Anita Nair’s third novel, Mistress, is set in a riverside resort in Kerala, south India, among the artists and dancers of the kathakali dramatic art form. Into this intense and insular world appears an outsider, Christopher Stewart, a charismatic travel writer who has come to Kerala to interview the famous dancer Koman. As the two men discuss Koman’s life and the development of his craft, Stewart is increasingly attracted to Koman’s niece, Radha, a relationship complicated by the fact that she is already married to Hyam.
The story of this love triangle is told from the overlapping first-person viewpoints of these central characters and, with its structure of three ‘books’ of three sections each, the narrative mirrors the arc of a kathakali performance, in all its colour, drama and heightened emotions. As a meditation on how the past influences our decisions and destiny and how art is forged from personal experience, Mistress could have been a worthy but weighty read. It is wholly redeemed by the author’s infectious passion for kathakali and its performers and her lightness of touch when it comes to intimate human relationships. This is a sensitive and nuanced work which makes a persuasive case for the continuing relevance of this ancient art form in modern India. Anita Nair deserves high praise for her willingness to tackle the big themes of meaning and desire in art and in life.Peter Whittaker