Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mistress - Book Review

The prologue of the book begins with "The face. Yes, let's begin with the face that determines the heart's passage. It is with the face we decode thoughts into a language without sounds. Does that perplex you? How can there be a language without sounds, you ask. Don't dent it. I see the question in your eyes."

I put the book away after the first page. Not because the prose was difficult or the story hard to follow. But because it required effort from me. As I approached the book once more, with greater commitment, I understood why. The central character is Koman, an elderly Kathakali dancer, an artist wedded to his art. He is Uncle to Radha, his niece who lives at the adjacent resort, Near-the-Nila, with her husband Shyam. The novel unfolds with the arrival of Chris Stewart, a foreigner ostensibly interested in capturing the story of Koman's life, to understand the man and the veshakaran (actor).

Split into three parts, Anita Nair tells a spellbinding tale of the exciting life of Sethu, Koman's father, who returns to India after running away from home as a teenager to Colombo. He makes a life with the kind Doctor Samuel who rescues him and Sethu (as Seth) becomes a devoted assistant. Fate takes Sethu to Arabipatnam, a mirage-like place populated exclusively by Arab descendants where he meets Saadiya. Koman, the son born to them is left in the care of a caring Christian woman until Sethu takes him in and gives him a home along with his other two sons born of Devayani.

Why does Koman begin the story with that of his parents? This is explained through the medium of Kathakali that becomes Koman's life in his teens. Kathakali requires the performer to interpret, says Koman; and to do that, he has to imagine and interpret not just his life but the lives of all others who have been a part of his life.

So the reader gets to meet all the characters that shape Koman's life, his brothers Mani and Babu (Radha's father), Aashan (his Kathakali guru), Dr. Samuel, Lalitha, Angela and Maya. Just as the book is in three parts, the narrative is from three point's of view, Uncle, Radha and Shyam. And each part of the book begins with an introduction to the nine emotions, Sringaram, Haasyam, Karunam, Raudram, Veeram, Bhayaanakam, Beebhalsam, Adbhutam and Shaantam.

Superficially the story is about the undeniable attraction between Radha and Chris as Uncle mutely witnesses the ecstasy and inevitable pain that follows. But what is the book really about? Is it about "Art being a demanding mistress" or the fleeting nature of love that devours mere mortals in a tidal wave but soon passes? Is it about an artist's devotion to art, like Aashan's, that leaves him with no reason to continue living when he retires? Is it about the social conscience that seeks to legitimize man-woman relationships? It is a difficult question to answer.

All I can say is that Mistress is an exquisite book. With her genius for showing us the truth in everything we see, Anita Nair has created a performance with words that is as breathtaking as a Kathakali dance. I don't know what I should praise and what to leave out. The exquisite descriptions of the facial acrobatics required to create emotions in Kathakali, the soul stirring feelings that new love creates, the passive ways in which relationships continue to wither, the exciting story-telling (specially the part about Arabipatnam and each of the performances with the mythological context) or the detailed etching of each character?

I made slow progress through the 400 or so pages of this book and only at the end I realized why. Uncle tells a friend, "Classical art requires an effort from the audience. You don't become a connoisseur overnight. You need to imbibe it. You need to educate yourself, and it takes time to reach a level where you can understand the artist's imitation." It took time for me to savor this epic, time to get into the rhythm of the storytelling and time to get into the skin of the character.

Through this book I learnt the difference between an artist and a performer. I questioned "What is now?" I touched the ephemeral nature of art and the divine pursuit of it.

For all you readers, I leave you with one warning. Mistress is a demanding journey.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Keep the Change - Book Review

The protagonist B. Damayanthi leaves behind a boring life with parents in Chennai and jumps into the cauldron of corporate life in Mumbai in this debut novel by Nirupama Subramanian. An only child of doting parents who are desperately trying to "settle" their only daughter into matrimony don't agree with the plans of apparently demure Damayanthi who harbors a wicked side, one that is revealed in her letters to her friend Victoria. Through this regular correspondence with Victoria we get a glimpse into the naughty workings of Damayanthi's mind as she pulls off a major coup by landing a job with First Global in Mumbai.

In what seems like a fairytale transition, the sheltered Damayanthi finds her feet in the world of corporate banking set amidst the landscape of the cosmopolitan urban jungle that is Mumbai. We meet characters such as the lovable Jimmy Daruwalla, her colleague and comrade-in-arms at First Global, CG - a management consultant hired for the special project that Damayanthi and Jimmy are relegated to and the too good to be true Rahul that Damayanthi falls for. Damayanthi's female accomplices are a sympathetic friend Sumi who periodically gives her gyan while obsessing about her soon to be fiance, while the "other woman" Sonya Sood, the hot roommate becomes a thorn who continually assaults Damayanthi's self-esteem with her suave and sophisticated ways.

The author skilfully portrays Mumbai through the eyes of a newcomer and deftly sketches the characters and plot with an easy touch of humor. There are laugh out lines in many places, particularly while describing the weird ways of doing business that seems to be the specialty of large corporations. The protagonist is a lovable character full of spunk and self-doubt, a mix of traditional values trying to find its place in a new world of fast lives and loose morals. There is not much in the way of a story, the plot is simple, moves forward steadily through the chapters and ends on a predictable note.

A simple, funny travel read.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Marrying Anita - Book Review

As the title suggests, this is a memoir of the time period spent by author Anita Jain in India. In her early thirties, Anita takes up a job in New Delhi and returns to the land her father left, coincidentally at the same age to seek their fortune in America. But Anita. a Harvard-educated, well-traveled, independent woman, comes to India for a different reason - to find a husband.

Anita's journalist background is displayed both in her writing skills and her analysis of the India of the new millennium in the chapters that describe her on-off relationship with India in the years of growing up in USA. Her self-proclaimed " A quest for love in the New India", as the byline reads on the cover page of book that shows a pair of hands covered with mehendi leads Anita towards several young people. While she finds many kindred souls, particularly when it comes to consuming copious amounts of alcohol and cigarettes, even hashish, in the racy bars of Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida, they all seem to fall short of her requirements for a spouse.

Along the way we meet many characters including the couple who host her during her first days in the capital, Nandini, a small town girl gone wild in the freedom provided by the metropolis, Anita's parents and their relatives, her outspoken maid Chandra and some other unique characters like the members of a band and members of the gay fraternity. In terms of prospective grooms, she comes close to a couple of guys but for some reason things don't materialize to the much-awaited four words "Will you marry me?"

Anita candidly shares considerable details of the lives and motivations of her parents immigrant experience as well as her own life as a single woman who gets tired of her dating fiascos in New York city. There are way too many details of her interactions with men of many nationalities and the complicated rituals of the dating scene which only fosters greater emptiness in Anita. While we feel sorry for her unfortunate dalliances, Anita comes across as a bold woman not afraid to share her growing desperation at her loneliness.

The book reminded me of a work of fiction "Sharmila's Book" by Bharti Kirchner where a woman comes to Delhi to marry a suitable boy but ends up marrying someone else instead. I did not much like the novel for its superficial treatment and point of view which was written for a Western audience. At times, I thought of "Eat Pray Love" one of my favorite books in the memoir genre about a woman's year of soul-searching with the specific intent of not being with a guy. Though not of the same caliber as Eat Pray Love, this book certainly is an honest investigation and analysis of the reality of finding a mate in these days of internet matrimonial portals and global range of choices.

At the end, Anita is not looking for a bigger pool to choose from, but like everyone else, she is looking for one soul mate. And I wish her well as her quest continues.