mournful romantic ballads like this one ("Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya"). The tragic image of K.L. Saigal is a kind of running leitmotif in The Age of Shiva, and adds somewhat to what is a somewhat elegiac tone overall.



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