The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri

03/02/08, Hindustan Times

When asked at a press conference at Cannes, after the triumphant screening of Pather Panchali, if he intended to carry forward the story of Apu in his subsequent films, Satyajit Ray found himself answering, much to his shock, that he did indeed plan to do so. The shock was because he had never imagined a series of Apu films, even as a distant possibility, before being asked the question. To compare the great with the small, Manil Suri was recently asked a similar question about his unfolding Hindu-trinity-tinged novels; he confessed jokingly that he felt impelled to write The Age of Shiva after his successful The Death of Vishnu because he had assented in an interview to a convenient project based on the thematic bunching offered by Hindu mythology. Lest the comparison deceive, let me hasten to add that Ray’s and Suri’s grands projets couldn’t be more different.

The Age of Shiva purports to be a post-1947 epic seen through the trajectories of two Delhi families, the Sawhneys and the Aroras. Both uprooted from their family seats in Pakistan during Partition and resettled in India, the former in Darya Ganj, the latter, at Nizamuddin, the Sawhneys are comfortably bourgeois – they run a publishing house – while the Aroras are poor and very much down the social ladder compared with the Sawhneys. The book is narrated by Meera Sawhney, who falls in love with Dev Arora, her sister Roopa’s beau, and marries him in a gesture of defiance against her controlling father, Paji. Throughout the book, this reactive opposition to her father, as it becomes more and more pronounced, drives the motor of the plot, which teems with the abiding clichés of popular Hindi cinema: dowry, recalcitrant in-laws, a lustful brother-in-law, an interfering father, the typical problems with alcohol, even a profusion of songs. If you aim for, say, a Kafka or a Kolatkar to form the allusive matrix of your novel and you miss, you might still manage to hit something worthy because the bar has been set extraordinarily high, but if your work is pegged to popular cinema and telly soaps, there is not much space to fall, for it feeds off the lowest common denominator anyway.

The story moves to Bombay, where Dev tries to hack it as a playback singer in the film-music industry but with no success. The marriage, long sickening, now finally unravels; a son, Ashvin, is born; Meera focuses all the energy and love in her life on her son; Dev dies a melodramatic death … and so it goes. But Suri has also decided to refract Indian history through the prism of these unfurling personal dramas, so he duly checks all the boxes: Partition, tick; Hindu-Muslim discord, tick; Nehru’s dream of a secular state, tick; Hindu Rashtriya Manch, Indira Gandhi, the emergency, the subterranean testing of the atomic bomb, Janata Party, tick, tick, tick … with the numbing deadness of clockwork, Suri splices the personal and the political, instead of letting it grow organically from his story.

This kind of forced and unsuccessful congruence is played out on another level. Witness the toe-curlingly embarrassing and overdone flirtation between Dev and Meera’s college friend, Freddy, during the visit to the Elephanta Caves, where the mythological underpinnings of the novel are marshaled with such heavyhanded oversignalling that it commits two fatal errors: first, it reveals the imperfect (and virtually non-existent) metaphorical mapping of the mythology of Shiva on the story of the characters that infects the whole book (a kind of failed allegory). Secondly, it bludgeons the reader with its insistence on paying attention to the congruence, or lack thereof, in what emerges to be a fascinatingly self-defeating move.

Why Suri has decided to peddle the whole Exotic, Mystical India shebang – mythology, many-limbed goddesses, saffron, sindoor, incantations, puja, nautch girls, colourful saris – is anybody’s guess. It is possible to write truly, authentically and beautifully about India – Vikram Chandra, Amit Chaudhuri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Seth, Akhil Sharma, to name just a few who have achieved that – without resorting to this shameless and insidious Orientalist pandering. But for that one needs to know how to write in the first place. The tale is also the telling; if you’re hamstrung by a style redolent of the homework book of a student trying too hard in ‘Creative Writing 101’, even fugitive patches of interesting narrative will be marred by the narration.

This relentless Indo-fuckery titillates Western palates, of course; they’ll lap it up like a cat a saucer of cream. But for readers here, dazzled by media buzz and hyperventilating marketing squeezes, to buy this kind of pure rubbish would be to become another kind of post-colonial victim. It is just as well that Bloomsbury have used Forest Stewardship Council approved paper from sustainable forests for this book: at least the wanton waste of trees in its production comes with its own damage limitation control.