Mistress by Anita Nair

If I were to count the number of times I’ve passed over this book at my college library, my two hands would be barely sufficient. Even though I was told time and again that it was an excellent book, my reluctance stemmed from 2 things – two very flimsy factors. 

First was the image of Kathakali on its front page and the brief description on the back of the book (Yes yes…I know what they say about judging a book by its cover!). I have watched Kathakali. I say “watched” because to say that I’ve enjoyed it would be a lie. The best I can own is that I’ve enjoyed parts of it. Certain other parts I’ve been completely bored with. There is a Malayalam saying “kadha ariyathe aattam kanuka” which means to watch the dance without knowing the story. That was how I used to watch many of the Kathakali recitals I have been to. But I attend every Kathakali and Krishnan-aattam recital I can, mostly just because I’m mesmerized by the costumes and proficiency of the dancers. 

The second factor was the title. And the story line. Extramarital affairs and adultery, I didn’t mind. But here’s the thing. I have observed that when Indian authors write about love and passion and sex, they tend to border on sleaze. I do realise now that my field have been pretty limited and that I haven’t read many of the acclaimed works of Indian authors and that is probably why I had this prejudice. So when I saw that the book revolves around Kathakali and read through the synopsis, I thought “This isn’t my cup of tea.”

By now, you might have inferred that I ended up loving this book. Obviously. Otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the pains to put up this post. Right from the prologue where the author very considerately assured me that she “realizes that I know very little of this world she is going to take me into” to the very last line of the epilogue. 

What I loved about the book was how beautifully it described Kerala – the beauty of rain, the birds, the seasons… I have grown up my entire life in a city, with just occasional brushes of village life (usually during summer vacations) at my paternal village. But my parents, both of them, have grown up wading through paddy fields to go to school and have spent their free time plucking mangoes of neighbourhood trees or diving into muddy ponds and river for respite from the scorching sun. I’ve heard them recounting their childhood experiences numerous times and have lived their lives through their words. So when Anita Nair set her story at a village in Shornur and narrated the story through the eyes of its inhabitants, I could see it as if it was unfolding in front of me. 

Another highlight was the multiple-person narrative. To see the same story unleash through the eyes of the different characters made it much more real and human. Radha, with her superiority complex about art and her dissatisfaction with life, Shyam with his undying love for his wife Radha and his unapologetic love for money & status, Chris the foreigner, who walks into their life and wreaks havoc. And Koman Aashan, the Kathakali maestro, the silent observer with his unexpectedly beautiful reminisces. The story weaves through the lives of Radha and Shyam and the vulnerability of the marriage of 2 wonderful individuals who have not a thing in common, not even mutual love or respect. And Chris, the Greek God. And how Aashan sees and absorbs the drama unfolding in front of him in the only way he knows – through his Kathakali. To say more would ruin the book for you (if you are planning to read it). 

So let me wind up with this – I enjoyed meeting Shyam, Radha, Aashan, Chris and every other person who popped into their life now and then. I’ve seen them in the people around me. I’ve heard of them in the stories achan used to share. And I’ve enjoyed the journey through the nuances of Kathakali…much MUCH better that I thought I would. I am not sure if I understand Kathakali any better, but I respect it and love it, and lot more that I did before I picked up this book. 

Anita Nair promises her readers in the prologue that “she will transmit at least some of the love for her art to me”. And in that, she has succeeded.


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