Saturday, June 01, 2013

Mistress - Anita Nair

Mistress is the story of four people - Shyam, a resort-owning businessman in the town of Shornur in Kerala; Radha, his wife; Koman, a Kathakali artist and Radha's uncle; and Chris, an American journalist who is visiting Shornur to interview Koman. 

The novel has two different threads. One is Koman's story, as he narrates it to Chris. The other is the love triangle of Radha-Shyam-Chris. Radha and Chris are attracted to each other from the beginning, and the fact that Radha and Shyam's marriage is a sham doesn't help. Running through everything and acting as a colourful backdrop is Kathakali, the Kerala art form. 

I have mixed feelings about the book, though it's more positive than negative. The negative was the writing, which stuck me as forced sometimes. But perhaps that's just me and my mallu-ness. The fact that I know the place and the people and the language probably made the descriptions feel slightly stilted.

But I loved everything else. The characters are brilliant - especially Radha and Shyam. Radha is a snooty  convent-educated city-girl, and Shyam is an ambitious small-town guy. Their emotions and the realities of their marriage are scarily real. Though I was tempted to sympathize with Radha initially (Shyam treats her really badly), we're also shown Shyam's perspective, why he does the things that irritate Radha so much, how helpless he feels against Radha's snootiness. And we start sympathizing with him as well. 

Koman the Kathakali Artist still feels slightly... 'wispy' is the word that comes to mind - insubstantial. This despite the fact that the focus shifts to him in the latter half of the book. He's too much of an idealist, not as flawed and real as the other two. But perhaps such people do exist in the art world - I haven't met too many artists. 

Kerala is depicted in all her glory. The rains, the greenery, the arts. Nair has divided the book into nine chapters, and used the nine expressions of dance to title each. She also manages to link each of the nine expressions to Kerala's weather. Setting the novel against the backdrop of Kathakali was a brilliant idea too. Some of the most vivid narrations are of Koman's performances, and of the mythological stories that underlie them.

Nair's main strength seems to be in depicting emotions - she starts off strong with the Radha and Shyam story. But the parts of the book that deal with Koman's life and loves are weak. I got the sense that she had tried to include too many things, and ran out of time and pages. The ending is weak and flat as well. It's inconclusive - I was left wanting to know what finally HAPPENS. 


Now that I've read this book, I'm very tempted to do some research on Kathakali. It's shameful that I know so little about the most majestic art form of my own state. Admittedly, Kathakali, though colourful and mysterious, has a high entry barrier. The padams are in an old form of Malayalam that isn't easily understood. And the way it's sung doesn't help either. But I'm hoping that the internet will help me overcome these difficulties - Youtube-aaya Namaha!


The cover page of the book I read features half of a made-up Kathakali face, and is brilliant (part of the image is featured at the top of this post).

But I found the image on the left while googling, and just had to crib about how stupid and wrong it is. A Malayali woman does NOT wear toe-rings. She's unlikely to be wearing silver anklets either. 

Interestingly, it was extremely difficult to find the right cover image. When I googled, I got more photos of the author than the book cover! I guess Anita Nair is so photogenic herself that her book covers tend to get lost on the net.
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Jina said...

Wanted to share this review which my friend wrote about the book--

My feelings for the book fall between hers and yours...