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Mistress of tales finely told

Anita Nair talks about her love affair with Kerala, her craft and being a housewife

People who write in English in India are orphaned children of nowhere


WRITE STUFF Anita Nair holds forth on men, women and writing

A shadowy figure of a foreigner with a cello, alighting at the sleepy, unchanged Shornur station was the only image that writer Anita Nair had when she set on to pen her latest novel, Mistress. Just two fleeting years of a `live-in relationship' with Kerala and a few visits, it is but Kerala that looms large in her psyche. Kerala is her source, her inspiration, her weakness and her strength.

Its villages, art forms, ayurveda, dance-drama, monsoons, coconuts, elephants, jackfruits all form the backdrop of her novels where local characters rise and fall to her dexterous storyline and plot. Stories that have caught the imagination of readers worldwide.

This Bangalore-based writer did two months of intensive research on Kathakali at Kalamandalam that forms the matrix of her latest work. "The world of Kathakali is like a Masonic world. The moment you get your foot into it you go deeper and deeper. I was sure I did not want to write a coffee table book about Kathakali. The best way was to incorporate a story into it." And so was born Mistress.

Being a part of and still remaining detached from a world studied carefully through "observation and imagination," Anita said, "I have this strong ability to stand out and see the world." Which one of her characters is her favourite? "From all my works it's Shyam from Mistress. He is the most interesting one because all what I detest in a man, I made him out to be... . But I redeemed him later on. I gave him a dimension that no one expects." ... And her women? "Traditionally our women our projected as doormats. This image is re-emphasized on TV serials. It is giving the woman a kind of template of how to behave. Contemporary Indian woman has to cope with tradition, with being a good wife, mother, and daughter. But the Indian male wants her to place her desires on the backburner. I can't think of many men who can smile after a gruelling day at work." Her female characters, like the five in Ladies Coupe, to Radha in Mistress and the rest are all prototypes of Indian women. She says, "Indian women have a core of steel that does not rust or corrode. They are like silk knots." But "can a woman remain single and be happy?" a question Anita asks in Ladies Coupe. And like a typical woman she replies with a question. "It is the role of a writer to ask questions. At least ask the question that nobody else is daring to ask?"

And so she asks questions in terms of situations, the angst of a lover, the guilt of a woman living off her desires, the guilt of a man failing in his duties, the responsibility on a breadwinner, the inadequacies of the traditional family set up, adultery, lust, and love. Anita questions, and questions boldly. Her characters stand up tall even in their weak moments. They become personalities despite the failings. Character delineation is her forte.

"For me it's crucial. I am character driven. For me it is the joy of creating these parallel worlds." And though creating parallel worlds come easy to her she is afraid to belong to her own world of writers. "I still find it very hard to say I am a writer, that I belong to this heaving bulwark of Indian Writing in English. People who write in English in India are orphaned children of nowhere. We don't have a literary culture of writing in English. It is so elitist." And not surprisingly she finds resonance with readers abroad who read her works in translation. But in India, "I don't know who my readers are. I don't get a sense of what your writing means," she says expressing her fears.

Away from the world of writing she revels in her role as a homemaker. "I'm a manic housewife. I wash the leaves of the houseplants, I polish the furniture and I bake," and so when does she write? "You know when your hands are busy your mind is free to wander," she says and agrees that though writing comes to her quite effortlessly, "thinking does not." The four years that she spent on research and to pen Mistress has, she says taken a lot out of her.

And now? "I want to try my hand at drama, at dramatic monologues. I want to write a funny book when I am finished with all this bleakness. My writing has a life of its own to quote Maradona, `the hand of God.'"

And so it's football for her family and for her too, as she spends time travelling, reading and baking cakes. "Baking involves precision. I bake chocolate cake for my son but my favourites are lemon cake and Austrian coffee cake." Away from the limelight she finds solace in her roots, in her quiet village of Mundakotukurussi with her parents, "where there is no angst of any sort."


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