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Novelist Manil Suri Finds Inspiration in India's History and Mythology


Manil Suri is an applied mathematics professor at the University of Maryland and a critically acclaimed author. His second novel, The Age of Shiva, has just been published. He was born and raised in Bombay - now Mumbai - India, where he returns for inspiration. Faiza Elmasry tells us more about the author and the country that lives inside his works.

When Manil Suri came to the United States in 1979, he was a 20-year-old student. He says it was easy for him to fit in right away. "India back then was a country that looked very much to the West," he says. "So, when I came to the United States, I had seen movies. I had read Mad Magazine [a humor magazine]. I knew exactly what the country was going to be like."

When he started writing his first novel, he says, he wanted to feature what India was like. "In The Death of Vishnu [his first novel], I started thinking, what part of it lives inside me?" he says. "What part of me wants to live there? I started reconnecting with the country of my birth."

The Death of Vishnu, a story that takes place over the course of one day, was a national bestseller. It's a portrait of the residents of a Bombay apartment building. In his second work, Suri expands his literary landscape. The Age of Shiva spans several decades and takes its readers from Rawalpindi to Delhi to Mumbai.

"This novel starts in 1955," he says. "It's about eight years after the independence of India. Meera is the central character. She is only 17 when the novel starts. Her life is really governed by her father Paji, who is very liberal, but is also oppressive."

Meera dreams of stealing her older and more beautiful sister's boyfriend. But when her wish comes true, she doesn't enjoy the fairy tale marriage she had imagined. It is only when her son is born that Meera begins to realize a life of fulfillment.

Meera's story echoes tales from Hindu mythology about the god Shiva and his wife, Parvati.

"There are myths of Shiva and his spouse Parvati and their children," he says. "First of all, he is an aesthetic. He withdraws from the world. All the people who love him and yearn for him are filled with intense longing because he is completely unattainable." Suri says that longing is very much a part of his novel.

"More than that is the real mythology that I've used," the author adds. "Since Shiva goes away to meditate, Parvati is left alone. She gets very lonely. She uses her bath water, she uses sandalwood, and from her own body, she sculpts this little boy. So she is able to find her happiness in this child."

Suri weaves history and politics into the story, as he draws a parallel between Meera's complex journey in life and India's birth as a nation.

"India, throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s…was very non-aligned," he says. "Indira Ghandi and Nehru did not want to kowtow to the West. So if the West wanted India to behave in a certain way, India was always saying 'O.K., we are going to be independent, we are going to go our way,' even if it was not the best decision in some cases."

In his novel, Suri says, "Meera is always going her own way against the wish of her father, Paji. Meera makes lots of bad decisions, but she is in control of her destiny."

Writing The Age of Shiva took Suri 7 years. During the process, he says, he came to re-discover what makes India a great country.

"When India was formed, it had so many problems," he says. "It was so diverse and it still is, but people said, 'O.K. we give it 3 years, 5 years, 6 years and it will split apart in 5 or 6 years.' "

Noty only has India endured as a democracy, but Suri points out, "it's poised at the head of this Asian century."

"The roots are really the constitution," the author says, "the fact that it is such a secular democracy that Nehru put in. So we had great leaders that started the country."

And today, Suri says, India continues to evolve and develop, contending in its unique way with the powerful influences of Western culture.

"Every time I go back to India, I see more and more Westernization," he says. "I see much more use of the Internet, things on TV from MTV, all sorts of the American culture is everywhere now."

But, Suri says, "India has this habit of taking a culture, swallowing it up, and then kind of mixing it with their own. So I see something else coming out of it."

Manil Suri says India's rich past and present will remain an endless source of inspiration for his novels.

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