Aspen Summer Words: the Age of India
June 20, 2008
Several years ago, after the publication of his 2001 debut novel, The Death of Shiva, Manil Suri was accused of being sexist. A reviewer had taken the trouble to tally the number of male and female characters in the book which earned a nomination for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the number of lines each had spoken.He came to the conclusion that I was unfair to women, and a misogynist, said the 48-year-old native of India, from his home in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Silver Springs.That opinion was seconded after Suri gave a talk at Goucher College, a former womens school in Maryland. The novelist seemed to handle that criticism with equanimity, explaining to the students at Goucher that writers are rarely equal opportunity employers.But Suri also had pretty solid proof in the works that he didnt harbor antiwomen sentiments. At the time of the college talk, he was already well into a second novel that should wipe away any such talk. Suri did not write The Age of Shiva with the intention of silencing those critics; in the original conception of the book, the central character was a boy, Ashvin, and how he was loved, at various times in his life, by three key people. But at some point, Suri began to believe that his approach to the story was overly theoretical, and wasnt working.I had to start feeling it, said Suri. And the voice that came out was this woman, addressing her son. Little by little, I started hearing her, and the others fell by the wayside. And it became about her, Meera, rather than her son.
Overlook the photo on the book jacket (and assume, in this country at least, an ignorance that Manil is a mans name), and most readers wouldnt think twice that The Age of Shiva was written by a woman. Meera not only is the protagonist of the book, but the entire novel unfolds through her eyes. Beyond lavishing attention on Meera, whose life is tracked from the time she is a single teenager in Delhi to her years as a widowed mother in Bombay, the novel raises issues that could only be described as feminist: how Meera is dominated by the men in her life; how her opportunities are limited; how, as a widow, she becomes a sexual plaything. Further, Suri, who is gay and has no children, depicts his main character with no hesitation or awkwardness. He has a sure grasp on Meera and her issues, including those that define what it is to be a woman: pregnancy, motherhood, sexuality.The Age of Shiva opens in 1955, five years after Partition officially, ended, British colonial rule in South Asia, and divided the territory into India and Pakistan. The 17-year-old Meera lives in the shadow of her older, prettier sister, Roopa, and both live under the domineering thumb of their well-to-do father, Paji. To eclipse her sister, and rebel against her father, Meera allows her sisters handsome boyfriend, Dev, to seduce her, on the night that India is celebrating its own independence. Given the dictates of the time, Meera is forced to marry Dev, beginning a decades-long existence of being shaped by the pressures applied by her husband and her father. When finally she has a son, Ashvin, Meera pours everything her love, aspirations, rebellious spirit into him.The story shadows Indian myths, particularly that of Parvati, a goddess who responds to her husband Shivas withdrawal by devoting herself to her son, Ganesha. But the novel is drawn even more from the writers own experience.I think some of it has come from looking at women in my life, said Suri, who was born and educated in Mumbai known then as Bombay before moving to the States in the 1980s. My mother was someone who wanted to be a doctor. Her father was a doctor. And when she told him, he said its too difficult for a woman, and didnt allow her to do that.That stuck with me how entrenched peoples views are of women in society. My aunts, my mother Ive always picked up how certain roles are picked up by women in India. Its taken for granted that a wife will cook and serve her husband before she eats herself. They had these roles thrust upon them.Suri notes that Meera does not represent the typical Indian woman of her era. She was raised in a reasonably wealthy family, and her father was devoutly secular and politically liberal. Meera eventually gets a college education, and works various jobs after being married. For all that, she is constrained by the heavy hand of her father, the demands of her husband, the expectations of her neighbors, friends and even her female relatives. Even with her intelligence and station in life, she never finds it possible to define herself.Meera is a strong-willed character. But she has nowhere to go. So she keeps rebelling. Thats the only way she can assert herself, said Suri, one of seven Indian writers featured in the Aspen Writers Foundations Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, whose theme this year is Passage to India. Suri, who has a second career as a professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, will participate in the Renaissance Writers discussion on Wednesday, June 25.Suri says that women in India, at least in the urban areas, have a dramatically expanded measures of freedom. The reason, however, has not so much to do with a bolt of enlightenment, but with economic realities. In the 70s, he observed, things got so expensive that husbands who were so chauvinistic said, Well, maybe its not such a bad thing for women to work. Economics have continued to shape the role of Indian woman. Suri recalls that, in the 80s, women filled the arts programs in colleges, while in the 90s, they pursued degrees that would be more financially advantageous.Another revolution that has taken place in front of Suri is the transformation of Indian literature. When he was young and, admittedly, not much of a reader he recalls that Indian writers who wrote in English were pushed aside in favor of Western authors. He recalls an early literature class that was heavy on Shakespeare, with a few short stories by Indian writers sprinkled in. Suri who got turned onto English literature when he read Salman Rushdies second novel, Shame, in 1988, while living in France has seen a big change from the days when an Indian writer had to be recognized in the West first, before being widely read back home.Suri has seen a parallel adjustment in the perception of Indias female authors. Before Arundhati Roy emerged with the 1997 Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things, Suri cant think of a single prominent Indian author who writes in English. Now, he points out that three of the seven Indian writers attending Aspen Summer Words are women, and that does not count Bharati Mukherjee, a celebrated, Indian-born writer who is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.Not till after the publication of The Age of Shiva did Suri notice how a central story line in the novel hinted at the history of modern India. Like Meera, India too has rebelled against the apparent authority, and while there was turmoil involved, the ends seem to justify the assertion of freedom.Meeras relationship with her father is like Indias relation to the world, he noted. The West was this paternalistic force, and India was expected to behave in a certain way. And India went against their wishes. You could argue that not all those choices were in their best interests, because people starved. But the fruits of those policies have brought an era when India is doing well.
Aspen Summer Words opens Sunday, June 22 with an opening toast, at 5 p.m., at the Gant, followed by Salman Rushdie delivering the keynote address at 6:30 p.m. at Paepcke Auditorium. Rushdie, a Booker Prize winner famed for being the subject of death threats from the Muslim world following his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, recently published the novel, The Enchantress of Florence.Also participating in the Literary Festival, which runs through Thursday, June 26, are five additional writers, all Indian-born authors who write in English: Anita Rau Badami, David Davidar, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Indu Sundaresan and Shashi Tharoor, in addition to Suri and Rushdie. The writers will be featured in such discussions as Womens Writes, Literary Terroir and East Meets West, as well as a book-signing reception at Explore Booksellers at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24.The literary events will be complemented by two music events. On Monday, June 23, Los Angeles band PremaSoul, which combines Indian melodies with modern jazz and r&b, will play at Belly Up, followed by a dance party headed by DJ Rheka, a prominent Indian-born, New York City-based turntablist whose Bhangra Basement parties have been a monthly event for 11 years in Manhattan.
For a full schedule of Aspen Summer Words events, go to email@example.com