Book Review: Mistress by Anita Nair

“We have words for this flooding that can sweep away all other thoughts. Pleasure, longing, lust. We call it by so many names. It is human to do so. To give a name to everything and everybody, to classify and segregate.

For only then we can measure the extent of this need to know, to conquer, to hold this wondrous being, this creature that suffuses every moment with a strange and inexplicable yearning.”

Anita Nair manages to take you to the past and bring you to the present without breaking a sweat. And she does this with not just one character but with three. The chapters of the book go through the facial expressions/basic emotions (navarasams) used in the classical folk dance of Kathakali. It is an intense read, which delves deep into human emotions and relationships. The book interweaves the art of Kathakali with the story of the four main characters. The story starts with the introduction of the four main characters, Koman, Radha, Shyam and Chris.

The story starts with the introduction of the four main characters, Koman, Radha, Shyam and Chris. Koman was once a famous Kathakali dancer and he now lives a life filled with memories of his past. Koman’s niece, Radha, is married to Shyam. Shyam owns a riverside resort in Kerala. Chris is a travel writer and has come to Kerala to interview Koman and he stays at Shyam’s resort. Though Radha is loving and affectionate towards her uncle, she clearly ignores and fails to see the unmountable love her husband holds for her. Radha and Chris are immediately drawn to one another as they share the same fascination towards Koman’s past and the love for art and dance. The characters of the story are wonderfully developed; despite their flaws, you cannot help sympathising with each one of them.

At one point you can’t help but wonder if Radha’s affection towards Chris is nothing more than the temporary attraction a child has towards a new toy. However, it becomes obvious that Radha is just a bored homemaker with an overly ambitious husband who wishes to turn any opportunity into a business profit. Radha usually feels that her husband is not as classy as her as he doesn’t enjoy books, tv shows or music the way she does. I found this nature of her’s to resemble that of an arrogant wife who is blind to her simple husband and his feelings. That feeling of pity quickly fades away as the story progresses.

The story of Koman goes back to his grandfather and moves through time to the present. It contains a lot of subplots and eventually gets a bit boring. But the intersection of Shyam and Radha’s past with Koman keeps the story moving. As the past is uncovered, Radha and Chris fall in love and have an affair, which Shyam eventually finds out about. And like all things, Radha and Chris’s relationship, eventually, ends as well as that of Radha and Shyam’s. The book ends with Radha starting her life all over and alone.

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