Articles / Interviews on Mistress


Saturday, October 15, 2005

Mistress of her craft

Writer Anita Nair went to dance school and mastered Kathakali, in order to turn out her third novel, says Shrabonti Bagchi.

Author Anita Nair is still in recovery mode after writing her third novel Mistress. The 426-page novel was, says the author, exhausting, both emotionally and because it needed heaps of meticulous research. It’s based in Kerala which the author valiantly attempts to demystify by locating most of the story in a modern resort by the river Nila with the usual attendant tourist traps — smells of coconut oil cooking, an erstwhile ‘prince’ at the reception and even a hired elephant. Nevertheless, the novel also brings alive the magic of the land through its insight into the world of Kathakali and those who live
by it.

The novel plays around with the motif of art as a demanding mistress. One of the protagonists, Koman, is a renowned Kathakali dancer who has retired and the novel weaves together his past and the present tensions between his niece Radha and her husband Shyam. Into the midst of this comes an outsider, author Christopher Stewart who plays the role of a catalyst in their midst, forcing Koman to re-live his memories and Radha to face up to the truths in her failing marriage.

“Writing a novel with Kathakali as the backdrop was something I wanted to do for a while,” says Nair, sitting in her gorgeous home on the outskirts of Bangalore where she lives with husband Suresh, an advertising man, and 13-year-old son Maitreya. “I knew it would need some rigorous research since I had just a passing acquaintance with the art form.”

The novel was four years in the making, and researching it needed such a high degree of familiarity with Kathakali that Nair enrolled for a short course at a Kerala dance school. After spending several months at the school, she learnt quite a bit about the dance form and was very comfortable using its metaphors extensively in her book.

“When I enrolled in the course, I didn’t know what form the novel would take,” remembers the author. “Slowly, the characters began to emerge and the plot began to take shape.” Kathakali forms more than just a backdrop for the novel, she says, for the format and structure of the book has been borrowed from the intricacies of the complicated dance form. The book is divided into nine chapters based on the navarasas in Kathakali — love, joy, disgust, anger, heroism, fear, compassion, wonder and peace. “I am an orderly person, and something about the formalised structure of Kathakali appealed to me. It was quite a challenge to structure my novel in a similar way. It takes a lot of craft and it’s very satisfying to be able to fulfil this challenge,” says Nair.

“A novel is seldom a vehicle to talk about ideas,” says Nair. “I, at least, was attempting it for the first time. My two previous novels (The Better Man and Ladies Coupé) had both been more personal narratives, culled from anecdote and memory. This one demanded more of me than the previous two put together,” says the author.

Her earlier books dealt with different themes. The Better Man tells the story of a man who is forced to go back to his ancestral home after retiring and the tyrannical father he ran away from. And Ladies Coupé is an exploration into the lives of five women travelling together in a train compartment and sharing the enforced intimacy of such contacts. The first person narrative suits Nair well, and in her latest book, she makes the various characters’ voices come alive with practised ease, be they male or female. “I enjoy doing the male voice,” she says. “Speaking in the female voice is easy and not as challenging. To get into the male psyche, I have to get feedback from my husband and male friends. It’s a lot of fun for me.”

Delving into the human psyche has always held a fascination for the author. At one point, she dreamt of being a psychiatrist, but instead put her knowledge of human nature to commercial use in the advertising industry for more than a decade. Today this finds an outlet in the characters in her books.

Legends and myths also fascinate her. In fact, she has authored the Puffin Book of World Myths for children, an exhaustive look at some of the most enduring legends and folklore from around the world. “World folklore is something I find an exciting and rich treasure trove of ideas. It is fascinating to study how these stories so often overlap and intertwine,” says the author. This love of myths is also what drew her to Kathakali, a dance form that draws heavily from the Puranic tales, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

She grew up with the staples of childhood reading — Enid Blyton and William Brown. Jane Austen has been an abiding favourite as well. “I love books in which the plots are utterly predictable but which grip you nevertheless. It is quite an achievement to hold the reader’s interest through sheer storytelling,” she says. She likes thrillers too, though she admits that she often spoils it for herself by turning to the last page prematurely. “People find this difficult to believe, but I really love action movies, you know, the Van Damme and Steven Segal stuff. ‘Don’t come between Segal and me’, I often tell my husband if he tries to talk to me while I’m watching some particularly gruesome action sequence,” she laughs.

As for allegations of having written yet another exotic Kerala novel, she laughs them off. “When I was talking over my ideas about the book with my editor in Penguin, she told me ‘You are prepared to deal with questions about writing for a foreign audience and exoticising India and all that, aren’t you?’ Frankly, I find these allegations ridiculous. After all, how can it be a mistake to write about something I know well and something I am interested in,” asks the author.

With this book, which she says she would preferred to have written at 60, behind her, she now wants to try her hand at something light and frothy and not quite as demanding. A script for one of her favourite action thrillers, perhaps?





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