Monday, March 03, 2008

On Manil Suri's The Age of Shiva

Manil Suri’s new novel The Age of Shiva, like his first novel The Death of Vishnu, begins with a scene of a woman offering liquid nourishment to a needy male. There it was the calculating housewife Mrs. Asrani, unwilling to waste her good tea on the dying manservant Vishnu; here it is the protagonist, Meera, breastfeeding her son Ashvin, a scene that Suri dresses up in language that suggests lovemaking.

This is quite appropriate, because The Age of Shiva develops into a story about the hope of redemption invested in passionate and suffocating mother-love – a Lawrentian theme, but also one with roots in Indian mythology (in which Suri is very interested), in the story of the goddess Parvati’s creation of a son to keep her company in the absence of her philandering husband Shiva.

The device of telling his story through the voice of Meera, rather than in the third person, relieves Suri of the burdens of the cloying commentary on the lives of his characters that debilitated The Death of Vishnu. Unfortunately Suri fails to give this kind of narration the proper depth and focus it demands by adding to it a kind of novelistic ticker tape continually breaking news in the life of newly independent India. This creates an excess of suggestion that muddies his story.

A representative example of the confusion generated by this method appears when the teenaged Meera goes with her sister Roopa and Roopa’s boyfriend Dev to a Republic Day rally in Delhi in 1955. Meera hears a stirring speech by Jawaharlal Nehru, and decides to assert her agency by stealing Dev from Roopa, and asks “Hadn’t the prime minister of India, Nehru himself, nudged me in the direction I was planning to take?”. That “nudged me” seems to be an evasion weakly argued by the protagonist yet licensed by the author.

Indeed, the unintentional nudge by Nehru raises a larger question in Suri’s fiction, which is that of the moral responsibility of individuals. All through The Age of Shiva the characters around Meera – beginning with Roopa and her father, and extending to Dev and his family and later to Ashvin– are moral savages: blanketed in egotism, complacent in their hypocrisy, greedily seeking sensual and material pleasures, always on the brink of intemperate speech.

For instance, after Dev and Meera have made love on their wedding night, Dev lies back and begins to think of Roopa (as he might plausibly do). But then he asks aloud: “Don’t you wonder what she’s doing right now?” This is one of numerous occasions when characters behave oddly, as if enlisted in an authorial conspiracy to make a martyr of the lead character: although their moods wax and wane, but there is no productive ambiguity to them. Here is Hema, Dev's fifteen-year-old sister, speaking with Meera for the first time:

"...I suppose we shouldn't expect you to be good either, being a rich man's girl and everything. I've already told my parents. When I get married, it's going to be to the wealthiest man they can find. Marry for comfort, that's what I want, not for love like you. Tell me though, is it true what you two did in the tomb? They were quite outraged, the Muslims, they're saying you defiled the grave. Even the stationmaster, Mr. Ahmed, said it was an insult to one of their Muslim saints.
I kept my gaze focused at my feet, willing my body to be absolutely still. Sweat trickled down my face and neck under the gunghat, but I didn't draw it back or take it off.
"You can tell me, I promise not to repeat it to anyone. Pushpa down the street says you both were naked." Hema giggled. "Were you really? Babuji was called into Mr.Ahmed's office, you know. Given quite a firing."

Everything about this passage is problematic, from the the implausibility of a teenaged girl speaking like this to someone she barely knows ("Marry for comfort, that's what I want, not for love like you"; "Pushpa down the street says you were both naked") to the wooden phrasing and jarring locutions ("Tell me though..."; Babuji was called into Mr.Ahmed's office, you know").

Also, it would seem from passages like this one that Suri wishes to preserve the specificity of certain Hindi works, like gunghat. But he does not show the same confidence in KL Saigal's song "Diya Jalao", preferring to call it "Light The Fire Of Your Heart", which makes it sound like something by the Bee Gees. (Another song, "Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya", Suri translates bathetically as "When The Heart Only Has Broken"). The heart only?

Meera’s father himself is a veritable deus ex machina, as when he cozens Dev into persuading Meera to abort her first child (he feels she is too young to conceive, when the previous year he had not thought her too young to marry) by offering him a flat in Bombay to allow him to pursue his dream of becoming a playback singer. With this the novel moves to Bombay, where Meera's suffering continues at the hands of her strangely unfeeling and implausible husband.

Meera’s life, then, is undone by men acting brutishly, either singly or in concord. But while her narrative supplies painstaking and often tedious summaries of events and problems in Indian politics – Partition, Hindu-Muslim conflict, the wars with China and Pakistan, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the rise of Hindu nationalism – it surprisingly never offers any larger meditation on why human nature, or male nature, or Indian nature, is as cruel or unthinking as it is, when this is the main question raised by her troubles, and she has absolute liberty to speak in her story as she perhaps cannot in real life.

The episode of Dev’s death is neatly illustrative of Suri’s ham-handed approach towards his craft. In Chapter 23 we find him sullen because jobless, and hence given to wearing “the darkest shirts he owned, with pants that were charcoal black”. In Chapter 24 we are told of war breaking out with Pakistan; because of the power blackouts the police have advised pedestrians “to wear white shirts” to avoid being run over (not white clothes, note, but white shirts). Ergo, Chapter 25: Dev is run over by a cab in the dark. “What with the dark shirt he was wearing, and no streetlamps or headlights…” a police officer explains. Yes yes, we know.

Suri’s novel – apparently the second in a trilogy – is awash with petty superfluities of this kind, and spoonfeeds its meanings to the reader from start to finish. It is content to clutch at the teats of myth and history, and never attains maturity as a work of fiction.

And an old post on the use of Hindi words in an English novel: "English and Hindi in Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games".

[A shorter version of this piece appeared yesterday in the Observer.]


PH said...

Enjoyd reading the review. As a rule, I'm suspicious about reading any novel playing upon an Indian myth. I don't's a bit too focussed on the grandeur, often giving in to the fallacy that tapping into a myth will create a new one.

Chandrahas said...

PH - I don't agree with you there. Any literary study of myth will show what an extraordinarily fertile source and stimulus it has been now and always for literature. So I don't see why Indian myth should be excluded from the compass of Indian novels. The question as always is not what but how.

PH said...

Sorry abt the late response:)

I guess u r right. It is abt the "how". Ur comment reminded me that Shyam Benegal's Kalyug is one of my all time fav movies, and I shudn't be against adapting myths prima facie.

Chandrahas said...

PH - Not at all. Good to see that you're prepared to rethink your positions instead of defending them doggedly, as we're all too easily prone to doing.

Kalyug in one of a few Benegal movies I haven't seen, but yes, it is a good example to bring up.

Sony Pony said...

I was surprised to read this review. I loved The Age of Shiva (as did I very much enjoy Death of Vishnu). You seemed to imply that much of the characters that came alive for me in the novel are fairly implausible. I would disagree. Particularly Dev. But also others, such as Hema. I loved the relationship that is created between Sandhya and Meera. I loved the swing of Meera's story that spirals out of her control so quickly. I don't think Suri's approach is ham-handed at all. Particularly the scene with Dev's death. The fight the night before that he paints is so precise for its pathos. I am also surprised by the "clutching at the teats of history and myth". I never thought that the story relied on mythology or history to any degree, but instead wove these into the narration often beautifully.