Mistress by Anita Nair depicts the art of Kathakalli, a dying classical dance form in the southern state of Kerala in India through a narrative tale of the lives of a dancer and his relatives. The story is centered on Koman, a dancer of yesteryear, his niece Radha and her boorish husband Shyam a self made man. Chris, an Englishmen who has come to write a story on Koman falls for Radha who is more than willing to escape her stifled life.
The stories are told through each of the character’s views. We understand why Shyam and Radha are the way they are and why they react to certain situations. It is difficult to side with either.
Radha and Chris’s attraction is too sudden. Radha has a hidden past and her marriage to Shyam was more out of convenience that love. Shyam is a successful entrepreneur who has had the bitter taste of poverty but now takes pride in his name brand cars and watches. The only possession that he cannot truly own is his own wife and one cannot help feel pity for him but as the story unwinds a debate can be had as if this pity was justified. Shyam owns the resort and when he heard about the story being written about Koman, he had invited Chris to be his guest a discounted rate. His agenda is for Chris to write about the resort in his stories about the Koman thus giving the holiday resort publicity abroad.
Koman takes his time to tell his story to Chris, all in bits and pieces. His life story is captivating. He tells his story from the beginning for his roots to be understood. Sethu is his father who ran away from home and reached the shores of Chennai nearly drowned by the sea. He wakes up delirious and is saved by Christian nurses. To ensure his medical care he tells them his name is Seth. Seth then is taken under the wings of the opinionated Dr. Samuel who teaches him the basics of medicine. In return Seth must show he is a good Christian, he memorizes the Bible and learns to cite the passages as appropriate times.
Young Seth falls in love and marries Saadiya, a Muslim girl, out casting both of them, him from the Christian doctor and her from her orthodox family. Arabipatnam is colony whose Arab descendants had come to India from Egypt for the promotion of trade. They segregated themselves to keep their descendents of pure Arab blood. The women of the colony are not allowed to leave their courtyard as they are not to show their face to men other than their immediate relatives. Seth goes with the trusted Dr. Samuel inside the colony to give medical treatment and accidentally sees Saadiya. With great protest from the community as well Dr. Samuel they marry. Koman is their son.
Dr. Samuel warns them that love which has no common thread, no family and no religion
cannot last very long. Both Seth and Saadiya realize this too late. Saadiya dies and Koman is left with no mother. The Christian nurses raise him for the first 10 years of his life before he begins a new life with his father and his new wife. His liking for dance follows and he becomes a master in his field.
There are several intricate stories and the reading from the character’s point of view helps in relating to that character. Debates and discussions can be had on whose actions were correct. The Kathakalli dance stories get a bit monotonous but overall a must read.