Anita Nair ventures back into feminine territory with a love story set in the hills
After venturing out to sea with the tale of a Somalian trader with a jewelled eye, as well as introducing us to the very interesting Inspector Gowda, Anita Nair goes back into what is essentially the feminine zone, quite a few years after Ladies Coupe. This book is a somewhat sedate love story between Shoola Pani, a popular film star on a self-imposed retreat up in the Anamalai Hills, and his landlady Lena Abraham.
The story plays out pretty much in the manner of love stories everywhere, no real surprises here. Actually, it unspools rather than unfurls, and even as you watch the threads loosen and form big and small loops, you wonder if and how it will all return to what it was. The reader watches what is happening through the eyes of Lena’s cook and old retainer, Komathi, and her husband KK, over at the manor house of the tea gardens.
Komathi, for reasons not fully explained, wants to learn the alphabet, the English alphabet that is. And so she starts to match words and letters in a manner that makes eminent sense to her and yes, to the readers too, such as ‘A’ for arisi appalam, ‘Q’ for qollu, ‘S’ for sora and so on. Even as she is engaged in this task of literacy at the kitchen sink, she is an impassive observer of what is going on right under her nose, the illicit attraction that has sprung up between the lodger in the overseer’s cottage and Leema (a combine of Lena and amma).
Stories that use food as metaphor for life, love and anguish hold their own appeal, and this one is no exception. There is no conflagration, not much anguish or any real or imagined hand-wringing involved in this affair; the lovers pretty much go with the flow, pretending not to hear the tick of the unseen but very-much-felt clock.
The tale is peppered with dollops of kitchen wisdom but no recipes. Yet, the food-narrative device works rather well. There are some charming homilies on the preparation of dishes, like this one: “There are rules and rules about making oorkai. You mustn’t make it on a Sunday, Tuesday or Friday. You must make it before the moon disappears entirely behind the clouds on an Aamavasya night. You can’t touch theoorkai when you are menstruating. You can’t touch the pickle pot after being with a man.”
Into the mix are added bits of Komathi’s own romance. The two love stories twined together stress both caution as well as devil-may-care courage, and show that both work in their own ways. But yes, at times, Komathi’s takes sound a little too sophisticated for an unlettered soul, as does her patois. That is still palatable. The problem is that at the end of the tale, the characters all remain shadowy figures: the earthy Komathi who nurses her own heartache, KK who may or may not have cottoned on to his cuckolding, Shoola Pani, the film star, who has inner conflicts that are only hinted at, Lena, the châtelaine.
Since a food analogy is the pitfall this reviewer is willing to fall into, Alphabet Soup is rather like a light-as-air soufflé that melts in the mouth but does not leave any aftertaste, lingering or otherwise.
The illustrations by Pinaki De add a homely touch to the story. Now that Nair has got this diversionary book out of the way, we can await the next Inspector Gowda outing.
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer, manuscript editor and author based in Bengaluru.