Review of Anita Nair's 'Alphabet Soup for Lovers' in THE QUINT Print
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Thursday, 26 May 2016 11:48
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By Anita Nair

Publisher: Harper Collins India

Price: Rs. 350

Unlike Anita Nair's other work, there's an air of unreality floating around this novel. Her previous books have taken us right into rattling train carriages (Ladies Coupe) and the darkness of a bedroom in which a young woman lies in a coma (Lessons in Forgetting). There was also a work of historical fiction (Idris, Keeper of the Light) which followed the adventures of a Somalian traveller in 17th century Malabar. More recently, Nair trawled the criminal underbelly of Bengaluru with a policeman called Inspector Gowda (Cut Like Wound) in what could be described as an excursion into genre writing from her usual territory of literary fiction.

Having also written for children and produced some fine pieces of travel writing, this is a writer who never fails to surprise and is consequently difficult to categorise. There has however so far remained one common element in her work which is the firm hook always maintained on the real and the credible. With her new book, however, Nair once again confounds by departing from this reassuring feature. Alphabet Soup for Lovers certainly stops short of magic realism but the world in this slim and beautifully produced & illustrated volume appears shimmering mirage-like, mundane concerns around marriage and love, even the ordinary everyday preoccupations of a kitchen, all viewed through kind of dream-like haze. The sense conveyed to the reader is of being taken so far out of the frame that the picture before us is not unlike the deliberate blurs and smudges of Impressionism.

Lena Abraham, living in a remote plantation house in the Annamalai hills, is in a quiet unexciting marriage with KK. She does not seem particularly unhappy but the view we have of her (or, for that matter, of KK) does not come via Nair's customary direct & unflinching gaze but instead through the eyes of Komathi, Lena's cook and maid of many years. The blue-green peace of this hillside home shifts almost imperceptibly at first when an unexpected guest turns up at Lena's home-stay cottage in the form of Shoola Pani, a South Indian film superstar. Komathi is too sharp not fail to spot the change that overcomes Lena within a matter of hours of Shoola Pani’s arrival and it is the chill of her apprehension that the reader feels. As Lee and Ship (the names given to each other by the lovers) embark on a tenuous relationship, we are thankfully spared even the remotest hint of authorly judgement but, watching them through the prism of Komathi’s unhappy gaze, we fail to see enough of their own motivations, hopes and fears.

Komathi's own story is in some ways the more textured and dramatic one, her past gradually revealed in short intervening chapters which - like the alphabet soup of the title - takes us on a journey that an uneducated woman must make as she begins to understand and memorise letters through the foods they stand for and the things they symbolise (‘Sometimes I think uzunthu is a lot like hope. When the days stretch pointlessly ahead, the only thing that can give it some meaning is hope rising to the surface.’)

In charting the story of the gradual unravelling of a marriage, it seems curious not to get the views of the people directly involved. But perhaps the point of Lee’s and Ship’s romance is to provide a foil for the disappointment and regret that Komathy has had to live with all her life. It is her, in fact, that the reader is rooting for as the lovers grab at their chance for love. The character of the cuckolded KK is too lightly sketched for sympathy to flow but it may have been worthwhile nevertheless to see some examination of conscience on the part of the lovers, if for nothing else than to allow the reader to invest emotionally in their future. That Nair chose additionally to use the figure of a film star – already privileged by fame and wealth – to cast in the role of Lena’s lover made for a further distancing element and, of course, a happy ending for the already fortunate is far more difficult to pull off than a tragic one.

The feature that shines most brightly through the book is food and this Nair pulls off with style and aplomb, explaining and deconstructing and displaying the simplest of South Indian ingredients with the deft strokes of an artist. While food has been used many times before as a metaphor for life and love, in Nair’s hands even the commonest kitchen ingredients are raised to mystical and mouthwatering levels.

Jaishree Misra is the author of eight novels published by Penguin & Harper Collins

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