Feeding on love

Feeding on love

Feeding on love

Alphabet Soup For Lovers
Anita Nair
Harper Collins
2015, pp 216, Rs 350

Anita Nair’s latest book weaves adultery and food together. Desire and its sublimation find a parallel in the quotidian cycle of hunger and satiety through food. When Lena Abraham first meets Shoola Pani Dev, she is carrying food for him.

Badam halwa and cheppankizhangu chips. Shoola Pani is a famous actor, recognisable despite having shaved his head in a bid for anonymity. He has rented Mimosa Cottage, a property belonging to Lena and her husband KK, hoping the isolated spot in a tea plantation in the Anamalai Hills will help him as he introspects about his life.

Lena has protected her heart from love, and not allowed it to the enter the equation in her marriage. ‘There’s an absence of messy emotions between them, the sort that can throw people off kilter. They don’t question and judge and this allows them to remain wedded to each other.’

KK is the sort of man who does not notice his wife’s new hairdo. Shoola Pani or Ship thinks the same thoughts as Lena or Lee. It does not take long for Lena and the famous actor, also married, to begin an affair. “A jet engine of headiness seems to hurl through him as he takes the last few steps to her door in a rush, propelled by its sheer intensity and power. And she, she opens the door just as his foot is on the first of the three steps that lead towards her door. She smiles, he smiles. In the distance thunder rumbles. In a grammar book somewhere, two active verbs collide.”

Nair is best at describing their moments of intimacy. Will they end it when he leaves Mimosa Cottage, or will they be together? The reader is prepared for either ending, since KK has been set up to be the dull if steady provider and Shoola Pani’s wife has long accepted a marriage of convenience.

Komathi, Lena’s cook is trying to memorise the English alphabet and does so by linking ingredients and letters. Her granddaughter Selvi tells her, “All you have to do is match each letter with the name of a vegetable, or a fruit, or a dish. That way you’ll never forget it.” The story unfolds as Komathi progresses from A to Z. A is for arisi, B for badam, G for godumai and F for filter kaapi, all the while observing closely the effect of the tenant on her mistress.

“I don’t know why the smell of nande bothers me so much. I have never found it so distasteful before. Perhaps because KK is away and she is here. Perhaps because I can already smell the stench of the debris that will be left when this madness is over.”

What might have been an interesting angle for a character, actually ends up being one of the more contrived parts of the book. As Komathi assigns food items to alphabets, the reader begins to ponder over the phonetics of the English language and whether or not Komathi might be better served by linking the Tamil or Malayalam alphabet to her cheppankizhangu and her thayir.

The register in which she speaks — “When Leema is making her own rules, why do I find myself unable to accept or approve?” or “You can be sure that if he does, it will be for a champion mare waiting for his sperm”, and some of her pronouncements — “Why would I want to sweat over a hot stove making laddoos when they can be bought?” juxtaposed with “So I was surprised when I came to this household and found they bought their pickles”, do not add up to a very convincing character portrayal.

There are two strands interwoven in this book, one deftly written, one not, and it is this that makes Alphabet Soup for Lovers less satisfying than Nair’s other novels.
Tulsi Badrinath

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