“The Age of Shiva” by Manil Suri

I enjoyed , “The Age of Shiva” (2008) the first book I have read by the US-based Indian-born writer, Manil Suri. I loved the book, admiring the author for his fascinating eye for detail about family life in middle-class North India. Having read this, I plan to seek out the two other books in his trilogy namely, “The Death of Vishnu” (2001) and “The City of Devi” (2013).

The story is about a Delhi-based Punjabi lady called Meera Sawhney Arora and her family told over a period from 1947 till the late 1970s. As you would know, this period covers two major events that significantly impacted India, the Partition of 1947 and the Emergency of 1975 to 1977.  Meera at an impressionable 17 marries Dev Arora in the 1950s mainly to spite her elder sister Roopa, whose friend he was. Dev loved Roopa then and perhaps for the rest of his life. An abortion early into Meera’s marriage, decided against her will by her husband, and a hurried shift to Bombay ends her life of wide-eyed innocence.

As a singer with dreams in his eyes, Dev shifts his family to Bombay looking for the commercial success he feels he deserves. However, over the years, Dev gets frustrated when his dreams turn sour as he is just not good enough to make the cut in a fiercely competitive environment. Failures at work lead to his seeking solace in drink. He soon becomes an alcoholic, often unemployed and virtually living off the money sent by Meera’s rich father, who bought an apartment for them and set them up in Bombay to start with.

Meera tells the story of her life in a new city with all its challenges compounded by the birth of her son, Ashvin. She finds herself drifting apart from Dev, getting highly attached to her son who becomes the centre of her life. She becomes extremely possessive of him. Ashvin as he grows up struggles to balance his love for both his parents. Dev dies when Ashvin is six and Meera’s life takes a turn for the worse as she is now mother and father to the boy.  As is to be expected,  she even contemplates suicide but decides to fight on for the sake of her son.

Suri describes life in both Delhi and Bombay in a typical middle-class Hindu household in amazing detail. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the book especially descriptions of Meera’s life in her in-law’s house just as she was married, her sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s mannerisms and characteristics, and the habits of her parents-in law.

The plot itself was not gripping as the story meanders over the decades. The author describes a changing India over the decades but the events described in considerable detail affect Meera’s parents more than her ( like her father and mother getting into politics, the effects of the Emergency etc) so take away from the impact on her and consequently on the main story. The canvas of the book covering many decades makes it slow-paced at times. Also I felt that some points were repeated too often to build the character like Meera herself or her father. Meera’s relationship with her son is indeed complex. I felt this relationship has been graphically captured by the author.

The story ends with Ashvin coming of age in the 1970s. At 16 he makes his choices leaving Meera as distraught as she perhaps was at the start of the story in the 1950s!

All in all, I enjoyed the book and look forward to reading more from Manil Suri.


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