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THE BETTER MAN by Anita Nair

THE BETTER MAN

By Anita Nair

Pub Date: June 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-312-25311-7
Publisher: Picador

A tone of wistful melancholy and incidents both droll and poignant characterize this first novel of Indian village life, a story reminiscent of the works of R.K. Narayan.

When Mukundan returns after a 40-year absence to the village of Kaikurussi, it is not with any sense of renewal. His childhood home contains terrible memories of Mukundan’s bullying father (still alive), and he’s convinced that the ghost of his brutalized mother, dead many years, haunts the place. Mukundan may be a bachelor nearing 60, but he is as timid as a child. When he hires a local man, One-Screw-Loose Bhasi, to help him restore his house, they form a close friendship. Bhasi, a teacher and healer as well as a painter, helps Mukundan exorcise the ghosts—literal and figurative—of his childhood. Mukundan also begins an impassioned affair with an unhappily married woman, Anjana. Both relationships are put to the test when the village elite pressure Mukundan to intercede in a land dispute. The corrupt local bigwig, Power House Ramakrishnan, wants to buy Bhasi's house and land, but the painter refuses to sell. To his eventual shame, Mukundan, seduced by promises of higher standing within the community, talks Bhasi into selling. And because he fears village censure if his affair comes to light, he tries to wriggle out of his relationship with Anjana. He regains his dignity by story’s end, however, and takes the unprecedented step of defying village opinion with one climactic gesture.

Nair's prose can tend to the purple; her strength lies in gentle, keenly observed comedy rather than tearful melodrama. Overall, a warmly affecting novel whose depiction of small-town life strikes a universal chord.