There was a reason I have never read Anita Nair. When I first heard of Ladies Coupe (Penguin India, 2001) in 2002, I was interested firstly by the fact that a relatively young woman had written a book that was being widely talked about. I was also interested because I saw her picture and envied her for her curly hair and high cheekbones (yes, I’ve been brainwashed into the marketing ideal of beauty). But I took a look at the book on one of my trips to Landmark (on Nungambakkam High Road, not Spencer Plaza) and was disappointed.
The thing was, some two years before, I’d just devoured Eats, Shoots and Leaves by the fantastic punctuation-nazi Lynne Truss and fallen in love with it. I knew when I was losing friends rapidly that I was using the book as my friend, philosopher, guide way too much. People around me couldn’t as much hum without me saying a comma was missing. Anyway, as always I digress. So if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I have against Ladies Coupe (how the hell do I get that accent mark on e?)
For those of you who haven’t read it, let me explain. Truss has very cutting style and is truly one of those geniuses who can write an instruction-type book and make it funny. One of the first and best examples of what she means in her book is the film title ‘Two Weeks Notice’, the one with whatsisteeth and Sandra Bullock, (who, by the way, should never be allowed anywhere near a camera unless she wants to clean it.)
Truss says the title should have been punctuated thus — Two Weeks’ Notice. Because, as we all know, Bullock is giving her boss a notice of two weeks. Which means there should be an apostrophe. And because it is plural, the apostrophe goes after the S. Otherwise what does Two Weeks Notice mean?
I have the same problem with ‘Ladies Coupe’. I can forgive it when I see ‘Ladies’ on train compartments. Most of those who stencil those things in couldn’t care about grammar or punctuation. But when you are a writer, writing in English, and I assume thinking in it as well, you just cannot be forgiven for a book that’s entitled wrongly. ‘Ladies’ Coupe’ is what it should have been. (Compartment would have been perfect but hey, that’s her wish, whereas punctuation is not.) She didn’t miss putting that accent on Coupe, did she? Most of us who have pretensions of correct pronunciation would have managed saying it ‘coupay’ without the accent on e. But she didn’t forget that. She forgot the apostrophe.
Since then Nair has been someone I sneered at and looked at derisively in that judgmental way I have. I’ve never picked up a book written by her.
However, the last week found me desperately seeking some reading matter other than my newspaper, my crochet pattern book and a giant book of bedtime stories and rhymes — as much as I enjoy all three. Who doesn’t like a bedtime story? I found a copy of ‘Mistress’ on the bookshelf. A quick synopsis for the interested (courtesy Nair’s very bad website).
“When travel writer Christopher Stewart arrives at a riverside resort in Kerala to meet Koman, Radha’s uncle and a famous kathakali dancer, he enters a world of masks and repressed emotions. From their first meeting, both Radha and her uncle are drawn to the enigmatic young man with his cello and his incessant questions about the past. The triangle quickly excludes Shyam, Radha’s husband, who can only watch helplessly as she embraces Chris with a passion that he has never been able to draw from her. Also playing the role of observer-participant is Koman; his life story, as it unfolds, captures all the nuances and contradictions of the relationships being made–and unmade–in front of his eyes.
A brilliant blend of imaginative story-telling and deeply moving explorations into the search for meaning in art and life, Mistress is a literary tour de force from one of India’s most exciting writers.“
Nair is a very smart woman. Look at the elements — adultery, Kathakali, a cello, a white man in Kerala and a river. How can one ignore a book that claims to include all of these? So Kathakali and adultery did their magic on me and I went for that over a rereading of A Cook’s Tour (Anthony Bourdain).
I must say, at this point, that having read the first couple of pages, I discovered the reason she is so successful — it is because she is a superb storyteller.
As I read, I kept asking myself if I have lost eight good years of reading because of my judgmental nature. Had I gotten to her earlier, would I have read more, hence known more, hence gone on to writing more? I felt a sense of being unfair towards this author who I had dismissed because I was anal about punctuation. (I still am but not as bad as I was.)
For, honestly, right from the word go, she had me gripped. Her characters were full and raw, her description of people a tad romantic and adolescent but engaging all the same. Just like a good storyteller would do it. My blogosphere (excuse me, please) friend Judy Balan (see blog roll for link. Oh, hell, ok, just click here, lazy farts) had a pretty accurate and fairly succinct detailing of the difference between Writer and Storyteller, which for some reason, I can’t find now. So I read with a sinking stomach the words of a born storyteller.
I knew why Nair would never ever find pride of place on my bookshelf. (Moments like these justify the title of my blog.)
Here’s why. Those of you who have read the book, please go back and read what I am talking about. Those of you who haven’t, I am posting from work and was disorganised enough to not bring the book with me so that I could write out the scene for more clarity. In the light of such circumstances, you’ll have to make do with what I have here. Or just stop reading and come back tomorrow when I can edit this post to include the bit from the book verbatim.
So, said white man Chris has gotten off the train somewhere near Shoranur, Palakkad districit, Kerala, India. Radha is immediately attracted to him and his cello. Shyam, her husband, is insecure. I can’t understand the relevance of using the device of calling this highly-mismatched couple Radha and Shyam. Another strike against Nair, as far as I am concerned.
They get to the resort that the couple owns and Shyam (in what we can assume are his country bumpkin ways) asks Chris what the instrument is. Chris says its a cello. I presume, because he is an Englishman he knows that the word is pronounced ‘chello’ and not ‘sello’ as we in India would call it if we didn’t know better.
Shyam: That’s a sello? Come to the restaurant, we’ll show you our sellos. Laughs. (Referring to the brand of hot cases that we have in India called, you guessed it, Cello)*
Can you understand why I trusted my instinct about Anita Nair and haven’t ever read her? No? Let me try and explain without the asinine pronunciation-spellings and terrible paraphrasing.
Chris said ‘cello’ but would have pronounced it the way it is supposed to have been. So, listening to that, there is no way that Shyam would have thought of his Cello hot cases in the restaurant. Because, like Shyam if you don’t know what a cello (the instrument, not the hot case) looks like, then chances are you don’t know how it’s pronounced or spelt. Which means, in Nair’s head Chris pronounced cello as sello, which is why Shyam thought of his humble hot cases and made a really bad joke.
Or I am a complete idiot and Shyam — as well as the rest of India — pronounces Cello (the hot case brand, not the instrument) as chello and I am the only one who calls it sello.
* Paraphrased heavily because I don’t have the book.