The Age of Shiva

March 4, 2008 12:48:13 PM PST
"The Age of Shiva" by Manil Suri: On the day before India's birth as a new nation, the seeds of change are planted for both the country and for Meera, a romantic, impressionable young woman in Manil Suri's "The Age of Shiva."

Meera, who narrates the story to her beloved son, Ashvin, describes her early fascination with Dev - the man who sets her afire with his good looks, charm and hopes of becoming a famous singer. She is 17 when she first sees Dev and wonders if she can steal him from her older sister, Roopa.

"When did the idea first start germinating in my brain? Was it when I saw Roopa whistle at him during the show? When I saw the look that came on her face backstage? `Your sister is almost as pretty as your are.' I had never heard anyone say that before to me. Neither had Roopa, to her."

A moment of indiscretion leads to marriage, to the disgust of her domineering father, who had hoped Meera would become a student.

Meera must leave her privileged Hindu family and move in with Dev's much poorer family, where she quickly learns that life is not the fairy-tale she once believed it to be.

"It was good that there was so much activity those first days in my in-laws' house, since it prevented me from steeping in regret every waking moment," Meera says.

In the male-dominated world of India after independence, Meera does not really escape her father. Although he is unhappy with her, he continues to control her by providing an apartment and financial help.

Her husband, disappointed that he married Meera instead of her sister, and unhappy that he does not become a singing star, turns to alcohol. Her brother-in-law lusts after her, eventually trying to use her son as a way of reaching her.

The two great loves of Meera's life are her son and her sister-in-law, Sandhya, which both become tragedies. Sandhya is destroyed by her inability to have children. Ashvin, her son, is nearly destroyed by his mother's overwhelming love.

Interwoven with Merra's personal tale are the struggles of India, including the violence with Pakistan, and the conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

Intensely readable, both exotic and commonplace, Suri combines first-rate storytelling with compelling narration.

The characters, with all their strengths and flaws, are fascinating and believable.