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Mother India

Grand-scale storytelling from a second-time novelist.



Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu took place in a single day inside a single apartment building in Bombay, but it managed to win the first-time novelist (and University of Maryland mathematician) wide notice (the 2002 Barnes & Noble Discover Prize; finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award) and admiration from fellow novelists (including Michael Cunningham, Jim Crace, and Francine Prose).

Suri's new novel, The Age of Shiva (W.W. Norton), casts a bigger net over the course of its 450-plus pages: from what is now Pakistan, to Delhi Old and New, to cosmopolitan Bombay. The time frame's broader as well: Independence Day 1955 to political unrest in 1981 under Indira Gandhi, a period when tensions in India were running high between Hindus and Muslims, secularists and religionists.

Tensions inside the Delhi household of Rajinder Sawhney are running high too. He's a well-read man fully behind Nehru's dream of a modern India — no pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses for him — and he's a successful publisher squarely behind a professional future for his three educated daughters. But when daughter Meera, age 17, is caught in the embrace of Dev, a boy meant for Meera's older sister, Roopa, tensions run especially high, and they don't stop there. Meera is forced into marrying Dev, which means entering the marginally middle-class household of her husband. Her in-laws are openly skeptical of her, and her jealous, resentful sisters-in-law are less than welcoming. Meanwhile, Dev dreams of a singing career in Bombay, while Dev's brother, a fundamentalist Hindu named Arya, dreams of an India ruled according to religious observances and strict cultural norms — norms that apparently include Arya stealing glances at Meera as well.

Where does this leave Meera? Repeatedly put-upon by family and friends alike, her every effort at happiness met with criticism but her heart more importantly set on a child of her own. After the excruciating loss of one child, she does indeed get her wish: Ashvin, a son. Dev gets his wish too: The couple, financed by Meera's dominating, calculating father, moves to Bombay, where Dev hopes to work as a singer in the film industry. Instead, he spends the better part of his free time downing drinks in a nearby bar. For her part, Meera half-heartedly attends classes at a local university and tries at an assortment of jobs, but it's Ashvin she focuses on. Together — innocently, disturbingly — the two test the boundaries of maternal devotion and filial affection.

You don't need a working knowledge of Hindu beliefs and ritual to appreciate the mythological underpinnings of The Age of Shiva, but such knowledge wouldn't hurt. You don't need a solid background in modern Indian history for political events to resonate throughout this wide-ranging novel, but such background wouldn't hurt either. This is, simply, grand-scale storytelling mixed with matters intimately explored. The prose couldn't be more accessible. The author, again, is Manil Suri.

The U of M Welcomes Percival Everett

Hard to categorize Percival Everett — novelist, short-story writer, children's book author, and creative-writing teacher at the University of Southern California. Harder to categorize the novels of Percival Everett.

In Frenzy, he revisited Greek myth; in Erasure, he satirized "ghetto fiction" and the publishing industry; in Wounded, his lead character is a black rancher out West who's forced to confront racism, homophobia, and the threat of all-out violence; and in his latest novel, The Water Cure, he works in the manner of a manifesto by a romance writer who meditates on everything from semiotics to the Iraq war. No wonder Everett's been described by The Washington Post as "one of the most adventurously experimental of modern American novelists" and by The Boston Globe as "literature's NASCAR champion, going flat out, narrowly avoiding one seemingly inevitable crash only to steer straight for the next."

Here's your chance to meet and hear that champion experimenter, Percival Everett, who's next in the River City Writers Series at the University of Memphis. A reception and reading will take place at the U of M's Fogelman Executive Center on Monday, February 4th. (Reception at 6 p.m.; reading at 7 p.m.) An author interview follows on Tuesday in Patterson Hall, Room 456, at 10:30 a.m. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, call 678-4692.

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