Born in a time of disarray

Manil Suri’s latest novel weaves Indian history, Hindu religion and complex characters.

Stephanie Dickrell

Manil Suri started writing as a hobby. He was already an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and he said he felt he needed an extra dimension. So he sat down to write a short story.

Two decades later, Suri is a full professor at the same university and a successful novelist, the writer of a critically acclaimed and award-winning first book, “The Death of Vishnu.”

“The Age of Shiva”

Author: Manil Suri
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Pages: 455
Price: $24.95

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It’s not as if writing is easy for him.

“I have to cajole myself, to threaten myself,” he said, “use every means necessary to get the tiniest trickle out.” On a good day, he said he can produce half a page to a page.

Suri has to force himself to write before he has breakfast in the morning, he said, “otherwise I get too contented.”

So in the midst of teaching and researching in the field of mathematics, Suri produced a second novel, “The Age of Shiva.” It took him five years worth of semester breaks and summers.

Unlike “The Death of Vishnu,” which covers only 24 hours and the residents of one building in Bombay, “The Age of Shiva” spans three decades and takes place across the Asian continent, from Pakistan to Dehli and Bombay.

Suri said he anticipated the inevitable comparisons between his first novel and this one, and that’s why he decided to cover a new expanse with “The Age of Shiva.”

The novel follows the life of Meera, beginning when she’s a teenager five years after the Partition of India and Pakistan. The British abandoned their Indian Empire and the “states” of India were divided between two newly formed countries, India and Pakistan. The transition was not easy, including for the characters in the novel, and stirred up rivalry between

people of the two major religions in the region, Islam and Hindu.

Suri wove this history throughout the novel, showing how these historical events flowed around and shaped the lives of the Indian population.

Meera’s infatuation with her sister’s boyfriend leads to an unseemly situation, leaving marriage as the only option to save both of their reputations. She sustains herself, bending to the will of all of the forces around her – her husband, her husband’s family, her own family and her oppressive father – but she is never truly happy until she has her son, Ashvin.

Historical figures become characters, not in the intimate sense, but as enigmatic figures, like the politicians of the day. The names of political leader Mohandas Gandhi, Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi are peppered throughout the book as driving forces of political action in the country that affects the characters’ lives.

In addition to the Indian history, Suri makes the stories, rituals and actions of the Hindu religion into his own, even using the name of a Hindu god for his title.

Suri also writes in the second person, not a very common literary voice, from the perspective of a young Indian woman who becomes wife and mother – two social positions Suri himself will never experience.

“In the beginning, it was really trying to feel my way,” he said, “step into my character, into her mind, see the world through her eyes.”

At points where he wasn’t sure how Meera would react, he tried to think as if it were his mother or his aunts, and relay how they would have reacted.

For all its complexity, what really matters in this novel are the relationships – between mother and son, husband and wife, father and daughter. It’s these relationships that provide the conflict, the love, and the heart of the novel.

“The strongest element is the mother and son story,” he said, “with India coming of age in the background.”