When India was given her independence in 1948 it should have been a time of celebration. After decades of protest and a failed revolution in the 19th century, she was finally stepping out from under the heel of her colonial master Great Britain to be a unified country for the first time in centuries. Instead it was a time of horrible turmoil and sectarian violence, as in their last act of contempt for their former subjects the British arbitrarily split the country into Muslim and Hindu halves.
While in theory Muslims and Hindus could have stayed on in what were to become Pakistan and India, in practice people fled in both directions in fear of their lives. Families left homes that they had lived in for generations with nothing more than what they could carry on their backs. The British troops who were supposed to oversee the transit of people from one part of the country to another somehow or other never materialized and thousands of people died in riots.
Is it any wonder that India's first prime minister, Nerhu, dreamed of a secular state where what mattered was your nationality not your religion? Unfortunately bigotry is stronger than dreams, and it's easier to hold on to hatred than to learn tolerance. People are always going to need someone to blame their troubles on (heaven forbid they take responsibility for their own actions) and there's nothing like the convenience of a readily available scape-goat. So in spite of Nerhu's desires, and Gandhi's death at the hands of a fanatical Hindu must have given an inkling of the obstacles he would have to overcome, India in the years immediately following partition was a powder keg of resentments just looking for a fuse and match.
Manil Suri's recently released novel, The Age Of Shivabegins in 1955, just prior to the festivities marking the 7th anniversary of India's independence. Meera Sawhney is seventeen when the story opens and according to her father, a firm believer in Nerhu's secular state, her generation is the one that will shake off the shackles of religion and the blinkers of tradition and lead India into the modern world. Yet if her father is the future of India her mother is the past. Deeply religious and illiterate she was married to Meera's father at the age of ten, and moved in with him four years after their marriage.
While Meera's father is extolling the virtues of a woman making her own way in the world to his three daughters, her mother fills their childhood with tales of Shiva, his wife Parvati, their son Ganesh, and the rest of the pantheon of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. In spite of their different views on the world the parents agree that Meera's life, as second daughter, should revolve around her elder sister Roopa. It seems her father's protestations of fairness and equality don't play out in practice as well as they do in theory, and it's this hypocrisy, combined with resentment at the bullying she receives at the hands of Roopa that end up dictating Meera's early life choices.
Roopa is enamoured of Dev, the younger son of a poor rail yard employee's family, who has the romantic appeal of being a gifted amateur singer. Meera's first glimpse of Dev is from a darkened balcony as he is crooning a sentimental ballad made popular in the movies on his way to winning a singing competition during the Independence Day festivities of 1955. Listening to a recording of Nerhu's speech from Independence Day, declaiming a future of opportunities, elicits thoughts in Meera of stealing Dev away from her sister and having him sing only for her.
With Roopa all of a sudden engaged to an appropriate suitor, Meera puts herself in Dev's way, with the result that she finds herself having to live her fantasy and marry him. Suddenly she is removed from her comfortable life of upper middle class ease to living in a two room house with her husband's family in the rail yards. She also receives her first introduction to the politics of Hindu nationalism and virulent anti-Muslim sentiments at the feet of her father-in -law.
In many ways Meera's life with Dev; the choices that she is faced with, and the decisions she reaches, are a reflection of the choices and decisions India as a country deals with. Yet while there is much of her life that is specific to India, plenty of what she experiences will be familiar to all women of that generation. I only have to think of women of my mother's generation, who who were encouraged to receive an education, but not allowed to do anything with it. Unlike their mothers they know there is more to life than being a servant to their husbands whims, and are not fulfilled by being a house wife.
With no real job opportunities aside from a menial one translating for a publishing house, and the reality of being married to Dev not coming anywhere near to living up to her fantasy, it's not until the birth of her son that Meera feels any sense of fulfillment. Unfortunately, as happened with so many women of that time with no other options, she pours everything into her son to the point of unhealthy obsession.
The Age Of Shiva is a fascinating study of an individual's desperate search for identity and purpose. While Meera's elder sister Roopa is able to play the game of upper middle class matron, and her younger sister gains identity through scholarship, she is stuck somewhere in between. She can't find solace in religion like her mother or her husband's family, but than again nothing the secular world has to offer brings her any comfort either. The obsessive nature of her love for her son is of course dangerous in that she will be left with no identity of her own when he leaves home.
Of equal interest is tale of India that plays out in the background, a history that I was unfamiliar with before now. I had known about the attempts by Pakistan to invade the territory of Kashmir, and of an earlier war with China, but had not known that the United States had armed Pakistan for it's wars against India as far back as the 1960's. Facts like that go a long way to understanding the feelings of resentment and betrayal that the Muslim countries of that part of the world must feel at the way their former allies now treat them.
The Age Of Shiva is a well told narrative with fully realized characters, that provides insights into the struggles educated women of the post World War two generation faced in many societies. They could see what would it be like to have their own identity, but were not allowed to touch it.
(Originally posted February 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.