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The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri. W.W. Norton. February 2008. Hardcover. 448 pages. $24.95

Manil Suri did not intend to write a book about a mother. He was going to write book about the son. “But two hundred pages later the son was not even born,” says Suri about his latest book, The Age of Shiva, the second in a trilogy that began with the acclaimed The Death of Vishnu. “And I realized this was going to be Meera’s story.”

But it’s Meera’s story as told to her son, though the first unsettling line hovers between sons and lovers:

“Every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, every time I offer you my body. Ashvin. Do you know how tightly you shut your eyes as with your lips you search my skin?”

“The intensity of a mother and son relationship has been on my mind for a long time,” says Suri. He says even now he feels he is permanently engaged in what he calls a “pehle aap (first you)” dance with his mother in India. “My mother tries to guess what I want her to do. I try to guess what she wants me to do. In contrast to the West, where he says everyone is “responsible for their own happiness,” he finds when it comes to his mother and him, “we can’t just say ‘I want this.’ It’s the whole philosophy that you are always supposed to think of the other person’s happiness which is drilled into you from books and movies.”

When Meera writes in a letter to her son, “To be a parent is to be guilty … Remember my only wish is for you to be happy,” she doesn’t realize the burden she is imposing on her son. What if his happiness makes her unhappy? The claustrophobia of that kind of love is something that is uncomfortable to discuss, shrouded as it often is in notions of duty and tradition. “As children we want to do the right thing,” says Suri. “I have to make sure that my mother is happy in order for me to be happy. That’s hardwired into me. I don’t know if that is selfless or selfish.”

After his father passed away, Suri, the only son, has struggled even more about taking care of his mother from across oceans as she ages. “She came to live with us once for seven months,” he says. “But it didn’t really work. She was at home alone all day.”

“Perhaps if there were grandchildren it would give her more focus,” he says, adding that his mother gets along quite well with his partner, Larry. Now he goes to India at least three times a year, spacing his trips out with his teaching schedule at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, where he is a professor of mathematics.

While there is a stereotype of an especially strong and complicated bond between gay men and their mothers, Suri says he’s seen the same kind of intense bonds with some of his straight cousins and their mothers. At the same time, he would hate for Meera, with her all-consuming blinding love for Ashvin, to become the prototype for all Indian mothers.

He says his French editor even pointed out a Hindi word that exists for that complex umbilical connection that exists beyond childbirth—vatsalya. Suri says he was not aware of that word while in India, but looking back he can see how popular culture is obsessed, sometimes coyly, sometimes overtly, with that connection.

On one hand, the saintly mother in Hindi films, often widowed, was always holy, always noble, always tearful. But it was quite obvious that there was lot more going on underneath the white sari and glycerine tears. Suri remembers a scene in the Raj Kapoor teen-lovers film Bobby where the young Rishi Kapoor’s mother’s blouse is exposed for a flash. It was nothing explicit, but that vision of uncovered motherhood caused a buzz. Raj Kapoor was already well known for dousing his white-clad heroines in rivers and waterfalls. “Now he is even exploiting mothers,” was the charge against Bobby, Suri says.

“Then of course there was Mother India,” he recalls. That film shows up in The Age of Shiva, too, and remains a classic in Indian film history, not just because of the ultimate sacrifice of the iconic mother killing her own bandit son, but because of its parallel off-screen romance where Nargis Dutt, who played the mother, married Sunil Dutt, who played the son.

And it isn’t just Bollywod. Suri writes about a story from the Mahabhagavata Purana, where Shiva impales his own son Andhaka for falling in love with his mother, Parvati, and trying to carry her off. Suri asked his own mother, who has an M.A. in psychology and is an avid reader of his books, pointblank about this attraction.

“She said there is always attraction, but she couldn’t identify with that aspect,” says Suri. He says he’s always had very frank conversations with his mother about issues like sexuality, though he admits when it came to his own sexuality, he found it cut a little too close to home for comfort: “My mother was very comfortable explaining Freud’s theory about sexuality to me when I was 12 or 13. But actually talking about it (as it related to him) was a much longer process.”

Unlike Meera, who cannot concentrate on her studies or a career and shuts the world out in order to focus on her son, Suri’s mother, with two degrees, led an active life. She married his father in Rawalpindi a month before Partition, and they had to flee to India leaving everything behind, even their wedding presents. For a while, his father sold potatoes and onions in Delhi before venturing to Bombay where he worked as an assistant music director with the likes of Madan Mohan and Laxmikant Pyarelal. Though the family was not well off, they made sure that Suri went to a good school; his classmates, he says, had no idea of his parents’ circumstances and that they lived as paying guests in an apartment in Bombay. Initially, while his father tried to make a go of it in Bombay, Suri’s mother stayed on in Delhi doing social work and for a while was Indira Gandhi’s personal secretary before Mrs. Gandhi became the Prime Minister.

Indira Gandhi, in fact, hovers in the background of The Age of Shiva, as does Jawaharlal Nehru. “History does propel the events of the book,” says Suri, though he doesn’t want The Age of Shiva to be viewed entirely through the lens of the history of modern India. But the parallels are hard to miss. Indira Gandhi was estranged from her own husband Feroze, struggling to live up to the expectations of a larger-than-life father, Jawaharlal Nehru, and intensely connected to her younger son, Sanjay, until his death in a plane crash.

In The Age of Shiva, Meera steals her beautiful sister’s handsome singer boyfriend, Dev, away from her but is soon emotionally estranged from him. Her emotional energy becomes focused on her son, Ashvin. But there is also Paji, her Nehruvian secular-minded publisher father, who wants her to study and become an independent young woman in a modern India.

Suri says he has been fascinated by the way his American readers and his South Asian readers have reacted to Paji. Americans, he says, have a hard time seeing his flaws. It is as if they have marked off his good qualities in a mental checklist—he wants his daughters to make something of themselves, he wants them to be educated instead of giving everything up for motherhood, he wants them to question archaic traditions. “It’s almost as if they are trained to judge people on certain buzzwords,” says Suri, but his Indian readers recognize that “goodness” is its own form of control. They recognize how manipulative Paji can be and understand why Meera chafes at his control and lashes out at him, even to the point of self-destructiveness. So when Meera reaches out to touch her husband’s feet during Karva Chauth (where women typically fast for their husband’s well-being) she is turning a tradition, which is the epitome of wifely dutifulness, into an act of subversion aimed at her iconoclastic father:

“I touched his right foot first, then his left, as Sandhya had instructed. The skin on his knuckles felt dry and surprisingly smooth. There was a quiver with each contact I made, as if my fingertips were delivering electric shocks to him. I went through the motion of blessing myself by running my fingers through my hair.
Then I rose, my head still bowed, ready to accept my father’s rage.”

Suri says his own mother performed Karva Chauth for many years, as did many of his cousins. For him, revisiting not just the rituals of Karva Chauth but his own religion, but with the “cold blooded calculation that comes from the analytic aspect of being a writer,” has been a fascinating journey. Growing up “culturally Hindu,” Suri had been to the temple many times but never fully absorbed the meanings (and contradictions) that are at the heart of a faith with the syncretism of Hinduism. In The Age of Shiva, he writes not just about Hinduism but also Hindu fundamentalism. Meera’s brother-in-law gradually transforms into a right-wing fundamentalist obviously modeled on the R.S.S. Her neighbors are mostly Muslim, and through these daily encounters Suri tries to give a taste of the complexity of religion in India, where it is truly part of everyday life.

When he wrote The Death of Vishnu, Suri had not really thought too much about the significance of a character named Vishnu, until an editor pointed it out to him. While few in the U.S. might be named Jesus, Vishnu and Lakshmis are not uncommon names in India. But once he embraced the parallels, Suri says, “Vishnu is a much easier God to understand and make your own.”

Shiva presented a trickier proposition. He incorporates in himself the masculine and the feminine, he loves Parvati with a burning passion, and yet is an ascetic. “And he has all these clichés associated with him, especially in the West,” says Suri. (Ever since a photographer for a London newspaper made him pose in front of a lurid mural of maharajas at an Indian restaurant, Suri gets very nervous at the whiff of exoticism.)

In order to “research” Shiva, Suri not only read books, he even went to Junagadh to live with sadhus during the festival of Sivaratri. “But I soon realized it was a voyeuristic anthropologist kind of thing to do,” he says. “Instead you really have to ruminate.” In the end, what Suri tries to convey in the book is the presence of absence.

“What I wanted to convey most was this sense of longing,” says Suri. “The ascetic withdraws, and his absence creates a sense of longing which is very hard to understand.”

When he first envisioned the trilogy, Suri says he had a fairly simple narrative arc in mind.

“Vishnu is no more, Shiva will rise, the universe will be destroyed, and then Brahma will regenerate it.” But as he started writing he realized that he couldn’t just map Shiva out like a storyboard. He even toyed with having different characters represent different aspects of Shiva. “But it was too painfully allegorical,” he admits. “In the end, I had to draw inwards and just feel my way through.”

It’s also meant that the trilogy has changed. Now Suri sees it really being a trilogy about India. “The first book was a snapshot of India as it is now. The second is about how we got there. The third will probably be about the future.” He pauses, and then with a trace of a smile in his voice says, “Probably.”

Apparently the writer proposes, but God disposes.

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.