If you’ve ever wondered about Indian culture, Hindu festivals, mixed marriages that span continents, or how people from a different background assimilate in America’s new world, Shiva’s Arms is surely the book for you.
A literary novel, Shiva’s Arms tell the tale of Ram, who marries the American Alice, of Ram’s mother, known as Amma, of his sister Nela, and of son Sam who grows from childhood to adulthood with a foot in each world. The story’s narrated through the eyes of each of the main characters, flickering sometimes between points of view, so the reader’s left vaguely unsettled, unsure, just as the narrators are.
There are beautiful scenes, of a wedding in India and Alice’s cultural mis-steps as she tries to fit in; of a festival of dolls with Barbies adding their color to tradition; of “painting” with chalk, sacred symbols that strangers scuff with shoes. And there are sad scenes too; Alice’s struggle against depression; her mother-in-law’s seeming cruelty; Nela’s wounded dance round relationships.
The characters in this novel are all very real. They see their own mistakes and navigate troubled waters of their own making. They analyze their motives and forget to notice love. But there’s healing for Indian and American errors, and samsara sagara (the drowning sea of domesticity) proves to offer shelter on beautiful shores.
Moving rapidly, from a time before Sam’s birth through to his high school graduation, the story spans continents and cultures, pleasures and pains. Ram drifts on the edge of understanding, ever-loving, ever-loyal. And Sam drifts on the edge of rebellion. A sudden coincidence brings all the relationships into turmoil and sharp focus, and a breathtaking dogged devotion leads to breathtaking delight.
There are Indian words and phrases, and foods, scattered through the tale, but I never felt the need to refer to the glossary till the end. Then I delighted in reading their full meanings. There are Indian recipes too though I’d struggle to find patience to make them. But most of all, there’s an Indian and American feel to the tale, a telling of something real from which all of us can learn, a blending of cultures that leaves them both unique and that heals the rift.
The author, a published poet, clearly knows what she’s writing about, and I loved learning from her and sharing her love of cultures and of words.