Family Ties

Maryland resident Manil Suri's best-selling 'The Age of Shiva' examines how - and how much - a mother can love her son

July 06, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,Sun reporter

Shiva kept refusing his wife, Parvati's, pleas to give her a child, so she went by herself into the forest. She mixed together sandalwood paste and bath oil and flakes from her own body, and fashioned them into a baby, a son, and she made him just the way she wanted him to be.

- From the Hindu myth about the birth of Ganesh, as recounted in "The Age of Shiva"

Manil Suri and his mother, Prem, have always been the best of friends, as close as the two corners of the same smile, or two tears trickling down the same cheek. So when he became a man, Suri knew that he had to break away if he were to become his own person. Now, he makes his home in Silver Spring, 8,026 miles away from the city where he was born.

"My mother, father and I lived in one room," Suri says. "I was an only child, and we were always together. In India, there's a tradition that unmarried sons live at home. That's why it was so essential that I leave home at age 20 and come to this country."

It's fair to say that Suri's efforts to forge his own identity have been successful. His second novel was recently published to laudatory notices as far away as China, India and Britain. And, in Suri's other life, he is a tenured professor of math at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Though he has become a novelist and mathematician, Suri has remained a son.

He has written so many letters home that Prem Suri once petitioned the Guinness Book of World Records to add a new category for the greatest number of words written by a man to his mother.

Her petition, though unsuccessful, read, in part:

"Manil Suri sent his first letter to his mother in 1979 when he was a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, USA. Since then, till May 2001, he has written 2,411 letters with a total of 1,324,996 words."

"Yes," Suri says, "she counted all the words."

The mother-son relationship is the central theme of The Age of Shiva, Suri's recently published novel, the second in a planned trilogy based on the three major Hindu gods. (The novelist's first effort, The Death of Vishnu, was published in 2001.)

Shiva is the god of upheaval and destruction, so the author begins his newest story in 1947, when India was split off from Pakistan.

The story is told, not from the point of view of the god, but from that of his consort, Parvati. In the novel, she is embodied by a 17-year-old girl named Meera, who seeks to escape her domineering father by marrying the sweet, ineffectual Dev.

When her marriage proves a disappointment, Meera turns for consolation to their son, Ashvin, for whom she develops an obsessive attachment.

To depict the tumult that India experienced in the middle decades of the 20th century, Suri drew, in part, on his mother's brief employment with Indira Gandhi.

"In 1951, Indira was the prime minister's daughter," Manil Suri says. "My mother wrote her a letter saying she was a refugee and was looking for work. The next day, she was offered a job as Indira's personal secretary, and she kept that job for six months. We still have the letter that Indira wrote to my mom."

So, it's not surprising that Suri, 48, dedicated this novel to his mother, though he cautions readers not to make the blunder of assuming that the novel is an autobiography.

"I deliberately made Meera different from my mother, so people wouldn't think I was writing about her," he says.

The Age of Shiva, which was published in February, instantly became a No. 1 best-seller in India and received enthusiastic reviews in this country. The New York Times called the novel "sweepingly ambitious" and "captivating," while The New Yorker described it as "a sensuous, nuanced portrait of motherhood."

Promotional efforts will continue through the fall, when Suri will be a featured guest at a benefit for the Enoch Pratt Public Library. He'll also participate in the annual New Yorker Festival, and in the South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.

"Somewhere in all of this, I'll be teaching math full time, too," he says.

Given the breadth and variety of Suri's interests - he is a gourmet cook, specializing in Vietnamese cuisine, and a huge fan of Sex and the City (favorite character: Samantha) - it's not surprising that his surroundings are similarly an eclectic jumble of periods and cultures. In the living room of the home that Suri shares with his partner of 18 years, a Victorian love seat is grouped with a mid-century modern sofa done up in a lemon plush. Outside, in the luxuriant, landscaped garden, sits a tandoori oven.

But, it all fits. Nothing seems out of place. It's only when you focus on individual pieces that you become aware of what an unusual collection it is.

So enchanting was the child that Parvati created, so perfect for her needs, that she soon forgot all about Shiva. She frolicked through the days in her son's company.

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