Setting—historical and geographical—is the star of Anita Nair’s sixth novel, Idris: Keeper of The Light. Starting in 1659 AD, the novel follows the life of Idris, a Somalian trader travelling to the Malabar coast to attend the Zamorin’s Mamangam festivities. Idris has cut ties with his past and is now an eternal traveller, someone without an address or attachments. Fate brings him face to face with Kandavar, a nine-year-old son born out of a night of passion with a Nair woman on a previous visit to the area, and gently ruffles the calm surface of his detached existence. The boy dreams of becoming a Chaver, one of a group of ill-fated warriors who hurtle towards certain death, sworn to assassinate the Zamorin, bound to a tradition which requires them to avenge some long-forgotten insult to their honour. Intending at first only to deposit the accidentally discovered son safely at his home, Idris slowly finds himself drawn into his life, unable to ignore the call fatherhood makes to his soul.
Idris’s reluctance to abandon a newly found part of himself and the boy’s family’s desire to disown him—propelling him towards becoming a Chaver—come together in the shape of a rambling journey for the man and the boy, along the southern coast from Malabar to the Dutch trading settlement at Galle, with detours to the pearl fisheries at Thoothukudi and the diamond mines at Golkonda.
The early parts of the book, which recreate life inside a Nair tharavad and inside a kalari for training warriors and delve into the social mores and rigid caste laws of the time, work to near perfection. The details of the voyage by sea and life in the ports and trading posts are meticulously researched and make for a fascinating read. However, the details of the setting seem to completely dwarf the lives of the characters and there are segments when Idris, his son and his assistant seem like mere hangers-on in a history canvas. But the novel comes together magnificently in the last part, with the entry of the stately Thilothamma, and Idris appears to be suddenly vulnerable in his twin quest for love and diamonds.
Nair’s prose unfolds like an Ang Lee film, as a vast geographic panorama sweeps in front of the reader’s eye, frame by exquisite frame. Befitting the scenic backdrop, the characters are remarkable in their physical beauty—whether it is Idris, tall, dark-skinned and jewel-eyed, Kandavar’s mother, the sensuous Kuttimali, or the splendidly solitary Thilothamma. Animal lovers will like the fact that four-legged creatures are a constant part of the narrative—Maccanto, the dog; Musa, the cat; Vajra, the ox; and Aamira, the horse...they are all lovingly created and always close by to give comfort. The individual sentences are zen-like in their balance and poise, more beautiful for the absence of extra words. Nair brilliantly captures the music of many tongues as she traverses the different terrains.
Meditations on the meaning of life run through the Idris: Keeper of the Light, blending well into the story for the most part. However, if the book has a flaw at all, it is that it sometimes finds itself on the wrong side of the fine line that separates the profound from the platitudinous.