Manil Suri has reached a new level of mother-son erotic writing in his latest literary endeavor, The Age of Shiva.
"Every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, every time I offer you my body.... Do you notice the wetness emerging from my nipples and spill down the slopes of my chest?"
No, this isn't a titillating excerpt from an erotic story for those late, lonely nights. Or is it?
Spanning from 1950 to the 1970's, the novel is about Meera Sawhney, the second of three girl children, growing up in an upper-class Punjabi household of New Delhi and her struggle with finding meaning, purpose, and position in post-colonial India. The novel follows Meera's slow, depressing life from youth to middle age, centering on her troubled relationships with her older sister, Roopa; Roopa's boyfriend, Dev, who Meera eventually marries; and her overprotective, commanding nationalist father, who is against the marriage from the beginning. Her only moments of happiness are with her son, Ashvin.
Ironically, while she yearns for freedom from her family and her marriage, she is happiest when she is controlling her son and forcing him to be dependent on her: jubilant during breast-feeding sessions, overjoyed while cuddling him after fights with his father, and gleeful after manipulating him into discontinuing to speak with his uncle, whom she doesn't like.
While many reviewers of the novel discuss their sympathy for Meera, I found her annoying at best and a pest of a protagonist at worst. Continuously playing the victim, Meera doesn't make change, but rather just sits back and hopes for it; instead of leaving her husband who paid close, loving attention to Meera's sister and many times ignores Meera, she stays with him in hopes that her son will assuage their marriage problems. At the novels end, after Dev's death and Ashvin's departure to boarding school, she contemplates suicide because she feels as though she is no longer useful to anyone. In the last few pages, she understands that her purpose in life isn't to take care of or control people, but rather to live her life to her fullest. But this realization comes too late, as I was crossing my fingers in hopes that this very last time, the drowning attempts might work.
While there was a dearth of likable characters through Suri's novel, he did manage to seamlessly include vivid imagery of everything from a marriage ceremony, a sporting event, and a breast-feeding session. The descriptions left me imagining the smells of the incense, the sweat on the players faces, and the taste of breast-milk (although I personally don't find the colorful imagery of breast-feeding as beautiful as many other reviewers did). In all cases, though, it wasn't enough to redeem the novel. There are but a handful of authors who can put me to sleep with a combination of vivid imagery and slow plot and character development [see: A Passage to India by E.M. Forster]. Suri has joined the ranks with his snail-paced, meticulous creation that is The Age of Shiva. The descriptions are slow, methodic, and meticulous. They would be wonderful anthropological field notes for researchers, yet in a work of fiction, they become tiresome and repetitive.
Additionally, the overly simplistic "symbolic" nature of the plot and characters leaves nothing for the readers to connect and discern for themselves. The main protagonists play roles paralleling the Hindu mythology of Shiva and the other Hindu Gods. In the story of Ganesha's creation [Shiva and Parvati's son], Parvati creates Ganesha because Shiva often leaves her alone and ignores her while retreating to the forest with his cohort of friends. Just as Ashvin was her hope for security and purpose, Parvati created Ganesh in order to provide her with companionship and hope. Additionally, Suri makes the overt parallel between Meera needing freedom from her domineering father and husband, with the idea of India needing freedom from its colonial repressors. Through this search and attainment of freedom, both Meera and India have journeyed through to find their own identities and positions.
Many reviewers have called this novel an epic tale. It is epic in length but lacking in a hero, morals, or meaningful adventures. It is suited for those readers who love flowery imagery and tales of "exotic" India. After enjoying his first novel, The Death Of Vishnu, for its recounting of a day in the life of a Mumbai apartment house and for its deep character insights, I am left disappointed with his second attempt and am now wary of the third installment of the trilogy.