[Old blog rerun] Review: Mistress

I found a way to recover part of my old blog content, so I decided to rerun some posts from that, mainly reviews of books I liked. The following review was first published in March 2009. (All tagging is new, and I’m afraid I don’t have any means of saving the old blog comments.)

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The book: Anita Nair, Mistress

Introducing the book: this is a book about art, about life, and about emotions. There are nine basic emotions that kathakali uses to convey any story, they say: love, contempt, sorrow, fury, courage, fear, disgust, wonder, and peace. Nair does the same, building each chapter around one of these feelings, and telling her story through them.

The story in the book: Radha has a past she still longs for, and a present she would like to flee from with a husband she despises. Her husband Shyam has a present he is proud of, and a past he uses as excuse and explanation for what he is. Koman, Radha’s uncle, is the great-and-often-misunderstood artist, looking down to everyone except a few chosen acolytes (which include Radha but not Shyam). Their fragile balance is broken by the arrival of Chris, a foreigner and an artist himself, officially there to interview Koman, but in fact also to look for his past. Through this situation Nair also weaves Koman’s story, from his parents down through his whole life.

My opinion: this was one of those books that get me engrossed in the story, finely narrated, great setting and everything. But unlike other engrossing books, here I didn’t completely like any of the characters. I feel sorry for Radha because she is unhappy, but she doesn’t ever even try to make it different or to make her marriage work – as if waiting for blissful happiness to come by magic. I feel pity for Shyam, because everyone despises him while he is pushed by deep love – but he is still a gross, vulgar newly rich, which is evident not only in his unrefined tastes, but also in the ways he tries to convey his love to his wife. As for Koman, I am with him up to a point, but at times his views are completely oscure to me. So it’s a good book, but I cannot really get in the shoes of any of the characters, and this makes me awkward. Vote: 8/10.

The opening words:

So, where do I begin?
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 deny it. I see the question in your eyes.
I realize that you know very little of this world I am going to take you into. I understand your concern that it may be beyond your grasp. But I want you to know that I would be failing my intentions if I did not transmit at least some of my love for my art to you.

The scene I like the most: it is part of the story of Sethu and Saadiya. She is of Arab descent and lives in a village where women are segregated in their houses and have their own alleys to move, so that stranger eyes do not look upon them, while Sethu is a Hindu disguised as a Christian. Still, their eyes meet and they fall in love, a forbidden, Romeo-and-Juliet-like kind of love. At night they start talking to each other in the darkness, from the opposite sides of a garden. This is the first time they speak to each other.

That first morning, when no one was looking, I dropped a handkerchief that I had spent the provious night embroidering and then held to my cheek all night as I slept. You picked it up and placed it in your pocket. Later, you said that all day you drew it out and breathed deep of my fragrance. And that you slept with it against your cheek. The next day you held it up and said, ‘One of you dropped it here. I kept it so I could give it to you.’
I rushed forward before anyone else did and stretched out my hand. ‘It’s mine.’
You gave it to me and even though our fingers didn’t so much as brush each other’s, I felt your fingertips trail my soul.
That night your voice said, ‘I know your fragrance.’
I whispered, ‘And I yours.’
On that little square handkerchief with scalloped edges, our fragrances married and when I held it to my face, I felt a great yearning. For you were my husband and I your wife and this fragment of white cloth our nuptial bed.
‘I couldn’t sleep all night thinking of you,’ you said.
‘I couldn’t sleep all night thinking of you,’ I said.
‘What are we going to do?’ you asked.
‘What are we going to do?’ I asked. What else could I have said anyway?
‘I have never felt this way about anyone,’ you said.
‘I have never felt this way about anyone or anything,’ I said.
‘Are you a parrot or what?’ Your voice was querulous.
I stared at the darkness till I remembered a heroine from Vaapa’s story. It was her words I spoke. ‘I am the mirror of your soul,’ I said. ‘I see all you see. I think your thooughts. I feel as you do. I am you.’
‘If this isn’t love, what is?’ you said.
‘If this isn’t love, what is’ I agreed.

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