Thus Spake KJ

Composed of binaries and never ending contradictions, intensely moody, stubborn, firefighter, genius manque, identity hunter on the prowl for stimuli, occasionally given to verbal diarrhoea

Monday, March 27, 2006


Few books blow your mind away. Many others disappoint thoroughly. And then there are the middle-of-the-road ones that neither shock you out of your seats nor leave you entirely disgusted at having spent precious time on something entirely worthless. Anita Nair's Mistress belongs to the last category. The "searing new novel about art and adultery…" is decidedly impressive. But literary tour de force, it is not.

The novel brings into play, several themes apart from art and adultery. Issues of rooted ness and rootless ness, the orientalisation of Kerala, the excitement of new found love and the ennui of conventional relationships, the squalor and ugliness of life, abuse, dashed hopes, dark family secrets haunting you later in life…everything an Indian writer in English, worth her/his salt, must talk about. At a superficial level it is one man's (Chris) search for his true paternity, which makes him seek out Koman, illustrious Kathakali dancer and Radha's uncle. Chris comes to Kerala on the pretext of writing a travel book, which will include the life story of Koman, hoping that in the course of his story, Koman will reveal himself to be Chris' father. Radha and Chris are soon besotted with each other and embark on a torrid love affair, much to the grimace of Shyam, Radha's husband. As Chris draws out Uncle's life story, he spins one of his own, with Radha and Shyam in tow. Their lives spin so out of control, that in the end the only way, Radha can bring some semblance of order into her life, is by taking flight, while Shyam is put out to pasture.

Issues of identity and self definition remain uppermost in the novel. For Koman, whose mother's Muslim past is at odds with his father's Hindu present, the only way to define himself is through his art. Not surprisingly, he can be himself only when he is playing someone else. Radha on the other hand, prefers to fashion herself as the wronged one. Her perennial self victimization leads her to constantly wallow in her self pity. She keeps blundering from one thing to the other, sometimes playing the socialist wife-of-the-master for her husband's workers, to the dutiful housewife, in the process failing miserably. Even her affair with Chris, seems less like a "shrugging off of ennui" and more like an attempt to validate her existence. Shyam, though comfortable with his sometimes boorish and unapologetically materialistic behaviour, never quite fits into Radha's upper class hoity toity world. Just the way, Saadiya, Koman's mother, can never fit into Sethu's part Hindu, part Christian world, away from her cloistered Muslim existence. So much so, that death seems to be the only escape from her identity neurosis. Chris too like his mother Angela before him comes to India, to 'discover' himself and his identity.

However, the most important theme that the novel dwells on is the idea of art, and its importance in the contemporary world. Is the value of art, indeed of the artist itself, measurable in terms awards and recognition? Is art an escape from reality and a way to accord one selfhood? The book doesn't stop here. It goes ahead and questions the elitism associated with art. Through the figure of Aashan, Koman's teacher, Nair damns the aura of exclusivity and inscrutability that artists tend to build around themselves. Nair subtly offers a justification for the commercialization of art. It is indeed impossible for an artist to cling to his art's purity on an empty stomach. She also, simultaneously, indicts fake connoisseurs, for whom art is the surest way to get a picture on page three, as well as those who think that art appreciation is the preserve of the intelligentsia, who have nothing to do with the material world.

Nair tells her story wonderfully well. The story begins in medias res. And unfolds slowly. The text has multiple narrators, apart from the omniscient one, each of whom reveal themselves infinitely more than the characters in their story. The technique is reminiscent of Tagore's Ghare Baire where there is interplay of several narratorial voices. Each chapter in the book is preceded by a discursive piece on one of the Rasas, from the Navarasas. Each of the Rasas is indicative of what is to follow in the chapter.

Disappointments? There are a few including the characterization of Chris. The blurb sets your expectations differently and leads you to believe that the narrative is about Chris. It is just we don't see enough of him. And whatever little we do, he reveals himself to be a one-dimensional cardboard figure. Nair's language too falters in places. Phrases like "her flame fanned her fire" makes you wonder if you are reading a two bit Mills and Boon novel. One also wishes Nair had dwelt a little more on her central theme.

Last word about the title. Nair exploits the metaphor of "mistress" very well. At the superficial level, the novel is full of enough illicit relationships to justify the title, yet the real relationship is between Koman and his art. Even though, the narrative says, at one instance, that "art is indeed, a jealous mistress", it validates just the opposite – that the artist in fact, the mistress of her/his art.


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