2006_08_13_mist.jpgLove, contempt, sorrow. Fury, valour, fear. Disgust, wonder, detachment. Often indirectly, these are at the center of every novel ever written. But in Anita Nair’s latest, Mistress, they are more than vague themes on which to rest surly or glorious characters. They are the Navarasa – the main facial expressions of Kathakali – and the stage on which she rests her entire novel.

Kathakali is an ancient form of expressive dance in India, and the inspiration for Nair’s story. It is an art form, using music and expressive acting and dance to convey the greatest Hindu stories. And it’s the backbone of her characters, the river running through her novel. Koman is a vesham, an actor of Kathakali, and in his old age he is visited by Christopher Stewart, an English writer who wants to hear the life story of Koman and his dance. Koman’s neice, Radha, is drawn to Chris, away from her unfulfilling marriage to Shyam. Nair’s narrative leaps between these four, and into Koman’s past as well. The novel is literally divided by the Navarasas, each new chapter starting with a lyrical explanation of the emotion, the expression, that will reign over our little cast of players. Nair describes Karunam (sorrow):

You can sense it when you shake a tender coconut and hold it to your ear. It is there in the lapping of the coconut water as it slops this way and that between the curves of soft inner flesh … the fluid ways of sorrow.

She uses these interludes to back away from her characters, from the act of fictional storytelling entirely, and into your living room. It is the first clue that Kathakali – not the romance of Chris and Radha, nor the aging reflection of Koman – is the true hero of Nair’s story. Like Kundera with his endless philosophizing about the nature of vertigo while his characters sleep fitfully through their betrayals and heartache, Nair’s abrupt sectioning of her tale speaks volumes about her aim with the novel. This is a novel about Kathakali – about emotion, expression, repression, about using art as a medium to disseminate life into an understandable tableau.

Which is a pity. Because her story is still strong, even if it does get treated like the Salieri to Kathakali’s Mozart. Radha is a stubbornly difficult woman and Nair does her tantrums and irascibility justice – even the exalted and soft-focus love affair she so craves with Chris doesn’t shield us from the careless self-destruction and unhappiness that radiates from her, furrowed brow almost visible between the lines. Koman’s magically-infused and complex recollections drag quite a bit but his present-day observation of his niece are tender and fragile, his gradual recovery from artist to man is promising and well-crafted. But it is Shyam, boorish and calculating in Koman and Radha’s eyes, that most sings with singular personality and complexities. The greatest web that Nair spins is the reticent poet of Shyam’s inner self compared to the clipped and arrogant preening he comes across as to others. This is drama, human conflict, foibles and resolution.

But that glimmer of humanity gets its wings clipped in Mistress, for favor of the soaring and dramatic descriptions of the dance. Perhaps the tradition, the powerful effect, the exhibition of Kathakali, seduced Nair away from her great storytelling strength. It wouldn’t be the first time that an art form or brave pursuit so entranced a novelist that he created characters simply as vessels for an intoxicating ode to that art. Hemingway with his bullfights, or his hunting, comes to mind.

Even if the Kathakali is worth the epic stature that Nair gives it – and it doubtless is – trimming fascinating characters into mere tools is an injustice to Nair’s storytelling flair. Radha and Chris (and the tortures of their attraction) start out as plump and juicy veins to mine, but fizzle and flatten too quickly. Koman’s slow retirement from his art, his tentative steps into his own skin, deserve more than Nair grants them. And Shyam, who so startles with his rich inner voice, is almost cut off mid-sentence, doomed to one moment of revelation before Nair finishes the novel.

If art is a jealous mistress, then Nair was seduced by her. But those glimmers of real human frailty and conflict are worth the abrupt jolts and showy extravagance of Kathakali. The story offstage will always be more interesting.