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.