The Beaten Path

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MISTRESS
by Anita Nair. St. Martin’s Griffin, August 2006. Paperback, 428 pages. $14.95.

Anita Nair’s third novel, Mistress, is unlike The Better Man (2000) andLadies Coupé (2001) in a number of ways. Nair is a lush writer, steeped in the smells, sights, and sounds of the India that she sets her novels in. In Mistress southern India is portrayed as the beautiful place that it is, and the conflict inherent there immediately establishes the classic conflict between East and West: To whom does one owe loyalty—the self or family and community? What are the consequences of fulfilling one’s desires?

Radha is an attractive woman married to Shyam, who treats her as a breakable object, ancillary to him and to his role as entrepreneur, businessman, and provider. That he is barely able to see anything beyond its monetary worth is a source of anguish to Radha, who is looking for something more in life, but isn’t exactly sure what it is. Enter Christopher Stewart, a free-spirited scholar newly arrived from the United States, in awe of everything Indian. While he comes to spend time with the famed musician, Koman, Radha’s uncle, he finds his own desires stirred by Radha’s beauty and innocence. It is a foregone conclusion that a torrid affair will ensue, with the potential to ruin the lives of all concerned, and thus the novel loses much of its impact.

Nair weaves in kathakali, the classical dance and drama of Kerala, but rather obtrusively. So much of the time she seems to be instructing the reader ostentatiously rather than letting the performing art unfold naturally as part of the story.

The characters here, unlike those in her previous novels, are seen much too often in South Asian literature: the clueless and enthralled American; the beautiful, dutiful, and unhappy housewife; the firm and in-control Indian husband; and the great and accomplished guru. Especially because Nair is such a good storyteller, whose characterizations have always been so heartfelt and true, the stereotypical portrayals in Mistress are disappointing.

Michelle Reale is an academic librarian and a fiction writer, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

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