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Relationships As Navarasa

Sachidananda Murthy

By Anita Nair
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 426, Rs. 350.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

Anita Nair’s new novel is a book on relationships, told in many voices, going back and forth in time, across continents. It is a book which deals with infatuations and obsessions across the gulfs of religion, marriage, legitimacy and conventions. Most of the affairs that develop come with a whiff of bad endings, like the river Nila which rarely has enough water and symbolizes the shallowness of the life of the main characters. Guilt courses through the book as a companion to the glory of love and beastliness of lust.   What holds the book on premarital, marital, nonmarital and extra marital sex is the way the author binds it with Kathakali, the fabulous dance drama of Kerala. Not only is one of the principal protagonists a Kathakali artiste of international fame, but the different phases of the interplay of the characters is expressed through the navarasas — the nine phases of human emotions.   It has been an ancient literary maxim that an epic should depict the navarasas in the right proportion. The nine — shringaraam(love), haasaym (flirting comedy), karunam (sorrowful compassion), raudram (fury), veeram (valour) bhayaanakam (fearsome), bheebhatsam (disgust), adbhutam(wonder) and shaantam (serene, calm) -- properly enacted, keep audiences spellbound through the night of flickering oil lamps. But an epic does not have epochal characters and Nair has deliberately decided that her characters are not larger than life. Even Koman, the Kathakali veshakaaran (player) a man of many masks but without the colour of the masks, is a pale, indecisive personality.   Mistress is a novel which at one level looks at the turbulence in the lives of Radha and Shyam, a couple who are close relatives,with all the baggage of large families where dependency breeds strong emotions. Shyam, a self made enterpreneur who has been humiliated as a boy and youth by his uncle, gains a sense of power when he is rushed into a marriage with his cousin Radha, who gets pregnant from an affair with a married colleague. After marraige, power shifts and yet Radha feels trapped in an unhappy marraige, made more difficult by Shyam’s low sperm count, which means the couple have no children.   Enter Chris, a cello playing American writer-journalist, who becomes a presence in Shyam’s resort by the river Nila and has an affair with Radha. Chris himself has come to probe indirectly whether he is the son of Koman, ...

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