Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Better Man - Anita Nair

This is certainly Anita Nair's best work in my opinion. Having read her novels 'Ladies Coupe', 'Mistress', 'Lessons in Forgetting' and 'Cut Like Wound', apart from her children's stories and other writings I was truly impressed by her perspective, intensity, honesty and depth in this, her first novel. Maybe that's what gets me - how did she write this story from a man's perspective and make it sound so convincing? How does she get so many things right in her first novel? The richness of her language is a given but its the insight into the characters and their motives that make 'The Better Man' a compelling read. Anita explores new paths all the time which is her greatest strength. It could also be her greatest weakness because it could well compromise her in terms of popular awards and recognition. But I'd rather she be this way, boldly exploring new themes in a most unapologetic manner which is what defines her.

Penguin India, 361 p, Rs. 399
'The Better  Man' is based in the village of Kaikurussi in Kerala. Meek Mukundan Nair, who has been and still continues to be under the domineering influence of his father Achyutan Nair, has returned to his village and his ancestral home after retiring from a public sector company in Bangalore. At fifty nine, Mukundan, a bachelor all his life, lives alone, haunted by the death of his mother who had begged him to take her faraway from the tyranny of his father. His father lives on, opposite this ancestral house with his mistress and his second family. With the helpful aide Krishnan Nair for company, Mukundan wonders how to get on with his life in this small village where the biggest events happen at Shankar's Tea Stall and nothing goes without the blessings of Power House Ramakrishnan who has won a lottery and become the richest man in town.

Enter the painter One-screw-loose Bhasi who is eccentric but who is known to have healing powers. Bhasi comes to paint Mukundan's house and ends up being his confidante, drinking partner and healer. Mukundan finds the strength to be the man he could be if he wanted, thanks to Bhasi and his unconventional therapies which include sitting in an urn. As Mukundan finds himself, he also finds love in a married woman's arms, Anjana, respect and possible fame in his acceptance on the village Committee, and starts to fantasise of how he could be a bigger and better man than his father. Caught up in the new found route to power he commits mistakes that only a weak man could, and betrays both his friend and his lover. Will  he find it in him to be a better man than his father and be the man he was supposed to be? Read 'The Better Man' to find out.

Anita Nair effortlessly brings Kaikurrissi alive. You can easily visualise the village, the tea stall, Che Kutty's booze shop, Power House Ramakrishnan's abode and his car, the various men and women who flit in and out of Mukundan's life - Kamban and Philipose, Meenakshi, Anjana and her husband Ravindran, Bhasi and his wife Damayanti. Each one of the characters come alive as multi dimensional people, as real people with real needs, and will certainly influence the way the reader sees a village in Kerala - you cannot escape them once you know them. Anita's language is poetic and adds a richness to the tale that is brilliantly told.

More than the language, the characters and the plot, what impressed me most was the way she addresses a man's deepest fears and feelings directly. It is almost as if the book is talking to you  - and that is what freaks you out because there is a Mukundan, a Bhasi, an Achyutan, a Kamban, a Philipose, a Power House Ramakrishnan and all those others within us - and she pinpoints that aspect in the reader with uncanny precision. How could she go into the unknown folds of the devious mind of men and bring that out I cannot fathom but that she does easily. So many times one feels the lines talking directly, more so when she explores the father-son angle which is always difficult for men. She goes deeper into the psyche of men, the guilt-punishment route, the lure of power and lust, the adulthood they have to contend with even when they have never fully grown up - even as old men.

And it is this feature of her writing, her sensitivity to understand the fears and doubts, the feelings and emotions that lie underneath, and her unbridled boldness to say it as it is with precise language that makes her so different and far superior to many Indian writers. Having read the few Booker prize winning stories from India, I have no doubt that 'The Better Man' easily compares in all aspects. I found it a book that was difficult to put down and despite the absence of in-your-face drama, a compelling story to read on its own which is the icing on the top. You really want to know what will happen to Mukundan and Bhasi finally. A fine read and one that I am sure most men will identify with easily (I don't know why, but I have this feeling that Anita Nair's writings may resonate more with her men readers than her women readers). Having read this, I think I might just re-read the other books as well, just to see how I view them now.  

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