Friday, 6 April 2012

Writing: Anita Nair's 'The Better Man'

(Note: This interview appeared in the Hindustan Times in 2000)

Let’s look at the near future, to begin with. That’s when Bangalore-based Anita Nair’s first novel, The Better Man, makes its debut as a hardback in the Picador USA select list for Spring 2000. Her predecessors in this exclusive literary company include Quarantine by Jim Crace, And When Did You Last See Your Father? by Blake Morrison, and Difficulties of a Bridegroom by Ted Hughes.

Penguin Books India launched 34-year-old Nair’s book in Bangalore on January 18, to a chorus of praise from the local literati. She is the only Indian writer based in India to be on the Picador USA list.
The Better Man unfolds in the imaginary town of Kaikurissi in the Malabar area that Anita Nair has always loved. Her bonding with northern Kerala is almost atavistic. The locale spells idyllic summer vacations at her grandparents’ house at Shoranur, her two years at a Kerala college and memories of her parents and brother, now based there.

Mukundan, a retired government servant who is the unlikely hero of the novel, returns reluctantly to his ancestral home. Can he cope with the cauldron of emotions within him? He does, with a little help from friends like One-screw-loose Bhasi, a painter of walls who doubles as a herbal healer. Will Mukundan dare to walk out of the shadow of his overbearing father? Or to fall in love with the married schoolteacher Anjana? Can he deal with the conniving Power House Ramakrishnan? Is Mukundan man enough to be trusted by those who give him their hearts? That’s the novel in a nutshell.

Anita Nair is a mistress of minutiae. She details every plant and pedestrian footprint, every clay urn and uruli in Kaikurussi, all the banter at the village tea shop. The blood of her characters courses through the reader’s veins, the heat and dust of their milieu is palpable, her plot has the reassuring rhythm of real life.

Colours streak through her dazzling imagery, devoid of pyrotechnics. For Nair paints in her spare time. The conversations she etches are cadenced with everyday notes. For her inner ear is trained by Carnatic vocal lessons during her growing years in Chennai, and the piano she’s learning to play today. Her nuanced prose is disciplined by her other life, as a part-time creative director at Mass Advertising in Bangalore.

Anita Nair published her first collection of short stories Satyr Of The Subway And Eleven Other Stories in 1997. Gentleman magazine described it as “writing by a woman who is only secondarily concerned with her gender and the like.” Her literary world, then and now, scans its protagonists off the dust tracks of existence.

R K Narayan is an icon to her, for “he gives little things great meanings.” And she was moved by British fiction writer Paul Bailey, who once said “if 20 readers understood what he’s written, that was good enough.” Nair adds, “That made sense to me. It gave me the courage to write the way I want to.”
Nair confesses that she jots down character summaries, personality quirks and significant sentences in a little notebook that accompanies her everywhere. She first drafts her prose on an A-4 size notebook “because of a bad shoulder”, and later fine tunes it on her computer. 

On her mantlepiece, in a living room rich with Kerala artefacts, is a blue postcard from the community reading room of her parents’ village, congratulating their native daughter on her achievement. “I just find it very quaint, being recognised as a respectable member of the community,” she giggles. 

Here are excerpts from a conversation with her the day after the release of her book in Bangalore: 

When you set this novel in Kerala, did you escape to a world that was partly real, partly imaginary?

I love to be in Kerala, but I’ll never be able to live there. So, I created an imaginary village that I would escape to every day. Even now, I go to Kerala often. My husband’s a Malayalee, so he’s got family there. I’m not writing about an alien place. For me, right now if I were to write about Bangalore, I wouldn’t be able to. For some strange reason, my family’s heavily into folklore. They all have very visual imaginations, so everything is spelt out very clearly.

Was there a major turning point as you worked on The Better Man since 1996?

Well, One-screw-loose Bhasi didn’t exist until I was halfway through the book. After the short story collection, when I went back to the novel, it just didn’t seem right. Am I just chronicling a village, I asked myself. Big deal! (Laughs) At that point, I was working with an ayurvedic client. I thought: maybe I should use this stuff, it’s interesting. Then this character emerged. I went back and wrote the first chapter. Then, I had to weave him into all the other chapters.

All your characters are ordinary people, leading everyday lives.

I’ve never believed in heroic heroes. We only look at people when they achieve something. I know people who’re extraordinary, but who lead quiet lives. So, whatever I write is not going to be about larger-than-life characters. Probably they would have quirks that would make them misfits, but they’d be ordinary people. When I was growing up, I used to think my dad was very boring because he didn’t do anything unusual. He worked in the tank factory outside Madras.

My mom’s side has this bohemian, creative streak. All my uncles were painting, or living abroad. After a while, I realised that my father was, ultimately, what a human being should be when you look beyond the external manifestations.

Do you see Kaikurissi growing into a constant in your future works?

Oh, yes, I have this trilogy planned. (Giggling) I finished this book and thought: I still have so much more to write about this village. If it’s not this village, it will be the next village. But that area, that lifestyle, that culture.

Do you feel disadvantaged, writing about small-town India in a non-traditional language?

You know, I wish I could write in Malayalam. It lends itself so easily to lyricism. There’s great scope for description. But I can’t, so the next best thing to do is to write in English. I speak Malayalam fluently, read it, but I can’t write it.

How does it feel to be in distinguished company in the Picador family?

I admire Blake Morrison very much. I’m so glad I read And When Did You Last See Your Father? only now. Because there are some parts of it that are so much like my book that if I’d read it earlier, I wouldn’t have written my book at all. And I like Jim Crace. Ted Hughes, I don’t know, though I liked whatever I read of Birthday Letters.

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