Mistress by Anita Nair

I apologize for the long absence from this blog. I have had an extremely busy 2012 and my fiction reading took a beating with the increase of my work-load. I gave up on way too many books the second half of last year, and my humble resolution for 2013 is to read, read, and read. I picked up Mistress by Anita Nair because I wanted to read something with a hint of familiarity – an Indian novel by a woman writer. In that department, I was not disappointed. I cannot say that about the rest of my reading experience with this book.

I had heard a lot about both Nair and Mistress before I started reading. So my expectations were high. The novel begins in a small city in the South Indian state of Kerala, at a train station. Radha, her husband Shyam, and her Uncle have come to receive Chris, an American. The purpose of Chris’s visit is to interview Uncle (or Koman), a Kathakali dancer and make him a prominent part of his travel book. As soon as they lay their eyes on Chris, both Radha and Uncle feel an immediate sense of attraction, for different reasons. Radha, whose married life is “dead,” finds Chris sexually appealing, and Uncle cannot put a finger on why he feels a closeness to this American man, but certainly feels warmly towards him. Shyam, on the other hand, sticks out like a sore thumb and is excluded from the troika’s discussions and meetings. Set at a resort run by Shyam, Mistress moves forward as we hear the story from the perspective of Radha, Shyam, and Uncle. Unhappiness abounds in the resort, and it is Chris who brings a sense of joy to some of its residents. However, that happiness does not seem to last very long or have a positive effect on anyone.

Nair chooses to give each of the main character a voice, which makes for an interesting reading. An incident when seen through different eyes gives it a multifaceted appearance. What is bothersome, though, is that none of the characters, when they speak, make you feel compassionate towards them. Rather, when I read something through a character’s perspective, I viewed them as shallow, selfish, and quite annoying. With three strong personalities to choose from, I’d not want to sympathize with any. And it is frustrating to read a 400-some page book with no character to root for. Chris, the foreigner, is thankfully left foreign and given no voice, making him a mystery not just to the novel’s inhabitants, but also to us.

The scope of the novel is quite large too, going back in time to Uncle’s father’s childhood. Most of those chapters left me a little exasperated and turning pages with a groan. The author might have wanted to give an ‘epic’ quality to the novel, but for me, it failed with the over-arching story-line. Although I much preferred the present story-line at the resort, instances like Radha reading Nair’s earlier book Ladies Coupe seemed self-absorbed and left me rolling my eyes.

There are a few upsides to the novel though – the story is dripping in culture and dance lore. There is a lot of information about Kathakali and some (not all) recollections of Indian myths are interesting. Overall, though, as much as I hate to say it, I finished the novel only because I had to. I won’t mind reading Nair again, but you’ll have to bribe me with chocolate first.

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One Response to Mistress by Anita Nair

  1. Devika says:

    Interesting take. Personally, I enjoyed the book for the exact same reason that made you hate it! Usually, books are narrated from a single person’s voice, and you end up rooting for that person. I think Nair’s success lay in giving each of the characters such a distinctive voice, and in being able to show the positive and negative aspects of each character. I started off sympathizing with Radha (I could identify with her situation), but then Shyam’s frustration and helplessness made me sympathize with him as well!

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