Alphabet Soup for Lovers, Anita Nair’s most recent novel, was born when her Italian publisher commissioned her to write food-based short fiction. Since she refused to ‘write to order’, the book emerged as a slim novel built on the foundation stone of romance. However, despite its simplicity it is not an ordinary romantic tale. Nair has spiced it up with a character-cum-narrator and a sub-plot that make all the difference.
At the heart we have Lena Abraham married to the very gentlemanly KK. They live peacefully on a tea plantation in the idyll of the Anamalai Hills in south India. Komathi, their cook and Lena’s faithful guardian, begins to learn the English alphabet using the sounds of familiar cooking ingredients to help her remember the letters. As she makes progress with her lessons, she narrates the events at her employers’ home unfolding before her, accompanied by her own views and analyses. More often than not, she comes across as an astute observer. For instance, this is how she describes the relationship between the husband and wife: ‘That’s how they always are. Like two strangers in a doctor’s waiting room […] These two are like store-bought appalam. Seemingly perfect but with neither flavour nor taste.’
Incidentally, Arisi Appalam is the first of the ingredients with which she begins her alphabet journey. However, Komathi shares the space with another narrator throughout the novel — anonymous and omniscient, hence less interesting but equally significant. This voice has a perceptive comment to make on Lena and KK: ‘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.’
The tedium of their lives is interrupted by the appearance of a well-known actor on the scene. Shoola Pani Dev, an aging actor and south Indian cinema’s ‘heartthrob’, rents the homestay the couple runs, seeking refuge from his own stardom, at the tranquil site. In her first encounter with him Lena finds his behaviour offensive and confronts him with the words, ‘Are you always this rude?’ — to which his response is an apology offered with a boyish grin. This section of the novel comes across as somewhat of a cliché, though not precisely an Elizabeth-Darcy charade, since there is an instant connect between them.
Even though the lovers cannot yet understand what is transpiring between them, Komathi can read between the lines easily and quickly. When Lena returns from her routine visit to the actor in the cottage, Komathi observes a ‘gleam in her eye’. She says, ‘When she was a child, she often dipped into the honey jar with a large spoon when no one was looking […] My Lena is too old to find joy in the sticky sweetness of honey. What has she been stealing?’
Komathi’s intellectual acuity is evident here. Lena is not particularly fond of Daangar chutney (D is for Daangar chutney), yet she asks her to make it and takes it to Shoola Pani, who apparently tasted it last when his mother was still alive. The making of Daangar chutney also brings back to Komathi memories of her own unfortunate romance — that forms the parallel thread in the book. While on the one hand she is loyal to her charge and even fiercely protective of her, on the other resentment smoulders deep within her because somewhere she holds Lena responsible for the miserable end to her own love story.
Komathi can see and understand the romance blooming between Lena and the stranger, but her loyalties clearly lie with Lena’s husband, KK. Again and again her frustration surfaces at the extent of his blindness to the new developments in his life taking place right under his nose. Nair’s humour is at its best here: ‘And KK, does he see the transformation in her? [ …] But even he can’t be oblivious to the stars in her eyes. Or does he think filter kaapi put it there?’ (F for Filter kaapi, Nair admits, is her personal favourite in the book.)
Even though the actor-ordinary woman romance lies at the centre of the novel, while Komathi and her backstory stand at its periphery, it is actually the old cook, her candid and revealing commentary, besides her personal history that are far more interesting and intriguing than the characters in the foreground.
This book perhaps won’t qualify as one of Nair’s best works or a literary treat, but flavoured with the unique condiments it has, it is certainly a work that can be devoured with pleasure on a leisurely spring weekend.
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal and the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle