It has recently been released a new Italian edition of The Better Man, (Un uomo migliore, Guanda, 2010) the first novel by the Indian writer Anita Nair. It was this the work that introduced me to Anita Nair’s art and made me love her first as a writer and, later, as a dear friend.
Her first novel as I said, but not her first book. That was the short story collection Satyr of the Subway. So, The Better Man is a transition between her first published work and the international bestseller Ladies Coupé. Still, in this novel, all is already there: the magic, the elegance of her style, the depth of her writing, the fascination and the vastness of her literary world, even if compressed in a small Kerala village.
The story is set in the little, imaginary village of Kaikurussi, in Kerala, the state where Nair was born and that permeates her poetic and evocative writing. In the past, Kerala was part of a region known as Malabar.
Malabar is no more but, like Anita Nair says, it is still a state of mind, a powerful feeling, arising from a longing for the past, a denial of the future, but also from a silent sense of unhappiness.
Kaikurussi is a village in the middle of nowhere, where nothing remarkable is to be found, where no great man was ever born, where even the road comes to an end, leading to nowhere. Just fields and hills. And souls.
In the first pages, the reader is directly addressed by Bhasi, the housepainter, speaking in the first person. He is the only character in the novel, whom we can connect with immediately, as a direct link to the heart of the narrative, and we are able to do so, thanks to this intimate relationship that his being an “I” sets right from the start.
In fact, Bhasi is the very heart of the plot, the deus ex machina, that will set off the many changes. So, he is, right from the start, an off-screen voice, the voice of the village conscience. Yet, he is inside the story, partaking of this double nature: a character and the motive; part of the village and an outsider. And this will be very clear at the end.
Bhasi has taken refuge in this far away place, running away from his past as a university lecturer and from a secret. Hiding his very self from the world. Nobody knows about his past; to the village he is “One-screw-loose- Bhasi”. But he is a healer too. He heals crumbling walls and sore souls, aching bodies and rotting plasters. He knows herbs and techniques, he has his own bizarre methods, mixing fithotherapy, psycology, magic and homeopathy. And his desperate need to be needed, to be loved, to be accepted. This is why, in his obscure life, he feels that something great will happen one day, something that will give him “a reason to exist”. He’s waiting for it. And destiny will bring that reason to him: Mukundan.
Mukundan Nair is a man with folded wings, like the handkerchieves he meticously folds into eight parts. A man oppressed by endless fears and doubts, not well certain of who he is, crushed by a vicious, dictatorial father since he was a child.
He is a retired government official and is back to Kaikurussi because has no other place to go.
And the meeting of these two men, so different from each other, so necessary to each other, is an extraordinary meeting. The story of a deep healing and of a rebirth, of a spiritual healing and deep transformation, will go through a terrible betrayal: that of Mukundan, who will discover, in the end, that he is not better man than his father. In order to gain his place among the leading people of the small village, he deceives his friend and benefactor; he forces Bhasi to sell his house for almost nothing, so that the pompous and bossy Power House Ramakrishnan will build a useless Community Hall.
The fictious village of Kaikurussi, with its exraordinary characters, with the ghostly presences, where all the clash between the old and the new India creates subterranean currents of discontent and uneasiness, with its undercurrent of myths, magic and mystery, is actually all the world.
And, the end of the novel is no less suprising, impressive and unexpected than the novel itself. The loosing of that knot, heavier than a boulder, requires a blast. A real one.
I’ve always thought that this explosion, this destruction of the Community Hall by hand of Mukundan, it was a symbolic explosion of a world suspended between past and present, unable to find an answer. Not an immediate one, not an easy one. So you can do only one thing: step out.
It is true, Mukundan destroys what had been Bhasi’s betrayal tangible and symbolic object. But, does he ask himself what will happen next?
Will then Mukundan find eventually the courage to break free from himself, to become a better man than his father? A man?
Anita Nair’s language is as light as it is powerful, as evocative as it is full of magic, ironic and humourous and full of drama. So limpid that you can see the darkness peeping behind.
I was given this novel to read 11 years ago, when Anita Nair was not yet the worldknown author she is now and still very young. I couldn’t believe that this mature and knowing portrait of the human soul could have been written by such a young writer. The emotion was very strong, right from page one. It was Anita Nair’s Italian debut, the book I love most.
Like it had happened for all her books, translating it was pure joy,a deep emotion and it seemed to me so easy, so natural, to find an Italian form that would render in full her style and voice. A voice that is now heard by milions of readers.
(C) Copyright by Francesca Diano