A Woman’s India

The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri, Norton, 2008.

the_age_of_shiva_manil_suriSoon after I started reading the novel The Age of Shiva by Bombay-born, Maryland resident Manil Suri — in which the fabric of India unfolds from the perspective of a young woman coming of age just after India’s liberation from British rule — I had to double check the author’s name to confirm that a man, not a woman, was the writer. So few men have the knack for conveying the mind, body, heart and soul of women convincingly, and this novel, written chiefly in the first person, convinced me from the outset that I was experiencing India from a Hindu woman’s point of view. Suri’s portrayal of this woman’s interior life pulses with verisimilitude, and his descriptions of the political and religious currents swirling around her afford a gripping, deeply penetrating portrayal of India’s complex clash of cultures. The novel, Suri’s second, following The Death of Vishnu, possesses the same potent combination of exquisite intimacy, vivid portraiture, rich cultural insights and powerful setting and storyline that enraptured me when I read Anita Diamant’s brilliant The Red Tent, which took me deep into the heart of woman territory in the days of Genesis.

Suri’s novel builds its momentum amid events of Biblical proportion as ancient animosities between Muslims and Hindus give rise to turbulent politics, yet Suri keeps his sharpest focus on the tightly regimented world of Meera, growing up in a family that has known too much of wars, mass migrations, and shattered dreams. The cloistering environment, suffocating traditions, and male-dominated society Meera must navigate as she seeks her own independence illustrate the challenges for Hindu women that persist even today. Meera’s family, after fleeing the new Pakistan for old India, must cope with rising Hindu Nationalism, virulent anti-Muslim sentiment, strict religious traditions, and sharply limited options for women. They’ve settled into some form of upper-middle-class normalcy, yet through Meera’s childhood and as she reaches womanhood, the currents of history and tradition sweep all around her, constantly threatening to ruin her life.

“Everyone knows the bride isn’t supposed to return to her father’s house for three months,” Meera’s new mother-in-law tells her after she marries a young man from a poor family and soon regrets being away from the comforts her father had provided her. Her life with her ineffectual, sad excuse for a husband, and her will to overcome the domineering of her father, all drive her to pursue her perilous course in a turbulent world constantly buffeted by Lord Shiva. But she is Parvati, Shiva’s wife, able to overcome the brute stupidity and dull egotism of males while basking in the sweet sensuousness and keen survival instincts of the females in her life.

In this global age of shifting fortunes and cultures, India looms huge on the American horizon, yet we barely know our new cousins. For many here, India is a caricature of smiling Ganeshas, intense yogis, high-tech call centers, Bollywood and Gandhi.  The Age of Shiva gets under the gloss, exposing the heart of India, connecting us emotionally and spiritually with our Indian kin.