Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Better Man by Anita Nair

Having just retired from a very modest and unimpressive career, fifty-nine year old Mukundan has returned to Kaikurussi, the village where he grew up under the oppressive thumb of his domineering father, Achuthan. Achuthan, now eighty-nine, is just as much of a bully as ever and lives with his mistress' daughter in a house just across the street from Mukundan's childhood home. Despite the occasional bombast Mukundan is as weak-willed as ever, as he belatedly starts trying to assert himself.

Kaikurussi is a fictional town, but its location is very precisely described: it's in the Malabar area of Kerala, in the vicinity of such cities as Kannur and Kozhikode. Jenna and I have been to that area of India, so I was able to feel a bit of pleasure as Nair's characters mentioned places that I had a modicum of familiarity with.

There are points in Anita Nair's episodic novel The Better Man where Mukundan's story almost seems like a loose framing device for the individual stories of Kaikurussi's people. R. K. Narayan is an obvious influence. Nair shows much more willingness than Narayan to delve into the dark side of small-town Indian society, though, as both small-time corruption and harassment of untouchables play a large part in the story.

Mukundan's story comes back to the forefront in the latter half, as events push the protagonist towards a point where he has to make a decision about what kind of person he is going to be. I'm not sure I liked the ending, which I thought was effective only if you don't think about what happens next.

The Better Man is the first of what'll be four consecutive India-themed books I'm reading. My bookshelves are full of Indian stuff, and I'd like to make my way through it.

No comments: