Anita Nair's Mistress is written rendition of the traditional Indian dance form kathakali. American Chris Stewart comes into two lives. Radha is emotionally distanced and more than a bit contemptuous of her husband, Shyam; Chris has come to interview Radha's Uncle Koman, who was once a famous kathakali dancer. Both Koman and Radha feel an immediate connection to Stewart. The young woman must choose whether to stay in her marriage or to flaunt custom and risk the shunning of her society to find what she perceives as true love.
Nothing is ever so simple, of course. Koman's life as a dancer and his own later bittersweet life unfold and intertwine with the younger actors in their life's performance. Nair invokes the nine emotions (navarasas) or facial expressions to break the story into poignant chapters: sringaaram (love), haasyam (contempt), karunam (sorrow), raudram (fury), veeram (courage), bhayaanakam (fear), beebhalsam (disgust), adbhutam (wonder) and shaantam (peace). For example, Nair compares sorrow (karunam) to the movement of coconut milk: "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." Shyam might be the best example of sorrow, his rather hoary, unlovely personality surrounding the sweetness of his devotion to his wife.
Radha is by turns spirited, stubborn, and spoiled. Nair injects equal amounts of likeabilty and self-destructiveness into this character. Chris, on the other hand, is a bit one-dimensional, eager to fall into the arms of India and Radha while pursuing his own secretive agenda. At first portrayed as manipulative and a bit boorish, Shyam is revealed to be the most complex character of the three, a shy poet who deeply loves Radha and is tormented by her indifference.
The true richness of the story belongs to Koman and his pursuit of excellence as a kathakali performer. His protector is his parakeet, Malini, who watches over him like a jealous lover. Even in his old age, Koman pursues his own mistress, finding comfort and no less passion than that of Radha and Chris, but perhaps one more comfortable with human failings.
This is a performance and a book that will not be easily laid aside or soon forgotten.