Mistress by Anita Nair


Synopsis Of Mistress

A searing new novel of art and adultery from the best-selling author of Ladies Coupe

When travel writer Christopher Stewart arrives at a riverside resort in Kerala to meet Koman, Radha’s uncle and a famous kathakali dancer, he enters a world of masks and repressed emotions. From their first meeting, both Radha and her uncle are drawn to the enigmatic young man with his cello and his incessant questions about the past. The triangle quickly excludes Shyam, Radha’s husband, who can only watch helplessly as she embraces Chris with a passion that he has never been able to draw from her. Also playing the role of observer-participant is Koman; his life story, as it unfolds, captures all the nuances and contradictions of the relationships being made–and unmade–in front of his eyes.

A brilliant blend of imaginative story-telling and deeply moving explorations into the search for meaning in art and life, Mistress is a literary tour de force from one of India’s most exciting writers.

Acclaim For Mistress


MISTRESS was named a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Award in the U.S.A.


MISTRESS was nominated a finalist for LiBeraturpreis 2007 in Germany.

Praise for Mistress


“The Indian author Anita Nair´s manner of narration in the novel “Mistress” is ingenius, complex and simple…”

“In a rich, colourful and sensual language Nair tells the story of Radha´s family, seen through the past and the culture of today. ‘Mistress’ is a feast to read or: brings enormous pleasure to the reader whether the reader enjoys the sound of Ibsen or not.”


The Washington Post

Nair, the author of two previous novels, “Ladies Coupe” and “The Better Man,” has a talent for probing insular worlds. Much as she makes the closed realm of kathakali performers come alive, she paints a poignant picture of the segregated, cloistered Muslim village.

The Washington Post

Curled Up

Anita Nair’s Mistress is written rendition of the traditional Indian dance form kathakali. American Chris Stewart comes into two lives. Radha is emotionally distanced and more than a bit contemptuous of her husband, Shyam; Chris has come to interview Radha’s Uncle Koman, who was once a famous kathakali dancer. Both Koman and Radha feel an immediate connection to Stewart. The young woman must choose whether to stay in her marriage or to flaunt custom and risk the shunning of her society to find what she perceives as true love. The true richness of the story belongs to Koman and his pursuit of excellence as a kathakali performer. His protector is his parakeet, Malini, who watches over him like a jealous lover. Even in his old age, Koman pursues his own mistress, finding comfort and no less passion than that of Radha and Chris, but perhaps one more comfortable with human failings. This is a performance and a book that will not be easily laid aside or soon forgotten.



Lushly infused with Hindu mysticism and potently imbued with volcanic emotions of fury, contempt, fear, and wonder, Nair’s spirited tale of forbidden love set in contemporary India mirrors the radiance and majesty of the traditional Indian dance form known as kathakali…. Tempestuously exotic, Nair’s intricately woven multicultural and multigenerational saga pulsates with passion and desire.


Library Journal Review

This intricately plotted novel by Nair blends myth, history, and human emotion into a mixture as sweet as the nectar of the jackfruit and as tangled as human behavior. It is the story of a love affair between Radha, the dissatisfied wife of an Indian businessman, and Chris, a visiting American writer; their affair parallels one between Radha’s famous uncle, Koman, a Kathakali dancer, and Chris’s mother 30 years earlier. Their stories and those of several others are interwoven with the tales danced in Kathakali and the emotions the dancers are trained to ortray…..Highly recommended.

Library Journal Review

The Guardian

Kathakali lends the book its structure and grounds its even-handed, intense drama in a rich setting of myth and ritual; whether sketching Kerala’s changing conditions, charting Radha’s loveless marriage or describing the closed world of an Islamic village, Nair’s third novel is consistently compelling.

The Guardian

Sahara Times

A grand saga on relationships, this novel is Anita Nair’s most ambitious opus yet. Through an array of complex narrative techniques, in a brilliant language sparkling with extraordinary intelligence, she unfolds a story, nay, a garland of stories, using kathakali, the classical performing art form of Kerala, as a mega-metaphor. That she picks kathakali, an international reference point to Kerala culture, and, to a large extent, Indian culture, for this purpose, is a statement in itself. Ruminations on the nature of true art, the artist’s jealous mistress who excludes everything else, expatiations on popular art that is obtained by diluting classical art to ensure global success and good money—all in the context of kathakali—are hitherto not encountered in Indian English fiction. It is heartening to note that this novel deals with such questions with the seriousness they deserve, unlike certain other very successful novels written in the backdrop of Kerala’s culture.

The narrative follows a unique pattern. Opening with a prologue and wrapped up with an epilogue, and, in between, the main body broken up into three books with three sections in each, making up nine in total, each titled with the navarasas as found in Bharata’s Natyashastra, it has each character speaking in the first person—long soliloquies, or dramatic monologues, reminiscent of long narrative sequences from a kathakali performance. The author expounding directly on each of the navarasas, at the beginning of the sections, produces a choric effect; the detailed interpretations are certainly meant for the outsider or for those less informed in ancient Indian aesthetics

Sahara Times


What sets the extraordinary tone for Mistress is its structure….The inclusion of Kathakali in the novel is much more than an exotic add-on. Its admission of how characters have varying shades of grey, of the past’s impact on the present, is vital to the storyline.

Mistress is a mature take on the compulsions of adultery and art. It sets up and resolves questions not through one grand meta narrative, but through little narratives. Each tale compounds the force of the one before it.

Opening up the rich world of Kathakali to English literature, Mistress achieves something rare in Indian writing. It proposes a natural assimilation of our artistic heritage in new fiction.


The Sunday Express

Like Anita Nair’s earlier works the Better Man and Ladies coupe, Mistress is firmly planted in the Indian context with no compromises but with a universal appeal.

The Sunday Express

The Hindu Literary Review

Kathakali is a complete art wherein you will find everything that is there in life. Like a true Kathakali spectacle performed by master veshakaars that lasts all night, Nair evokes in her readers wonder, delight and grief. She writes about man-woman relationships and complex Kathakali aesthetics with equal felicity. When you put down the novel, you feel as if you are walking back home in the pale early morning light at the end of a nightlong Kathakali performance. What fills your soul, then, is shaantam — the last of the nine bhavas.

M. Mukundan

The Hindu Literary Review

The Hindu

Art is a tough mistress. Exacting. Unforgiving. But beautiful and tantalising, all the same. When applied to best-selling author Anita Nair’s latest novel Mistress. these truths prove double-edged, yet true as steel….. those who have read it will mull over issues inherent between its covers. Set in Kerala, spanning 90 years, Nair’s third novel explores the depths of relationships while, in a parallel strand, it unravels the skeins that weave together a life in art…. As the turbulent eddies of life surround the protagonists, we are plunged into a multi-pronged narrative ? where the navarasas dictate the mood of each segment, where the main characters offer first-person slants on the evolving plot,? where myths are vigorously retold with local colour, where the artist and his art tussle for an equitable balance.?It is a formula that seems bound for literary magic. To me, Nair’s narrative powers and mastery of minutiae remain her forte… this novel proves she is conscious of the trivialisation of art, a mistress who accepts no compromises.

The Hindu

The Asian Age

Fiction and research go hand-in-hand in Mistress, Anita Nair’s latest book…an absorbing story of two plots that run parallel, almost at the same pace…Kathakali, the exacting, vibrant dance form of Kerala, may seem to appeal to a niche segment. But the author has given its colour and character an appeal that cuts across geographical boundaries…While the words are well chosen, a lot of thought has gone into the layout. It is categorised into three books, each containing three rasas, culminating in the ninth rasa ? Shaantam. Even this has a role to play, as the characters express a kaleidoscope of emotions associated with the art form ? right from the strong sentiment like love to detachment, which arguably is a state of philosophical sublime. In fact, even the storytelling technique has overtones of Kathakali, which enacts the drama of life. The uninitiated, however, is led by a Kathakali lexicon while Kerala becomes the inevitable canvas.

The Asian Age


…like Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, this is one of those novels that brings a specialised subject alive for the novice. The story is imbued with rich descriptions of Kathakali positions, facial gestures and mythical stories. The reader discovers and experiences the dance without having to look up from the page.Mistress not only brings a traditional art form into the spotlight but questions its place in present-day India…..Mistress is a well-written novel that gifts the reader with knowledge of a magical art form. For that reason it should be read by all, from the uncompromising artist to the champions of contemporaneous India.


The Times of India

With her first two novels, the Better Man and Ladies Coupe, Anita Nair signalled the arrival of a sensitive writer who could delve deep into people’s personalities and take the reader on a wonderful journey. With her latest book Mistress, she lives upto the promise of masterful story teller…..Some bonds grow and other break and in these intertwining relationships lies the beauty of Anita’s saga.

The Times of India

India Today

The art of regaining humanity. Anita Nair builds her new novel on the structure of a kathakali performance …Nair takes her own performance far beyond the limits of her initial promise…Nair kills the stereotype with emotions not listed in the glossary of the art she seeks as a form to place her imagination. …The richness of Koman’s back story – whose emotional texture, sensuous as well sorrowful is accentuated by the thrills and tribulations of racial overstretch and migratory woes alone will make Nair a novelist who stretches the geographical boundaries of imagination to accomodate the wayward orphans who dominate everyone’s history. The newness is not in reducing the distance between the art of the novel and the art of kathakali, and it is not in interpreting a claasical form to suit the emotional or cerebral expediencies of the novelist either [Think of what Maria Varga Llosa did with painting in In Praise of the Stepmother and Umberto Eco with pop art in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.] Nair makes art a living experience, literally….When the performers in Mistress realise that they have to discard the costume to regain their humanity, it is too late. The art of Anita Nair does it for them , in style.

India Today


With its poetic prose and grand subject matter, Anita Nair’s MISTRESS (BlackAmber, $34.99) is reminiscent of age-old Indian epics such as the Mahabharata. In Nair’s novel, love and history clash when cello-playing travel writer Chris arrives at Near-the-Nila holiday retreat in Kerala to interview famed traditional actor-cum-dancer Koman. There, Chris falls for Koman’s beautiful niece Radha, who in turn is trapped in a loveless marriage to Near-the-Nila’s possessive and scheming owner, Shyam. Nair cleverly compares and contrasts the complex web of deceit that ensues with a series of flashbacks to a youthful dalliance Koman indulged in with Anglo-German artist Angela in 70s London. The result is a sharply observed, character-driven story that uses the lives of small-town people with ambitious dreams as a framework for discussions about big issues like globalisation and autochthony.


New Zealand

Articles & Interviews

Deccan Herald: From Ladies Coupe to the Mistress

Bala Chauhan in conversation with Anita Nair, whose book Mistress, out shortly, is an interplay between the forces of passion and art.

Her third novel Mistress will hit book stores soon and Anita Nair is beginning to feel drained of the entire experience. “Sometimes I ask myself a question; should I have written Mistress when I was in my sixties and seen more of life? I had to go deep into trying to understand various intricacies of a very fine relationship between life and art. It’s been a draining experience,” says Anita.

Mistress will be formally launched this month end. The best-selling author of Ladies Coupe, Anita wrote her first book, a collection of short stories called Satyr of the Subway while she was working as the creative director of an advertising agency in Bangalore.

Her first novel The Better Man, published by Penguin India, was also the first book by an Indian author to be published by Picador USA. Her second novel Ladies Coupe was rated as one of 2002’s top five books of the year, and has been translated into more than twenty-five languages around the world. Anita has also written The Puffin Book of World Myths and Legends and has edited Where the Rain is Born: Writings About Kerala.

She speaks to Deccan Herald about Mistress and what went into writing it.

What’s the book about?

Mistress is on two levels. It’s the story of Koman – a famous Kathakali dancer and the choices he makes in life. Parallelly, there’s the story of a marriage in a small town. This is echoed in the dancer’s life. He is the heroine’s uncle. Just as we use myths to explain our anxieties, he uses Kathakali to advise her on things she should or should not do.

The lives of Shyam, Radha and Koman are thrown in a disarray when travel writer Christopher Stewart arrives at a riverside resort in Kerala to meet Koman. From their first meeting, both Radha and her uncle are drawn towards the enigmatic young man with his cello and his incessant questions about the past. Koman sees it happening in front of him as he watches Radha embrace Chris with an immense passion. He tries to advise Radha and she tells him that all her life she’s been dictated and that it was time that she made her own choices. She decides to break free of everything.

How much of you is in the book?

I spread myself in all my characters. The other day, while reading Mistress, my 13-year-old son Maitreya said he could identify the characters with me. I told him not to look for me in the characters since he knows me very closely.

Your reasons for choosing the title ‘Mistress’?

It was difficult to decide on the title of the book because it’s a complex novel and travels in two worlds, of a performing art and the lives of a couple. One day I chanced upon Emerson’s saying, “Art is a jealous mistress” and I thought that the title ‘Mistress’ fit the book perfectly. It covers the two principle elements of the novel.

When did you start working on it?

I started researching on it in 2001 because I wanted a clear definition of what the book should be about. Since it was on Kathakali and I knew very little about the dance form, I had to do a lot of research on it.

How do you sustain the thought process?

Once I have a story line, a certain chemistry takes place, which propels the story ahead. I don’t dwell too much on a single thought. I allow the dynamic energy to push it forward. While I am writing, I always get a feeling that there’s an unconscious energy forcing me to go forward.

How different is ‘Mistress’ from your other novels?

It’s very different though it has the hallmarks of my style. The prose is simple with some elements of humour. There’s a certain sense of identification. I look for a good story line. I do have few mentors with who I discuss my story ideas. They give me the luxury of listening to it patiently. I also have a brilliant editor, who resonates the point of view I have.

Your definition of artistic success?

I have tried to understand what is artistic success and how does one measure it? Is it the adulation or simply the sense of knowing what I have done. It’s very hard to understand and define success. As a writer I have to understand that whatever I have done is the best of my ability. I have sought to rise to a certain level and managed to reach there.

Do you have a sense of belonging to your works?

No. Once they are out in the public domain, they cease to be mine.

The Asianage: When art is a metaphor for mistress

Bangalore: Fiction and research go hand-in-hand in Mistress, Anita Nair’s latest book, which is scheduled to be released in Bangalore on September 30. At the outset, what is most conspicuous is Kerala, Nair’s home state, followed by a coloured plot.

With a 90-year timeframe, Mistress is an absorbing story of two plots that run parallel, almost at the same pace. Shyam and his wife Radha run a riverside resort in Kerala and the plot thickens when Christopher Stewart, a writer, steps in to study the world of Kathakali from Koman, Radha?s uncle. The inevitable happens. Call it chemistry or a sense of longing, Radha and Christopher fall in love.

While this love triangle takes on interesting twists and turns, at another level, Koman’s life unfolds itself, layer by layer, where the Kathakali mask itself is a metaphor, suggesting a veiled existence. Kathakali, the exacting, vibrant dance form of Kerala, may seem to appeal to a niche segment. But the author has given its colour and character an appeal that cuts across geographical boundaries. No doubt, training in Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music gave Nair cultural exposure, but when she began to appreciate the sonorous notes of Kathakali music, it set the tone for her novel, which she describes has many firsts to its credit.

The ambitious project, which took four years in the making, is her most satisfying and longest and book, spanning 426 pages. Through Mistress, Nair has offered readers a glimpse into the world of Kathakali. For the first time, Nair actually studied the art form by enrolling for a short-term course at Kerala Kalamandalam. Which justifies the true-to-life instances and Kerala Kalamandalam facilitated her pursuit.

The enrolment was done with an intention to study the art form, its subtleties and the green room where the magical-mythical transformation takes place. To that extent, there are exact references to a turmeric-indigo paste that makes a passable green. Of decoding the green room mantra, where faces are recreated ? which could be a god or demon. Of classroom scenes set in sylvan surroundings. And page 272 clearly defines the nuances of Kathakali. The eye practice session is for strengthening the eye muscles.

Kathakali is for men, it needs a man’s strength and conviction. It has no place for static emotions. Even when you perform the coy Lalitha or the gentle Damayanti, your eyes will have to remember the rigours of all you have subjected them to and from that tutelage learn to be a woman?s eyes.

While the words are well chosen, a lot of thought has gone into the layout. It is categorised into three books, each containing three rasas, culminating in the ninth rasa ? Shaantam. Even this has a role to play, as the characters express a kaleidoscope of emotions associated with the art form ? right from the strong sentiment like love to detachment, which arguably is a state of philosophical sublime. In fact, even the storytelling technique has overtones of Kathakali, which enacts the drama of life. The uninitiated, however, is led by a Kathakali lexicon while Kerala becomes the inevitable canvas.

“Despite having written extensively about Kerala, one can still take a fresh perspective of most recognised locales,” says the author. Kerala is the backdrop and the ambience comes through images like fireplaces, mullioned windows and antique furniture, and culinary references like murukku, fried chicken, tapioca chips and Guruvayur pappadum.

The world of art progresses, readers are then exposed to adultery in a contemporary marriage, of Shyam-Radha. Issues like low sperm counts which leads to dissatisfaction, are discussed threadbare. It leads to unrequited desire, what follows is a Radha-Christopher entanglement.

Perceptions of other couples, like Sethu’s parents, are sharply altered. Sethu?s mother had never been a wife. She shared nothing of her husband?s life, except his bed. The title then comes as no surprise. “Art is considered a jealous mistress. For a man, a mistress is a validation for his self-worth, besides providing physical pleasure. At a literary level, a mistress is what Kathakali denotes for the artiste?s self-worth,” she says.

Figuratively, Radha is a mere accessory thrown into Shyam’s life,” she says.

As the book is about relationships and straddling different worlds, mistress lent itself to the title,” she explains.

Mistress raises a question about the Shyam-Radha relationship, which the reader has to comprehend. And this manner of leaving things unanswered at the end of novel is typical of Nair, as evident from earlier novels.

Telegraph: 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?

Hindu: On integrity in art - By Aruna Chandaraju

Anita Nair on her latest novel and the `sweat and blood’ behind writing…

“IT was around 2000-1, while working in an ad agency that I saw this Kathakali dancer who was being taken around in a Tata Sumo to various agencies. Like some kind of performing animal. My heart went out to this man and the humiliation he must have felt after giving eight to 10 years to learning this complex art. And I was provoked into thinking — What are the compromises that an artist makes in order to survive? That question was, in a sense, the catalyst for Mistress, and a recurring theme in it.”

It is an issue Anita Nair feels deeply and strongly about. Just turn to pp. 416-417 in Mistress to hear an echo. Of the sense of betrayal Koman feels when he sees the pure traditions of Kathakali being corrupted to give it popular appeal. “I can live with the notion that an artist has to do other things in his own field to keep his body and soul together. Like a classical musician singing film songs for a living. But if he compromises on the classical music traditions to make it popular, that is sad, it isn’t integrity. Don’t dilute an art form; instead cherish and nurture it.”

Financial compulsions

You encounter this in every art, including writing, she says. “Here it takes the form of lowering standards to make it saleable. A writer may write a book that’s naturally saleable — by the book’s karma, by a certain magic it unconsciously brings into being, say, it sells well. Second, some writers choose to work within a genre with a large and ready readership like romantic fiction or thrillers. The genre has certain formulaic elements, tried and tested in their saleability. There is an honesty there and more power to their pen and their bank balances. I myself have had a long stint in the ad world that I frankly disliked but it gave me the freedom to write my fiction the way I wanted it. But I would have found it hard to live with myself if, to ensure publication or greater acceptance, I chose to write in a way that wasn’t mine. If I allowed myself to be persuaded into introducing certain elements that might make my books more saleable or change the storyline to make it more acceptable. Whatever form one chooses to write in, artistic integrity demands we retain honesty and not masquerade it as something else.”

But there is an impression gaining ground that it is both an easy and paying proposition to be a writer today. All those emerging writers, the front-paged news about huge book advances, Page 3 pictures of book launches, TV interviews, the celebrity status and attendant aura of glamour… “Yes, more writers are getting published today thanks to more publishing houses, and writing is also more paying, given the slick marketing (often on an international level) and larger audience for English writing in India. The increased media reviews also mean more exposure, if not fame. Also, if you get published abroad, thanks to the exchange rate and wider readership base, you earn substantially. Speaking for myself, I would say it is possible to make a living out of writing. But then my books have had international releases and sold well everywhere.”

“However, many of these new impressions about writing can be deceptive,” she points out. How? “You see all that the average reader gets to read about it is the supposedly huge publishing advance. As people in the trade know, sums tend to be exaggerated and who is to know the truth except the writer, the publisher and the agent? And often, that money may be for worldwide rights. Second, the reader sees the writer as having entry into a hitherto inaccessible world surrounded by glamour. It creates a false impression both to the aspirant writer and the average person who sees writing as akin to the world of high fashion/ TV. What is perceived is the glamour and not the sweat and blood that goes into the book, and thereafter, any disappointments that may follow. With writing becoming so fiercely competitive, the wide-eyed indulgence that greeted writers about 10 years ago is now replaced with eagle-eyed caution. Believe me, it needs a great deal of courage to send what is so very personal a creation into the public domain. There is no knowing how a book may be received.”

Hype has its limits

She continues: “Again, marketing hype and ploys can at most sell the first book for you. Readers are not sheep, they are good judges. The readers will not return to the author a second time, unless that author has spoken to them. Lastly, a few big successes get publicised but for every successful writer there are 150 struggling ones.”

Finally, the inevitable question at the end of any interview. Is she planning another book? “Of course,” she laughs. “What else do I do with my life?”

Future projects

She is working on two books, and conceptualising the third. “The first is the second part of World Myths and Legends. The second is a children’s book about a shy, introverted, pre-teen boy who strikes up a friendship with an elephant who comes to live next door. It actually started as a story I used to tell a nephew of mine. Everyday I had to continue the story and thus it evolved. And one day I thought, why not turn it into a book? The third will be a novel but very different from Mistress. Not as complex or expansive. Something light, frothy and bubbly. I like to experiment with different genres. And I need to recoup my energies after such a demanding book as Mistress!”

Clearly, her own art of writing too can be a demanding mistress.

Publishers: Mistress

  • Penguin – India
  • St Martins Press – USA
  • Editions Philippe Picquier – France
  • Hoffman & Campe – Germany
  • Neri Pozza – Italy
  • Alfaguara – Spain
  • Forlaget Hjulet – Denmark
  • Diigisi – Greece
  • Swiat Literacki – Poland
  • Machborot – Israel
  • Arcadia – UK
  • Hoffman & Campe and DTV – Germany
  • Uitgeverij Signature / A.W. Bruna Uitgevers bv – Netherlands
  • Alfa-Narodna knjiga – Serbia
  • D.C. Books, Kerala – India
  • Dinamo, Forlag – Norway
  • Mir Knigi – Russia
  • Leda Editserv Srl – Romania
  • Penerbit Erlangga, Indonesia
  • Pegasus, Turkey

An Insight into the Writing of Mistress

When one dances with the gods

“WHY are you doing this?” I was to ask myself this question several times over the next four years…

I was lying on my side on two sheets of newspaper spread on the cement floor. Alongside me was a little lunch box in which I had brought two slices of French toast and a banana. The leaves rustled tirelessly and for the rest, a silence wreathed the kalari.

Far above me from the rafters, a spider spun its web glad for the reprieve of a few hours when neither the thundering feet of young males nor the beat of the chenda would make it falter in its tracks.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a chameleon enter the classroom. It was a large specimen with a little frill around its neck. I sat up. The chameleon nodded as if to ask: What?

I shook my head. Nothing, I said.

It stared at me and I stared back.

For a moment, I wondered when the book was written, if I should call it Chameleon. I didn’t need to extend myself very far to see the aptness of the simile; the frill could be the white chuti that frames the Kathakali dancer’s face and the changing colours akin to the dancer’s colours.

Tutelage of art

But in this task I had set myself, the first dharma decreed that I go beyond where I could with minimum effort…

In the theory class, aashan Gopalakrishnan watched a final year student enact a scene from “Subhadraharanam”. “You need to do better,” aashan grunted. “Anyone can do this; what is going to make your artistry memorable is how far you extend yourself.”

I realised then that it wasn’t just Kathakali that I was making acquaintance with. This was the tutelage of art.

In the days to follow many such gems came my way. Technique is the mastery of rhythm, aashan would say. You need to have total control of what you are doing to make a hash of your steps without missing a beat, he said, demonstrating as much.

Do not mistake competence for brilliance. Absorb first, question later.

Each day I would walk into the kalari with a group of students almost half my age with a sense of mounting excitement….

But soon it was time to begin my questions. Sometimes I wondered if I was tiring him with my relentless probing. In my mind I saw another creature from the animal world. The vulture pecking between the bones. I hurled the thought away and told myself that the second dharma decreed that you put your art first. In this case, my need to understand Kathakali to be able to write about it.

Nothing else would justify what I was demanding of others: That my mother who has lived out her karmic cycle of motherhood is forced to return to it To rise early and cook me breakfast and plant interesting morsels in my lunch box so I don’t toss it away. A father who switched on the early morning news to keep tabs on lightning strikes and bandhs and heated the water for my early morning bath. A ten-year-old child who had to put up with his mother’s absence. A husband who was told to cope. A taxi driver who regulated his trips for two whole months so he could chauffeur me to the institute and on my midnight forays as I played Kathakali groupie and sought out performances… I was asking a great deal of others for a personal whim and yet that too was the dharma of art. That it has to be all or nothing….

Grand obsession

What in the beginning was a great love for the Kathakali padam was becoming a grand obsession. From merely wanting to know how these padams were set within the context of the story, Kathakali itself was beginning to consume. And yet, it would have rested there if one morning, about four and a half years ago, I hadn’t walked into work to see a Kathakali dancer in full costume in the reception area.

Bundled up in a Tata Sumo, he was being taken from one ad agency to the other as a living rate card… I didn’t know how the dancer was received in the other agencies but in the one I worked in those days, there were sniggers and giggles… he was an object of ridicule more than anything else and my heart went out to him… I probably felt more wretched than him. He was playing a role after all.

The irony being that a Kathakali performer has so very few opportunities to don his colours will accept anything that comes his way. Be it standing as prop for a detergent or playing the fool for a candy advertisement or being a walking gesticulating rate card….

This trivialising all that is sacred about art, how could I remain immune to it? How could I not address it? I wasn’t to know it then. But the third dharma of art has just brushed my soul. What you do may mean nothing to the world. What matters is that it means everything to you.

In the world of Kathakali, it is said you need 100 hours of practice before you can perform for a minute; I would need at least 100 hours of study to be able to write a page on Kathakali. And where was I to begin?

Generous teacher

In Kerala, we make much of a word called nimitham. The dictionary defines this as reason, cause, indication and omen…. in many ways all of these compounded to lead me to the Kerala Kalamandalam and to aashan Gopalakrishnan. At any other time, it may have been another guru I was assigned to. At that point, he was the only one available and perhaps it was the nimitham that found me an aashan who would sculpt forever my understanding of art.

With a generosity that was as overwhelming as humbling, he held nothing back. All of which he knew he made available for me to draw from: Of the man. Of the dancer. Of the student. Of the performer. And some where in between all these, he laid bare the makings of an artist.

I was surrounded by young men who by day had their personalities so submerged by the dictates of the art form that at night when they transformed into magnificent creatures, gods, or demons, they were that completely. The moment you allowed yourself to emerge, the character regressed. And so I learnt the fourth and final dharma. In the world of art, there is no first person. It is the artistry and not the artist who is significant. It is the creation that dazzles and not the creator.

Under aashan’s guidance, from a passive onlooker, I became a very involved and cue-ed in observer. I read all the texts I could find, attended classes to see how the students are taught, had lessons myself both theory and practical to know what it entailed, attended all the performances I could, listened to all the Kathakali padams that were recorded, asked countless questions (knowing very well how foolish it sounded at times) of everyone associated from teachers, students, musicians and green room assistants… visited homes of artists, and students, gleaned anecdotes from anyone willing to talk, and
probed for more and more minutiae…

Moments of self-doubt

I was so completely wrapped up and in spirit, if not in body, I had donned the colours of a Kathakali artist. There was no other option really… so much so when I heard a rattling lid on top of a pot of boiling water, instead of turning the gas off, my mind searched for the thalam — was it chempa or chempada?

And yet, there would come an occasional moment of self-doubt. Why am I doing this?

To stay resolute in what I was doing, I had to convince myself that I may not have the answers for it now but eventually it would all fall into place.

When the apsaras emerged from the cosmic ocean “with all gifts of grace, of youth and beauty…. neither god nor demon sought their wedded love”. Why is it that we alone must remain “common treasure of the host of heaven”? Why is it that we cannot live our lives bound by the dictates of samsara? Couldn’t our joys and triumphs, sorrows and failures be the mortal kind? The apsaras were to ask this of themselves again and again. The apsaras were condemned to an eternity of not knowing why.

Perhaps that is the curse they wish upon their kin — all hand maidens and pageboys of art. That you continue to serve not knowing why…. But there is a hidden blessing too that is yours to discover: In the end, you will realise for yourself what was important was for a few moments you knew a perfect sense of oneness with the world and all that around you. In that perfect moment, you are dancing with the gods rather than for the gods. The rest then will be of no consequence.

Nine Faces of Being

More about the theatre adaptation of Mistress - Click here to read more!

Directed by Arundhati Raja and written by author Anita Nair, Nine Faces of Being isn’t merely a cliché about an artiste’s life. It explores the diminishing value of relationships in the life of a dancer in a quest to master the ultimate forms of creativity.

– Deccan Chronicle

With the classical Indian dance form Kathakali as the backdrop, Nine Faces of Being explores each of the nine rasas of Navarasas, a Sanskrit word that defines the fundamental energy and dominant emotional theme in any work of art. In fact, the emotions of all the characters in the play are expressed through various
rasas like Shringara, Bhaya and so on.

– Midday

Weaving in Kathakali’s vivid and colourful forms, the play tells the story of Kathakali artiste Koman, his niece Radha and her passionate affair with a travel writer from abroad as the helpless husband watches in despair, even as the nava rasas are being playing out on stage.

– India Today

Anita Nair’s theatre adaptation of her own novel, Mistress, called Nine Faces Of Being deals with a story that never grows old. What draws audience to this play? Simple. What happens to anybody. A story of love, forbidden passion and art – the play explores the universality of human emotion.Set in the midst of a family of Kathakali dancers, the ancient traditions of the dance woven into contemporary drama, this play directed by one of Bangalore most seasoned theatre artistes, Arundhati Raja, depicts each of the Navarasa – as the nine stages of human being’s life, in the nine scenes that the play journeys through.

– Times of India

…their opening play Nine Faces of Being a fabulous one. The two-hour performance has no interval – and that’s a blessing that works wonders for continuity. Writer Anita Nair’s portrayal, of various emotions, is brutal and honest. Helping her put it all across to the audience is director Arundhati Raja and her extremely talented cast. The previews mentioned emotions through the art form – Kathakali. But this is no dance drama. It’s a performance that conveys to you the essence of the dance form without actually breaking into movement. The highlight of the nine scenes that make up this play lies in each of the monologues – the lines manage to gnaw at your heart; and you feel them and for the characters on stage.


A powerful impact because of its universal appeal. Nair, unleashes a variety of emotions like love, lust and envy in the play which mark her debut as a playwright. The play is written in nine scenes and is a search for meaning in life and art. Apart from the dialogues, what makes the play a seamless experience is the high-quality light and sound and projection equipment at the Jagriti theatre. A transition from London to the riverside resort took less than five seconds.

– The Week

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