| MISTRESS |
By Anita Nair
Price: Rs 350
In dance as in life," writes Anita Nair at the beginning of her new novel, "we do not need more than nine ways to express ourselves. You may call these the nine faces of the heart." In the finest art of exaggeration, these nine emotions-love, contempt, sorrow, fury, courage, fear, disgust, wonder and peace-are made starker by colour and costume, contortions and gestures. And that is the easiest simplification one can afford before Nair takes her own performance far beyond the limits of her initial promise. And that is the easiest aesthetic luxury the tourism-brochure Kathakali can offer before Nair kills the stereotype with emotions not listed in the glossary of the art she seeks as a form to place her imagination. So, as you are being invited to the performance on the river Nila in north Kerala, be prepared: Nair, the choreographer, is not going to indulge you with the latest variation in the now familiar river sutra from Kerala. Whatever Arundhati Roy began by the Meenachal river doesn't have to end with the enactment on the Nila, and Nair, with two originals like The Better Man and Ladies Coupe behind her, is too inventive and intensive a storyteller to be tempted by market-friendly backwater motifs. Mistress, lush in ideas and in its identity, though, is a temptation worth yielding to.
As with every literary seduction, Mistress too begins with a deception. Chris, an American travel writer, steps into the world of Radha, her husband Shyam and her uncle Koman, a famous Kathakali dancer-three stagnant lives by the river. Soon, the new guest at Near-the-Nila, the resort run by Shyam, breaks the enforced idyll and becomes a player in a performance scripted by memory and ancestral secrets. His assignment is to chronicle the life of Koman, but no easy role is available once he, the traveller with an identity question as complex as the gestures and rhythms of Kathakali, ceases to be a spectator and enters the greenroom. Radha, a wife bored with a possessive-and prosaic-husband, gives herself to Chris who, by now, has travelled a distance longer than he asked for in the back story of Koman. Shyam-pretty Sham as he is mispronounced-drifts into self-pity and, inevitably, scarred peace. Though destiny doesn't repeat itself in Mistress, the present borrows a great deal from the ancestral text as told by Koman. Players may keep changing, but the performance can only be edited by time, it can't be stopped. Nair accelerates the frisson with her own art.
Still, the art of Kathakali sets the structural foundation of Mistress. Some of the classics in the genre are updated with panache to make the story of the four a continuation rather than a beginning. The richness of Koman's back story-whose emotional texture, sensuous as well as sorrowful, is accentuated by the thrills and tribulations of racial overstretch and migratory woes-alone will make Nair a novelist who stretches the geographic boundaries of imagination to accommodate 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 classical form to suit the emotional or cerebral expediencies of the novelist either. (Think of what Mario Vargas 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. "I dance, therefore I am" may be the existential motto of the Kathakali maestro. 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.