book review

Mistress

MistressIn art, don’t you see, there is no first person” – Oscar Wilde.

I had read this book quite some time back, but its memories are still vivid. Radha continues to mesmerise me and watching a Kathakali performance brings out new emotions in me. So here I am writing a review of this splendid piece of prose from one of my much loved neo Indian writers.

Kathakali is one of the most elaborate dance forms in India drawing heavily from the various epics of the Indian sub continent. To shape a book in the form of a Kathakali rendition with its Navarasams depicting the journey of Radha from the depths of self loathing to presumed freedom, is a pure work of art. Radha is the female protagonist of the novel, a woman with subdued emotions, tied in an emotion less marriage to Shyam. The choice of the names brings out the satirical humour of the author here, alluding and contrasting to the playful and love filled relationship of the mythological lovers. Shyam, being called ‘Sham’ by Chris, the cello wielding researcher, adds to the misery of the character.

“When I think of Chris, what I see is the shadow of Shyam. And when I think of Shyam, what I see is the possibility of escape with Chris. I know for certain that I cannot live with one or the other.”

Radha and Shyam have been into a listless marriage for a while now, a marriage brought about more as an arrangement-of-last-resort sorts with the weight of its value tipped on one side alone. As a consequence, the reader doesn’t raise an eyebrow when, the moment that Radha sets eyes on Chris, she falls for him and his ‘orderly chaotic’ charm. The intimacy between the two is definitely not lost on Shyam who now tries harder to persuade her back but his actions only push her farther. Shyam after all had been besotted to Radha since he was a child and his marriage with Radha was the most potent reminder of the success that he had turned his life into. Radha’s feeling towards Shyam tend to fluctuate between that of pity and extreme annoyance, a man probably she would never have been married to if not for her own naive imprudence.

Shyam has an exaggerated sense of self-worth. Or perhaps it isn’t as exaggerated as it is reduced… Suddenly I know what it is I feel for Shyam. Neither pity nor even affection. Just responsible.

When Chris contacts Uncle Koman, a famous Kathakali dancer, and apprises him of his  wish to prepare a documentary on him in India, Shyam picks up this opportunity to book him into his resplendent Cottage No 12 at his beloved Near-the-Nila resort, having learnt that Chris is well known in the travel circuit and a popular blogger. But Chris’ stay at the Nila complicates the lives of all concerned and brings out memories and secrets which were best forgotten. Intricacies of relationships lay bare as the characters continuously and assiduously try to sew it all together, all for the sake of love. And then in the end, the characters are forced to recede with the scraps of their fabric of love, torn and patched but perhaps never to be mended again.

I see that Radha isn’t listening. She is standing by the window, looking out. The Sahiv is walking by. Suddenly he turns and sees her. His face lights up. Hers , too. And I feel a darkness cloud in my eyes.

The novel is written as a first person narrative with each chapter being told in the voice of Radha, Shyam and Uncle; often with different interpretations of the same event, which bring out the subtleties of the character. And with that it also unfurls the lives of many others and untold stories of the buried past – lives of Sethu and Saadiya Mehrunnisa and tales of Arabipatanam, a town of snaking stone paved high walled alleyways 2 feet wide for the ‘free’ movement of their confined women, of Dr Samuel and Hope, Faith and Charity and of Koman and Maya and Angela. And all of it through the scenes of a Kathakali performance culminating through its various rasams.

My rating : 4 / 5

Buy it here : Mistress by Anita Nair

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