Sunday, April 25, 2010

What's Cheryl's novel Shiva's Arms about, anyway?

From a seemingly simple clash of cultures between in-laws, Shiva’s Arms evolves into an exploration of freedom and the ties that bind, love and duty. Written in a lyrical style studded with startling imagery, the author uses South Indian myths and customs to explore questions of belonging--national, cultural, linguistic--as well as class and ideology. Life is breathed into very different characters, giving them each the space in which to tell their story.

Alice marries Ramesh, a man from a tradition she can’t fathom. Ram aspires to the modern way of life. Alice, eager to belong, embraces the culture her husband is trying to leave behind. At the beginning, even her wardrobe is like a costume--“She jangled an armload of gold-painted bangles…Her eyes were lined with kohl… Every time she took a step, an ankle- bracelet of little bells tinkled.” Alice is an "insider" who wants out; an "outsider" to the West, Ram wants in.

But Alice is the outsider in her mother-in-law’s mind. The old woman will protect family traditions at any cost, whether in India or on US soil. Alice’s authority in her own home is constantly challenged. Amma re-decorates at will, imposes Hindu rituals on the household, and since a child belongs to the whole family, indoctrinates her grandson, Sam, with Indian traditions. As the namesake of the god of creation and destruction, Amma Shiva both embraces and repels, emotionally destabilizing the fragile Alice, who seeks refuge in clinical depression.

Also in Alice’s world is Ram’s sister Nela, a brilliant, beautiful woman rendered un-marriageable by a romantic indiscretion. When she makes her bid for freedom, Amma disowns her, and forbids the extended family to ever speak her name again. Alice keeps up with her anyway, by telephone and mail. “She writes to me often, with news of the boy and my brother, always with plans for a trap for my mother,” Nela explains to Nigel, her longtime lover, as they sift through the latest photos of Sam.

The boy has grown up believing his aunt is dead. When he discovers the truth, he storms out to go to Nela, and shifts the power between Alice and the old woman. Amma’s health fails, and stripped to her essence, she must depend on Alice. With the help of the dishonored daughter, Alice does her duty with tenacity and ingenuity. She restores Amma to health, and in the process, heals herself.

“Samsara,” is a word that builds resonance throughout this book. This domestic sea, part of the endless cycle of birth and death, means different things to each of the characters: to Ram and Nela it is a trap, to Alice and Amma, community. But the struggle between the religious and the secular, the traditional and the modern is best exemplified by Amma Shiva, who sets the tone for a household in which relationships mean everything. That is what ultimately draws Alice in. In Shiva’s Arms, the theme of religion shows how one family uses it to care for one another in an unpredictable world.

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