<img width=”316″ height=”489″ border=0 alt=”” align=”left” hspace=”10″ vspace=”10″ src=/directory/getdata.asp?about_id=4b96d6add598680c408270fcf16913d3-1> Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair. Penguin India. Paperback. 276 pages.
, Anita Nair’s latest novel couldn’t possibly be more different
from her well-received novel The Better Man. While the latter focused exclusively on a man’s world, Ladies Coupe gives us the women’s version of life—several versions, in fact.
Nearly the entire narrative, save for flashbacks, takes place on an overnight train reserved for women, aptly called the ladies coupe, a compartment no longer found on trains, but previously a standard and viable option for female travelers. Engendered by both proximity and gender, the women, in well-intentioned efforts try to answer the seemingly simple question “Is it possible for a woman to live alone?” posed by the 40-something, never married Akhila. What follows is a brilliant odyssey of remembrance by each woman as she tries to warn, cajole, encourage or frighten Akhila into an authentic and long past due existence of her own.
Akhila is a single woman who has lived a life fettered by the responsibilities of her brothers, sisters, and mother due to her father’s untimely death after a rather miserable existence. The paradox, of course, being that she was expected to fulfill the responsibilities of the oldest child and see to the education of her siblings, while being expected to abdicate all hope for an independent life of her own. Living a sheltered life closed off from both the joys and trials of marriage and children commonly experienced by many women of her age and in her community, Akhila begins to feel the walls close in on her and realizes, cliché as it sounds, that life was, indeed, not only passing, but rushing by like the trains she so often fantasized about:
So this then is Akhila, 45 years old. Sans rose-colored spectacles. Sans husband, children, home and family. Dreaming of escape and space. Aching to connect.
The lure of life, beyond the stagnant one she finds herself enmeshed in, beckons to Akhila in the form of a train and the hope it carries as the vehicle to transport her beyond her present situation both literally and figuratively. Listening to the stories and entertaining curiosity about each and every one of the tellers allows Akhila to dream possible worlds and to imagine what might have been and what may yet, transpire in her own life. Still doubting and still scared, Akhila reveals her strategy to the women on the train, the only subterfuge she can muster to justify this trip to family members, who are suspicious of her desire to travel alone:
At first, I thought I would pretend to my family that I had talked to several people before I decided that I could live by myself. But one night, I woke up with a start. My heart was hammering in my chest and I was paralyzed by a nameless fear. How can I? I asked myself. How can I who have never spent a week away from my family survive a future alone? What do I know of running a household? I mean, I have never been responsible for the everyday running of one. How am I to manage a home? When I fall ill, what will I do? Who will I turn to? What do I know of life? How am I going to cope? Then I thought that maybe if I met other women who were single, or just…any women . . .If I talked to them. . . maybe it could help me make up my mind. . .
Such a strikingly female story, in such contrast to such a masculine one such as her first novel, was just begging the question as to how the writer “switched gears” so entirely in this novel. Speaking via telephone to Nair from her home in Bangalore, I asked her just that. Laughingly she told me that she had been traveling by train while writing The Better Man and was “peeved” by the idea of women, including the elderly and handicapped being segregated into a separate traveling car almost as if they were “damaged goods” and not quite worthy to ride with the other gentry.
While on the train she overheard many stories from women, no doubt their confidences being engendered by the security of women only. Responding to my assertion that each of the women’s stories contained in the narrative were, in and of themselves so totally complete, Nair confided that each story had been written separately and treated as a story that could stand alone and later woven in with Akhila’s flashbacks of her own life. Indeed, while each woman’s life story serves, intentionally or not, to dispel certain stereotypes of Indian women, Akhila herself seems more like a stereotype than any other character.
“But,” insists Nair, “while the character of Akhila, does seem rather stereotypical of an Indian woman, she is very much indeed, one type of Indian woman—the other women show many variables, all of them very real and very authentic within any given Indian community.” Given this last statement, I press on and ask if, then, she writes for an Indian audience or for the West, given the recent, successful trend of South Asian writing being printed in the U.S. Nair is resolute, and I believe her when she responds: “I never think of any possible responses that I might get from my writing; as well, I write neither for a Western audience or an Indian one. I write for myself because I have something to say.”
Clearly the strength in a book like Ladies Coupe lies in the ability to tell so many varied stories of so many and varied women, with the unifying factor being a woman who previously having been denied an independent and meaningful life of her own, searches amongst so many different possibilities, among them what has been lying dormant within herself. Written in a meditative and introspective style, readers will enjoy the panoramic view of women’s lives, both satisfying and otherwise, and the courage it takes to break down societal, religious, and familial barriers to do so.
Undaunted by what she perceives as the potential readers’ reactions to such a “feminine” perspective, Nair stands by the writer’s often forgotten (by the public) prerogative to “simply tell a story” saying, “Most people, before they read this book would ask ‘is this a feminist polemic?’ To this I say NO! Feminism as an idea, to me, seems rather outdated. I start from the premise that men and women are equal already. It’s really all about the strength in women. When you read the book, look for that strength.”
Michelle Reale is a freelance book critic living and working in Glenside, PA.