Suri novel a poignant portrayal of womanhood |

Suri novel a poignant portrayal of womanhood

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
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“The Age of Shiva” sharply, touchingly and dramatically portrays the struggles of what it was to be a woman in India just after Partition ended British colonial rule in South Asia. The novel focuses intensely on Meera, and follows her from an economically privileged, though hardly easy, adolescence in Delhi; through her tense, ambivalent marriage to a handsome but weak wannabe singer, and their move to Bombay; and into parenthood. Meera never leaves the page, and neither do the feminist issues: abortion and motherhood, sexuality, financial dependence, autonomy in a patriarchal society.

And never mind that the book was written by a man, Manil Suri, who has no children, has lived over half of his 48 years in the U.S., and is more mathematician than writer, a professor in the math department at a Maryland university. Suri, who was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for his first novel, 2001’s “The Death of Shiva,” delves into the female experience without flinching, and does so convincingly.

Meera begins life in the shadow of her older, prettier sister, Roopa. To assert herself, Meera flirts with Roopa’s friend, Dev, a good-looking and talented singer. During a celebration of India’s independence, the 17-year-old Meera takes a stab at her own independence and hooks up with Dev. It is a moment born of teenage lust and exasperation, but there is scant forgiveness for an impetuous young woman in 1950s India. The fling will largely define the rest of her years.

Meera is forced by her father, a politically-liberal businessman but an arrogant, controlling parent, to continue down the path she has entered. She is given over to Dev and his family, who live in cramped quarters in a beaten-down neighborhood. The couple eventually move to Bombay, where Dev can pursue his musical dreams, and Meera can fancy herself independent from her family. But the relocation is no escape: Meera is tied by financial need to her father, and bonded with her husband not by love, but societal demands. The marriage deteriorates as Dev’s career fails to take off, but Meera’s attempts to assert herself come off as frustrated rebellion, rather than self-determination.

And then, somewhat late in life, Meera has a child. It is, naturally, a boy, Ashvin, to whom she devotes her life. Meera finds joy and purpose in motherhood. But the previous unfulfilling relationships with men drives her to an unnatural, and perhaps unhealthy, bond with her son. Here, “The Age of Shiva” turns into an examination of parenthood, as Meera learns the truth behind her father’s words: “To be a parent is to be guilty.”

Suri may rightly be accused of cramming too much into his second novel. There is Hindu myth; Meera’s life mirrors that of the goddess Parvati. It is a history of modern India; the action plays out against a backdrop of Partition, war with Pakistan, the political successes and failures of Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

But it’s hard to fault Suri for taking on the immense challenge of depicting womanhood, and doing so with depth and compassion.

Manil Suri appears at the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival, which runs Sunday through Thursday, June 22-26.