Now that I have your attention let me tell you that Anita Nair might very well be my favourite Indian writer and I’m quite shocked this book didn’t do better because it’s very hard to find any serious flaw in it.
Here is a story of Radha, Shyam and Chris, a love triangle that feels refreshingly real and authentic. You can’t help but notice a certain cynicism with which Nair presents the romantic affairs of mortals, born out of hormones and boredom. This cynicism is absent in the narrative when the subject of love is art, in this instance the art of kathakali whose ‘facial expressions’/ basica emotions (navarasams) provide the structure to the novel.
It starts with Sringaaram – Love:
"Love. Let us begin with sringaaram. Do we know other words for it? Or do we know it by the widening of the eye, the arching of eyebrows, the softness of the mouth that curves, by that swelling of breath from each nerve-end wanting to cup a contour?
We have words for this flooding that can sweep away all other thoughts. Pleasure, longing, lust… we call it by so many names. It is human to do so. To give a name to everything and everybody, to classify and segregate. For only then we can measure the extent of this need to know, to conquer, to hold this wondrous being, this creature that suffuses every moment with a strange and inexplicable yearning."
And it ends with Shaantam – Peace:
"Shaantam. How do we depict peace? What do we school our features into? Shaantam is not a face devoid of expression. Shaantam is not the absence of muscle movement. Shaantam is not turning yourself into a catatonic being. […] Is it the stillness of the hour before dawn in a summer month, when a thin line of light appears on the horizon? The sky and so is the earth. The birds are still asleep and even the breeze is reined in by the heat that waits. There is a stillness to that hour that you can learn from. Rein in all thoughts. Calm your mind. Feel the stillness within your being."
In a way this is the story it tells. Of a tumultuous journey to achieve peace. The journey taken by Shyam, the rejected husband, Radha, the longing-for-something-else wife and even Koman, Radha’s uncle – the master of kathakali - an art form that's a difficult mistress. It takes years of excruciating practice to perfect, but the final product can only be appreciated by a knowledgeable few.
‘Mistress’ is also about what it means to be an artist and how an artist can find peace without losing the fire that adds the edge to their art.
This book is utterly beautiful and I urge you to read it. It offers so much more than its ‘romance-in-exotic-setting’ sort of cover would have you think.