I read The Age of Shiva: A Novel during my recent trip to India - it had been on my shelf for quite sometime and I thought reading while traveling in the country in which it was set would be a great opportunity. It proved to be an excellent travel companion - as I moved through India, so did the novel and I enjoyed reading about the compelling characters at a key time in India's history.
This novel is truly an epic tale spanning throughout India and over the space of woman's life from early adulthood to mid/late life. As a result you really come to know the characters and can develop relationships with them. The main character, Meera, is quite interesting and, like much of India, is riddled with contradictions. In many ways, she is surprisingly modern considering she is a woman in 1950's India - she was raised by a progressive father who didn't ascribe to the traditions of a woman's subservience to man so prevalent in Hinduism and India at the time and was strongly encouraged to pursue education and establish herself separately from her husband. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, she falls in love and marries a man from a much more traditional family and immediately abandons her educational pursuits and settles into a traditional life with her husband's family. However, she continues to be controlled by her father throughout her life - she and her husband rely on him financially and this gives him control over their lives. For example, he provides an apartment for the couple in Mumbai so that Meera's husband, Dev, can pursue his singing dreams but he requires that Meera complete a degree at a local university in exchange for his support.
From the author's website: Following his spectacular debut, The Death of Vishnu, Manil Suri returns with a mesmerizing story of modern India, richly layered with themes from Hindu mythology. The Age of Shiva is at once a powerful story of a country in turmoil and an extraordinary portrait of maternal love.
While her father's support seems in Meera's best interest on the surface, he really dictates her life and undermines the independence he so wants her to have - true, she is not controlled by her husband as a more traditional Indian wife may be but she is under her father's thumb and lets him set the course for her life repeatedly throughout the book. Her emotions are governed by her father's opinions and his letters to her, although prompting consternation and resentment on her part, nearly always result in Meera doing something she said she would never do. I was often frustrated by Meera's behavior in this respect - she always caved to her father's demands - but I can relate to her relationship with her father in many ways. I have a very loving father but he too has always tried to control me and make decisions for me that are in "my best interest". It is only now as I enter my late 30's that I have been resolute in asserting my own will and not allowing myself to be so heavily influenced by my Dad. Meera's troubled relationship with her father and her feelings upon his eventual death were a cautionary tale for me and confirmed the fact that it is important for me and for my relationship with my Dad that I stay focused on making my own decisions about my life.
Although controlled by her Father, Meera exists for her son, Ashvin. He fulfills all that she doesn't get from others in her life - her husband, her parents, sister, etc. At times, her obsession with her son becomes inappropriate and unhealthy for Ashvin. When he was a young boy, their devotion to each other was endearing but as Ashvin matured, Meera's need to be so close to him resulted in conflict and challenged Meera's reason for being. Unlike her relationship with her father, Meera's relationship with her son is one I could not easily relate to - she seemed selfish in her need to keep him close to her and her smothering seemed unfair to the young boy.
Despite my difficulties with Meera at times, I did really enjoy this novel. The author does an excellent job of weaving the history of India's Partition and independence, the politics of the newly formed nation, and Hindu mythology throughout the story of his characters. There are many more characters than those I have described above each with an important role in both Meera's life and the story of India at this pivotal time in its history. I have gained an appreciation of Manil Suri as an author and will seek out his first novel Death of Vishnu. Both books would be great selections for the South Asian Authors Challenge.
Please comment if you have read either book - I would love to hear your thoughts!