The Better Man by Anita Nair
Synopsis Of The Better Man
The Locale: The Better Man is set in contemporary India in a little fictitious village called Kaikurussi in the northern part of Kerala . This region was once known as Malabar during the British regime. After Independence, Malabar as a state/region ceased to exist.
Though Malabar has no geographical boundaries, no presence on a map of India, it still exists as a state of mind: laid-back, slow, to live and let live. So much so, the northern Malabaris treat the enterprising and hard-working southerners with a disdain bordering on contempt. A person from Malabar is so entrenched in the past that thinking of the morrow is almost impossible. And yet, there is a discontent that is almost palpable.
Perhaps this is the reason why the region that was once Malabar saw the growth of Naxalites [extremists who combined Marxism with violence against all organized systems]; still has the highest recorded number of lunatics and suicides in India and has fundamentalist political groups thriving side by side with communist strongholds.
Kaikurussi the village is in a little hollow surrounded by several hills. It has nothing there that would make any one come looking for it. It is neither the birthplace of a Mahatma nor a movement. No miracles have ever happened there. In fact, nothing of significance ever happens there to any one. [ So when something does happen to a person, he is revered to the point of worship.]
There is not even a road running through Kaikurussi or a river flowing alongside it. All Kaikurussi has to define its topography are fields, wells, a mountain and distant hills.
The Plot: An elderly bachelor and a retired government employee, Mukundan is forced by circumstances to return to Kaikurussi, the village he was born in. A village that he fled when he was eighteen. And now back in his ancestral house, he finds himself unable to cope. He is haunted by a sense of failure. For having abandoned his mother. For not measuring up to his still alive and domineering father Achuthan Nair’s expectations. For having gone through life without really living it….
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And then there is the village itself. Mukundan realizes that he has no role to play in the village. In fact, he discovers that what should have been his rightful place had been usurped by an upstart Power House Ramakrishnan.
In the first few weeks of his exile, he meets up with a wayward genius. Bhasi or One-screw-loose-Bhasi as he is known is a house painter and a practitioner of a mongrel system of medicine he has evolved by combining several kinds of healing processes – herbal cures, principles of Homeopathy….. Bhasi is deeply disturbed by Mukundan’s anguish and decides to mend the cracks in Mukundan’s much battered psyche. He cajoles, manipulates and shapes Mukundan’s transformation.
But the superficiality of the change is revealed soon. Power House Ramakrishnan on a cruel whim decides to build a community hall in the village. And chooses Bhasi’s piece of land as the site to build on. When Bhasi refuses to sell his land, Power House Ramakrishnan threatens to break his business and run him out of the village. As the richest and most powerful man of the village Power House Ramakrishnan was capable of doing just that and Bhasi knows this as well. So he turns to Mukundan to intervene on his behalf.
Mukundan sets out to save Bhasi’s home but is completely swayed by Power House Ramakrishnan. The latter knowing how recognition-hungry Mukundan is and how easily he would succumb to flattery uses that as his weapon to sweep over Mukundan’s objections and has him actually agreeing to become a part of the community hall committee.
Mukundan betrays Bhasi his friend and alienates Anjana, the woman he is in love with. [ Anjana is still married to another man and would therefore be considered an unsuitable love by the community hall committee.] Mukundan however does not perceive it as betrayal and stubbornly clings to the belief that what he has done is right.
But it takes the death of Achuthan Nair, his father to make him realize how empty his life was and would continue to be without either Bhasi or Anjana. He is stricken by both remorse and guilt. And the realization that he was no better than his father whom he had despised all his life. With this comes the real transformation.
Mukundan decides to make amends. And how he goes about it is an indicator to how much Mukundan has changed.
From a fastidious and colorless man lacking in courage to take even the slightest of risks, Mounding becomes a man capable of finding love and happiness. A man who discovers the varied vibrant hues of life. A man who emerges from the shadow of his father’s personality to become a better man.
[ In many ways the essence of the book is: change is always possible; hope never dies; and happiness can be found. You just have to look for it and when you find it, take chances even if by doing so, the rest of the world might turn against you. ]
Praise for The Better Man
A better novel was not published by Penguin in 1999. The Better Man takes one ‘s memories back to such African classics in English as Efuru by Flora Nwapa and Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe… A quiverful of characters who refuse to leave your memory even after finishing the novel. In fact, you cannot ask for a better mix of everything.The Deccan Herald
The first fictional village to be made literally famous was R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi but in Kaikurussi, Anita Nair has created another homestead that could become just as well knownBusiness Standard
A simple tale simply told. A first novel of great promise… Kaikurussi, one tea shop town, somewhere in Kerala comes alive with Nair’s pen… Doesn’t pander to prefab audiences or juries and conforms only to its own contoursIndian Review of Books
Imposing debut: Nair’s got a style and a future…Rich in local color…explored in fluid prose. Anita Nair has proved her mettle by fathoming the deepest recesses of man’s psyche…India Today
Anita Nair is a fine writer with a great sense of character vivid knowledge of South Indian culture and an eye for telling detail. She can move from tender compassion to sensuality to raging hatred and is a compelling teller of stories.The Hindu Literary Supplement
A tone of wistful melancholy and incidents both droll and poignant characterize this first novel…her strength lies in gentle, keenly observed comedy. Overall a warmly affecting depiction…Kirkus Reviews
Anita Nair’s second novel upholds the promise of the first…Each of the women are finely drawn [as are their men], each caught in a net of relationships partly of her own making and partly one that is ‘made’for her….Anita Nair’s low key, sometimes funny and sometimes hard hitting book… is definitely worth a read.Urvashi Butalia
The Better Man is an astonishing book. It is tender, lyrical, humorous and insightful. In Anita Nair’s capable hands the exotic setting comes alive and becomes familiar and we see our struggles and triumphs reflected in the lives of these marvelous characters.Abraham Verghese
Articles & Interviews
India Today: Gaze of the Inner Eye - By Alka Nigam
At the fin de siecle, Anita Nair’s imposing debut novel leads our agitated souls back to the primitive wisdom enshrined in love, the essence of one’s being. The Better Man is the journey of a soul, the story of a retired government officer — Mukundan Nair, who returns to his Kerala village. But this means coming face to face with his dead past, millions of grey shadows and ghosts of his dead mother and ancestors haunting and tormenting him.
Enter Bhasi and Anjana who rescue him from “the morass of the past”. Mukundan decides to spend the rest of his life cocooned in that magical happiness. But when his greatest desire to take his father’s place in Kaikurissi is threatened, he betrays them. Is he a mere extension of his father’s image? Selfish? His father at least had the courage of his convictions. The realisation dawns upon Mukundan — he is a timid creature who had hidden his inadequacies as an excuse under the domineering personality of his father.
In the process of Mukundan’s redemption there emerge a host of characters. Some, with strikingly sharp features, refuse to exit long after the novel ends — the tyrant Achuthan Nair, devious Philipose and eternally ungratified Valsala. Their story exposes a basic human predicament — each one of us has one wounded corner in our personality.
Rich in local colour, the undercurrents that run beneath the seemingly idyllic surroundings of the sleepy village are explored in fluid prose. Anita Nair has proved her mettle by fathoming the deepest recesses of man’s psyche and pulling it out neatly on the surface. She will go a long way.
Hindustan Times: A Mistress Of Minutiae - By Aditi De
Let’s look at the near future, to begin with. That’s when Bangalore-based Anita Nair’s first novel, The Better Man, makes its debut as a hardback in the Picador USA select list for Spring 2000. Her predecessors in this exclusive literary company include Quarantine by Jim Crace, And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison, and Difficulties of a Bridegroom by Ted Hughes.
Penguin Books India launched 34-year-old Nair’s book in Bangalore on January 18, to a chorus of praise from the local literati. She is the only Indian writer based in India to be on the Picador USA list.
The Better Man unfolds in the imaginary town of Kaikurissi in the Malabar area that Anita Nair has always loved. Her bonding with northern Kerala is almost atavistic. The locale spells idyllic summer vacations at her grandparents’ house at Shoranur, her two years at a Kerala college and memories of her parents and brother, now based there.
Mukundan, a retired government servant who is the unlikely hero of the novel, returns reluctantly to his ancestral home. Can he cope with the cauldron of emotions within him? He does, with a little help from friends like One-screw-loose Bhasi, a painter of walls who doubles as a herbal healer. Will Mukundan dare to walk out of the shadow of his overbearing father? Or to fall in love with the married schoolteacher Anjana? Can he deal with the conniving Power House Ramakrishnan? Is Mukundan man enough to be trusted by those who give him their hearts? That’s the novel in a nutshell.
Anita Nair is a mistress of minutiae. She details every plant and pedestrian footprint, every clay urn and uruli in Kaikurussi, all the banter at the village tea shop. The blood of her characters courses through the reader’s veins, the heat and dust of their milieu is palpable, her plot has the reassuring rhythm of real life.
Colours streak through her dazzling imagery, devoid of pyrotechnics. For Nair paints in her spare time. The conversations she etches are cadenced with everyday notes. For her inner ear is trained by Carnatic vocal lessons during her growing years in Chennai, and the piano she’s learning to play today. Her nuanced prose is disciplined by her other life, as a part-time creative director at Mass Advertising in Bangalore.
Anita Nair published her first collection of short stories Satyr Of The Subway And Eleven Other Stories in 1997. Gentleman magazine described it as “writing by a woman who is only secondarily concerned with her gender and the like.” Her literary world, then and now, scans its protagonists off the dust tracks of existence.
R K Narayan is an icon to her, for “he gives little things great meanings.” And she was moved by British fiction writer Paul Bailey, who once said “if 20 readers understood what he’s written, that was good enough.” Nair adds, “That made sense to me. It gave me the courage to write the way I want to.”
Nair confesses that she jots down character summaries, personality quirks and significant sentences in a little notebook that accompanies her everywhere. She first drafts her prose on an A-4 size notebook “because of a bad shoulder”, and later fine tunes it on her computer.
On her mantlepiece, in a living room rich with Kerala artefacts, is a blue postcard from the community reading room of her parents’ village, congratulating their native daughter on her achievement. “I just find it very quaint, being recognised as a respectable member of the community,” she giggles.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with her the day after the release of her book in Bangalore:
When you set this novel in Kerala, did you escape to a world that was partly real, partly imaginary?
I love to be in Kerala, but I’ll never be able to live there. So, I created an imaginary village that I would escape to every day. Even now, I go to Kerala often. My husband’s a Malayalee, so he’s got family there. I’m not writing about an alien place. For me, right now if I were to write about Bangalore, I wouldn’t be able to. For some strange reason, my family’s heavily into folklore. They all have very visual imaginations, so everything is spelt out very clearly.
Was there a major turning point as you worked on The Better Man since 1996?
Well, One-screw-loose Bhasi didn’t exist until I was halfway through the book. After the short story collection, when I went back to the novel, it just didn’t seem right. Am I just chronicling a village, I asked myself. Big deal! (Laughs) At that point, I was working with an ayurvedic client. I thought: maybe I should use this stuff, it’s interesting. Then this character emerged. I went back and wrote the first chapter. Then, I had to weave him into all the other chapters.
All your characters are ordinary people, leading everyday lives.
I’ve never believed in heroic heroes. We only look at people when they achieve something. I know people who’re extraordinary, but who lead quiet lives. So, whatever I write is not going to be about larger-than-life characters. Probably they would have quirks that would make them misfits, but they’d be ordinary people. When I was growing up, I used to think my dad was very boring because he didn’t do anything unusual. He worked in the tank factory outside Madras.
My mom’s side has this bohemian, creative streak. All my uncles were painting, or living abroad. After a while, I realised that my father was, ultimately, what a human being should be when you look beyond the external manifestations.
Do you see Kaikurissi growing into a constant in your future works?
Oh, yes, I have this trilogy planned. (Giggling) I finished this book and thought: I still have so much more to write about this village. If it’s not this village, it will be the next village. But that area, that lifestyle, that culture.
Do you feel disadvantaged, writing about small-town India in a non-traditional language?
You know, I wish I could write in Malayalam. It lends itself so easily to lyricism. There’s great scope for description. But I can’t, so the next best thing to do is to write in English. I speak Malayalam fluently, read it, but I can’t write it.
How does it feel to be in distinguished company in the Picador family?
I admire Blake Morrison very much. I’m so glad I read And When Did You Last See Your Father? only now. Because there are some parts of it that are so much like my book that if I’d read it earlier, I wouldn’t have written my book at all. And I like Jim Crace. Ted Hughes, I don’t know, though I liked whatever I read of Birthday Letters.
New York Times: Faith Healer - By Kit Reed
Nobody’S alone in the Indian village of Kaikurussi. There’s too much going on at close quarters. Villagers drop in and out of one another’s lives in dizzying profusion, telling their stories and collecting new ones to work into the web of gossip that supports them. Under such circumstances, public opinion can push even the best man into behaving badly, as the Indian writer Anita Nair demonstrates in her thickly populated first novel, ”The Better Man.”
Spared from dying in a train wreck, Bhasi has taken his narrow escape as a sign. It’s time to change his life. He’s a healer now, he declares in an opening monologue. An educated man turned house painter, Bhasi is more interested in repairing souls than decorating houses. ”Damaged lives,” he explains, ”fill my world as much as flaking paint.”
Also known to the villagers as One-Screw-Loose Bhasi, the painter is on a mission to fix them as well. ”I do not capsulate healing with compounds and equations packed into little pink and blue gelatin caps,” he explains. Instead he hears people’s complaints and, using the right combination of herbs and subtle suggestions, helps them recover. So when the retirement plans of a government bureaucrat named Mukundan Nair collapse and he moves back to Kaikurussi, Bhasi rejoices. The man with a mission has found the patient of a lifetime.
Introducing Mukundan, the author shifts the novel from Bhasi’s monologue into the third person. As a boy, Mukundan ran away to escape his father’s cruelty, then turned his back on his entire family. Now, many years later, he has left a narrow, well-ordered city life to return to a village that is cluttered with Nairs, including his crusty old father, Achuthan, and Krishnan Nair, a doddering cook and major-domo.
Troubles proliferate. In fact, the minute Mukundan explores the old homestead, his mother’s ghost appears to reproach him. (She fell to her death on the stairs — his fault, she implies, for not being there to prevent it.) Mukundan is a bad fit in the village. To make things worse, he’s still afraid of his father.
Although Achuthan moved across the road many years ago to live with his mistress, he drops in on his son every day, belaboring him with rhetorical questions. And Mukundan is so intimidated that he mumbles anything to please him. To relieve the tension, Mukundan copes in the way that he has ever since he was a boy, by writing letters. To the postmaster. To the phone company. To the employer of a murdered villager. Even his prayers sound like letters to God.
Mukundan is obviously a prime candidate for Bhasi the healer: ” ‘My mother . . .’ he began and then suddenly stopped. . . . For a moment he wished it were night. When shadows encouraged the darkness of the soul to venture outside. When he could sit across from Bhasi. . . . When he could let feelings, pent-up for so many decades, wash over his listener and leave Mukundan himself feeling empty and light.” Eventually, Mukundan does confide in Bhasi, but the healing process is impeded by a village intrigue involving a schemer named Power House Ramakrishnan. There is as well the matter of the married woman Mukundan has fallen in love with. If he moves her into his house before her divorce becomes final, what will his father think? What will the village think?
Some novels know where they’re going from the very first sentence, and the delight for the reader is in their velocity — in following the arrow as it speeds for the target. This one seems to discover what it’s about as it goes along. Bhasi’s opening monologue reads like an afterthought tacked on to bring all the pieces together.
A genial, meandering tale filled with false alarms and diversions, ”The Better Man” is slowed by loops in the story, by abandoned threads of plot. Charming as it is, the novel gathers momentum only at the end, when Bhasi and Mukundan find themselves at odds just in time for the drama of conflict and resolution.
Sunday Tribune: The tale of a modern prodigal son - By Priyanka Singh
“THE Better Man” by Anita Nair is written in a style that is both lucid and refreshingly fresh.
The novel is an account of a man’s growth — how he develops from being a man with selfish concerns into a man with a wider concern which extends beyond himself.
The story is about prodigal Mukundan, a government employee, who after retirement decides to go back to his native village Kaikurissi which he had left when he was 18 years of age to escape the tyranny of his domineering father who leaves his mother for another woman.
On his return to his ancestral house, he is haunted by his mother’s ghost which he believes wants to kill him for not taking her along. He is forced to relive the memories of his childhood days which were punctuated by terrifying moments.
Back in the village, Mukundan wants social acceptability even if it means sacrificing his friendship with Bhasi and his love for Anjana.
The cameos in the book are crafted in a manner which is brilliant, with each having a haunting past that is integral to the plot.
There is one-screw-loose Bhasi whose broken heart brings him to Kaikurissi.Once an English lecturer but now a mere painter and a healer, Bhasi believes he is chosen to “bring forth from the churned-up mind of some wrecked psyche a luminous and complete mind”.
Entrusted with the job to paint Mukundan’s house, he senses Mukundan’s vacuity and takes upon himself to “peel the scabs of his festering soul” and let the fear seep out. Their friendship is thus forged. With Bhasi’s help, Mukundan is able to overcome his latent fears and is a changed man.
However, when an ungrateful Mukundan supports “Poor House” Ramakrishnan (a nouveau riche) in his plot to buy Bhasis’ land to build a community hall, Bhasi is broken and leaves the village. Then there is Anjana, a school teacher whom Mukundan falls in love with.
Married to an insensitive man, she is drawn to Mukundan’s charming manner and gentle ways. Both decide to live together until such a time her divorce comes through and later get married. However, Mukundan’s betrayal of her trust also casts a shadow over their love. Not willing to play the second fiddle to his fancies, she shows him the door.
The character of Mukundan’s father is the most convincing. A fire-spewing terror in his youth, it is hard for him to reconcile himself to the frailties that accompany old age. His supreme effort to defy old age and hold on to his ebbing strength makes him a truly pitiable character.
Used to living in his father’s shadow, Mukundan is made to realise that his father inspired respect, for at least he had the “courage of his convictions”, a recurrent motif in the novel. The revelation comes when his childhood servant Krishnan Nair reproaches him, saying,”When he (Achuthan Nair) believed in something he stood by it no matter what the world thought of him. Do you have that courage….. If you think you are a better man than your father, let us see it”.
To make amends, Mukundan gives Bhasi a piece of his own land and seeks Anjana’s forgiveness. He tells Bhasi:”All my life I wanted to be my father’s equal. But now I want more. I want to be better than him. I want to know what it is to love and to give. And in turn, be loved.”
Mukundan’s evolution as a better man is his own; Bhasi merely is a catalyst in the effort.
There is a lesson for everyone in this novel. Mukundan learns that happiness cannot be had by being the cause of someone else’s unhappiness. Bhasi learns that man cannot control and change another man’s destiny. Man cannot play God.
Achuthan Nair, but for his age, would have realised that man is not an island and cannot live in isolation. When the fiery strength of youth diminishes in old age, tyranny is least useful.
“The Better Man” is reflective of the moral fibre of society. Besides being a statement of courage, “The Better Man” is a victory of human will over human weaknesses.
Small doses of philosophy and profundities make “The Better Man” a simple but affecting book and well worth a read
Publishers: The Better Man
- Penguin Books – India
- DC Books – Kerala, India
- Picador – USA [Worldwide distribution]
- De Arbeiderspers – Netherlands
- Alfaguara – Spain
- Editions Philippe Picquier – France
- Ugo Guanda Editore – Italy
- Hoffman & Campe and DTV – Germany
- Diigisi – Greece
- Dom Quixote – Portugal
- Alfa-Narodna knjiga with Alnari d.o.o- Serbia
- Ugo Guanda Editore, Italy