Suri Channels Conflicted Female Voice in 'Shiva'

Manil Suri

Manil Suri is a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. He says he hopes to help close the divide between math and creative writing. Jose Villarrubia hide caption

itoggle caption Jose Villarrubia

Author Manil Suri is called an "N.R.I" back in the country of his birth. That stands for "Non Resident Indian." His first novel, The Death of Vishnu, thrust readers into the complex social microcosm of a Bombay apartment building. Vishnu was based on a real man — who lived on a landing between the first and ground floors. Sur never got to know him and always wondered who he was, and how he died. When he began to write the novel, which won a Pen Faulkner award, Suri drew upon another Vishnu — the Hindu god who preserves the universe.

When it came to writing his follow-up novel, The Age of Shiva, Suri turned again to the rich symbolic possibilities of Hindu cosmology. Set in an India newly independent — and bitterly divided — Shiva is a symbol of religious upheaval in this story of a woman's journey in love, motherhood and family. Critics have praised Suri's imaginative leap into the intense believable voice of a female narrator caught between identities, faiths and ideologies.

Suri is also a professor of applied mathematics at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. He has said he wants to help close the divide between math and creative writing. To that end, his classes often seek to inspire young writers to explore the intrigue and drama of concepts such as infinity.

This reading of The Age of Shiva took place in February 2008 at the Politics and Prose book store in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'The Age of Shiva'

The Age of Shiva

Chapter One

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? Do you know how you thrust your feet towards me, how you reach out your arms, how the sides of your chest strain against my palms? Are you aware of your fingers brushing against my breast, their tips trying to curl around something to hold on to, but slipping instead against my smooth ­flesh?

Ashvin. Do you notice the wetness emerge from my nipples and spill down the slopes of my chest? Is that your tongue that I feel, are you able to steal a taste or ­two?

Ashvin. Your eyes still closed, drops of moisture dappling your nose. Do you know how innocent you look, how helpless, as I guide the nipple towards your mouth? For an instant, I feel like teasing you. Drawing my nipple across your lips, but only for a touch, and swinging it away. Watching your tongue dart out in confusion, the fingers still opening and closing and curling, worry beginning to crinkle your face. And that helplessness—that exquisite helplessness in your expression, that need for my body, for the nipple that is yours, for the breast I have so cruelly taken away. Yes, love can be capricious, can it not, my ­sweet?

But of course I relent before I even begin: your look suffuses me with guilt. I let your mouth close around me, I feel the pressure of your gums, your lips. The power in your jaws surprises me—a little more strength, and I can see there will be ­pain.

Your tongue pulls against my nipple. So practiced, so persuasive, so determined, how does it know what to do? I feel myself responding. Each tug brings liquid flooding up, engorging my breast, pushing out into your insistent mouth. Your feet twist and turn against my belly as you feed, your hands finally find purchase on my breast. Fingers splaying out around tiny palms, your orb, your world, held in your ­hands.

I lose myself in the rhythm of your intake. Am I imagining it, or is there a parallel rhythm that echoes inside me? A longing that rises through my body and trembles under my skin. I feel myself flush, I feel the color spread through my ­chest.

Then I see your face. Your forehead losing its worry, your eyelids no longer wrinkled tight. I watch the smile trying to train the corners of your mouth, and the heat inside me turns into warmth. There is nothing, I think to myself, as you let go of my nipple and turn to me, filled. Nothing that can be as satisfying as ­this.

Afterwards, I lie next to you. You fit so well into my body. Before closing my eyes, I take one last look. Your eyes, your ears, your hands, your feet, all these I check to make sure they are still there, still intact. Even the tiny curl of your manhood, nestling so innocently between the fleshy fold of your thighs. All this I have created. All this has come from ­me.

As I drift off to sleep, I wonder if you will ever know these thoughts that flow through my mind. These soliloquies I address to you, this conversation I keep up in my brain. Perhaps one day I will tell you about the yearning from which you were born. The lives with which you can play, the planets over which you hold sway. Ashvin, the sign in the sky, Ashvin, the constellation of twins. Ashvin, the one who went before you, the one with whom you share your name. You are the hope and the fire, the absolution, the purifier. You will deliver me, will you not, from this life I find myself ­in?



It is midnight when my eyes open. The room is dark, someone has switched off the lights. The car horns have stopped blaring, Bombay's buses stopped running for the night. I hear the solitary tinkle of a bicycle bell from the street below. Sprigs of light grow and fade around the room as the curtains sigh in gusts of outside ­air.

A shadow plucks itself from the walls and moves through the room. It is the figure of a man, he bends over my bed. The blur of the ceiling fan forms a halo behind his head. Rays from a distant streetlamp highlight his nose, his chin. Your eyes, I think in fascination through my sleepy haze, your chin. I reach out to caress your lips, they feel warm and moist on my ­fingertips.

I am in a dream, of course. One in which you have dropped by from another time in your life, to show me what you will be when you are grown. I look at your arms and legs, so adult and properly proportioned, the baby fat gone, replaced by muscle. Do you have a mustache, I want to know, does your hair still curl? How do they all fit together, those lips, that nose, that ­chin?

I shift away from the edge of the bed and you seat yourself next to me. You stroke my head, your fingers run over my hair. My son, my Ashvin, I think, as sleep again begins to mist around. All those years ahead of us for me to watch you ­grow.

Your hand touches my cheek, the side of my neck. It lingers at my shoulder, then traces the line of my clavicle to the hollow of my throat. I am almost asleep again when a tug at my bosom opens my eyes. Fingers are unfastening the clasps of my blouse, palms are sliding under cloth to ease my breasts out. A swath of chest hair glides playfully over my skin; a stomach, a waist, a navel, rubs against my thigh. I look up at the face I know cannot be yours. The fan makes whirring sounds as it agitates the night ­behind.

Hands begin stroking me in practiced ways. Lips descend down my chin, down my neck. I feel the pressure ascend rapidly in my chest. Before I can do anything, my front is ­damp.

"Dev," I say. I know, of course, how could I not have always ­known?

"You're wet again," Dev says. He holds his palm up incriminatingly and through the darkness I see the glisten of moisture against your father's ­skin.



Later that night I am in the kitchen, rolling out chappatis. Your father likes them cooked fresh—reheated ones, he says, are harder to digest. I have dabbed off the moisture as best as I can, but my nipples still darken the material of my ­blouse.

From the living room, I hear the sound of soda water escaping from a bottle, and then a glass being filled. "Mother's milk for baby and grain's milk for daddy," Dev says. I can tell he has had quite a bit already before coming home—I have smelled the sour sharpness in his ­breath.

I slap a chappati onto the griddle and press it against the hot metal with a wad of cloth. The smell of browning flour rises to my nostrils. After a minute, I peel the chappati off and throw it on the open fire. Slowly the chappati puffs up and fills the kitchen with its ­aroma.

When the chappatis are done, I heat the meat, slice the onions, and put the mango pickle on a plate. Then I bring everything out to the living room and set them out next to his glass before ­Dev.

"Aren't you going to join me?" he says, his voice slurred. His pupils are dilated, his mouth spread in an unfocused smile. Still, he manages to be handsome. I look at his evenly spaced teeth, the clean way his lips frame his mouth. This is what your smile will look like, I think, once you have learned how to smile. This is the way your eyes will project innocence by being just a smidgen too close. This is the way your chin will ground your face, your ears will emerge discreetly from your hair. How closely your features resemble your father's, not mine, even now. I am struck by the unfairness of ­it.

"At least have some meat," Dev says, thrusting a mutton chop towards my face. The mutton drips gravy on the floor as he waves it in the ­air.

"I ate hours ago," I say, taking the chop out of his hand and placing it back on his ­plate.

"The wetness," he says as I'm bending down next to him, wiping gravy off the floor. "It felt so sticky when it dried last time. All over my skin." His voice becomes soft, conspirational. "Can't you feed Munna first?" He tries to caress my hair with his mutton and gravy hand, but I bob my head out of the ­way.

"There's custard in the fridge," I say. "Don't forget to put the plates back in the kitchen. Last night there were cockroaches everywhere."

"Cockroaches," he says, staring at his food, as if he will see a convoy walking across his plate. A smear of pickle dangles from the corner of his mouth. As I walk back into the bedroom, I hear him noisily empty his glass, then fill it ­again.



I sit on the bed in the dark and look at you. A sliver of light anoints your forehead in gold, then glances off and catches your nose. You look so tranquil, so restful, you could be advertising sleep ­itself.

I wonder if you would mind being woken. It has been hours since your last feeding. There is a neediness in my chest. I long for the comfort of your mouth at my ­breast.

But I remain there instead and look at you. The light has somehow shifted, or perhaps your head has moved. Gold outlines your mouth now, and dabs at the small of your ­throat.

Your father starts singing. He only does this on nights when he is extremely drunk. "Will you light the fire of your heart," he croons, "to dispel the darkness of my life. . . ."

He sings softly, so that his voice does not carry to the other flats, but loud enough so that I hear it. Even with the slurring of the lyrics, the fineness of his voice comes through. I hold my breath so as not to miss any of his ­words.

You open your eyes. With your mouth and throat highlighted, it looks like the song is coming from you. "Draw closer and take my hand," you say, "lead me to a life with less heartbreak. . . ."

Abruptly, the lyrics stop. I can see from your eyes that you are about to cry. I pick you up eagerly and offer you a breast. As you start to suckle, the song starts up ­again.

"For only love can bring back the light. . . ."

I sit there in the dark, listening to your father's voice. Your fingers press against the base of my breast, your lips encircle my nipple again. As the milk flows from my body into yours, satiation spreads in its ­wake.

"Only love . . ." your father ­sings.



The voice rises from the stage. It swirls around the darkened auditorium and reaches me in the first row of the balcony ­above.

"Only love can bring back the light. . . ." The words are heavy with longing, so heavy that I wonder how they manage to soar to where I am seated. It is the 25th of January, 1955—the eve of India's fifth anniversary as a republic. We are at Ramjas College in Delhi. I am ­seventeen.

"Will you light the fire of your heart?" the voice continues, and now someone standing at the back of the balcony switches on a spotlight. It sweeps along the floor restlessly, searching the empty stage, and stops on a lone figure dressed in black, his back towards the ­audience.

"To dispel the darkness of my life." The figure turns around. I see a face painted so white that it seems to float free in the brilliance of the spotlight. The lips are red, almost crimson; the eyes clearly outlined; each lash seems to stand out black and distinct against the whiteness around. Perhaps it is the excitement of the crowd, or just my teenage headiness, but when I look into your father's eyes, I think I discover an emotion that only I can see. A longing distilled from the anguish of the lyrics, a pain, a hunger that calls only to ­me.

Roopa's fingers press against my forearm—my sister is barely aware of this as she leans forward in her seat. I tear my gaze away from the stage—away from the dark, perfect eyes, the unnaturally red mouth, the cheeks that tremble and burn. Instead I look at Roopa, her face shiny in the light reflected off the stage. In her raptness, her dupatta has fallen immodestly to her elbows, exposing a half circle of skin that gleams beneath her throat. On her lips is the gloss of forbidden lipstick. From her earlobes dangle Biji's earrings, like bunches of tiny golden ­grapes.

A few stanzas into the song, Roopa starts rummaging around in her purse. She pulls out a silver lighter, which even in the dark, I recognize as Paji's prized possession, the one Teji uncle gave him last year. The earrings from our mother, the lighter from our father—she has purloined from them both. I am ­impressed.

The spotlight goes out. The song continues, rising now from even darker depths. I have read about such tortured souls in novels, seen their stories in films; souls who suffer so that the rest of us can savor the offering of their pain. "Light the fire of your heart," your father sings, and I close my eyes to concentrate on the torment mounting in his voice. Roopa begins to fumble with the stolen lighter, and I open my eyes to see it come alive with a blue and yellow flame. She raises it above her head and all around I notice people holding up matches and candles and even tiny oil lamps. I look over the balcony ledge at the points of illumination dotting the rows below, stretching out like the lights of a city viewed from a mountaintop. Just as the song climaxes, every bulb in the auditorium is switched on simultaneously. Your father throws open his arms to welcome the applause, the illumination, then steps to the edge of the stage and takes a ­bow.

Later, after all the contestants have sung, the curtains part one final time to reveal the judges sitting behind a ­garland-­decked table, a huge flag of India pinned to the white cloth background behind them. The winner of the 1955 Republic Day intercollegiate singing competition is announced, and it is Dev Arora, from Ramjas College, ­Delhi.

"Dev, Dev!" Roopa screams beside me, then puts her forefingers in her mouth to whistle. All that emerges is a short spraying sound, and she tries to hide her ­lipstick-­smeared fingers. This is one thing I can do better than my sister, so I emit a long, perfectly pitched whistle, modulating the intensity up and down to show off. Roopa ignores it. "Let's go backstage," she ­says.

She leads me down a ­green-­walled passage to a door with a do not enter sign. "The men's dressing room," Roopa announces carelessly. "Are you brave enough to enter?" I can tell she is hoping to shock me, but I eagerly nod my head. Roopa fluffs up her curls one last time, the curls she has spent all morning coaxing into her hair. Then we are in. Through the smoke, I see several of the singers from the competition. Nobody challenges ­us.

Dev is standing slender and shirtless in front of a washbasin. His face in the mirror is half white, half ­flesh-­toned—I realize he is washing off a layer of makeup which spreads down to his neck. One eye remains outlined in dark black liner, the other has been wiped clean. He has not yet started on his lips, they are still an impossibly deep ­red.

I notice the stained towel in his hand, the streaks that swirl around darkly in the basin, and feel a pang of disappointment. Is that all it takes, I wonder, to wipe anguish ­away?

"My sister Meera," Roopa announces, and Dev turns around. There is a line of hair starting at his navel and curving up to the base of his throat. It is like a snake, a naag, with two heads—one poised with its eye over the left nipple, the other arcing towards his right shoulder. I stare at his naked chest, transfixed by the eye, the nipple, the ­heads.

Roopa is looking at me, and I realize Dev has greeted me but I have not responded. "Hello," I murmur, and then add, "Congratulations."

"Your sister is almost as pretty as you are," Dev says to Roopa, or to me, I am not sure. Then, to my amazement, your father leans forward and kisses my sister with his red, red ­lips.



Your father still has the hair snaking up his chest. He rubs it against me whenever he wants to let me know he has the need. Sometimes, when he lies on top of me, I can hear it rustling against my skin. Perhaps you heard it as well from inside me, with your ear pressed to the wall of my ­belly.

Soon your father will stop singing in the living room. He will forget the custard and leave the dishes where they are. He will stretch back in his chair and stare at the ceiling, his mouth open. His eyes will close—he will snore, and think he is still ­awake.

I will smooth out the sheets on his bed next to mine. I will spread out your blanket and lay you on his empty bed. With my cheek on my pillow, I will watch you sleep beside me. My eyes will close following the rise and fall of your ­chest.

Sometime before dawn your father will be awakened by the heat. He will pull off his shirt and clear the magazines off the sofa. He will stretch himself out and fold up his shirt for a pillow. He will sleep with the naag hugged to his ­body.

You will wake, too, and cry to be fed. My eyes will open, and I will put you to my breast. Afterwards, I will lay you down again on your father's bed. I will try to get some more sleep before the night ­ends.

In the morning, I will boil the milk delivered by the ganga. I will throw away the pickle and put the dishes in the basin. I will make no noise, and your father will not ­awaken.

I will look at your father and think of you. I will wonder if you will have his voice, sing as well. I will imagine your body growing, your muscles firming. The naag beginning to sprout upon your chest ­too.

Reprinted from The Age of Shiva by Manil Suri. Copyright (c) 2008 by Manil Suri. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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