LADIES COUPÉ by Anita Nair. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. 320 pages. $14.95. www.stmartins.com. www.anitanair.net
The problem is, I wish to live by myself but everyone tells me that no woman can live alone.”
Can’t they? To 45-year-old, single Akhilandeswari, it is a question worth asking and a lifestyle worth investigating in Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé. Since her father’s death, Akhila has been the sole support of her ungrateful family. Despite being the eldest, the breadwinner, to her mother and siblings she remains the unmarried sister who can’t possibly make decisions and who certainly could never survive on her own.
Seemingly doomed to a life as regimented and dull as her starched and muted saris, Akhila one day decides to do something she had only dreamed of: to go off on a holiday alone to a place she has never been. Her destination is Kanyakumari, which derived its name from “the goddess who, like (Akhila), had put her life on hold, condemned to an eternal waiting.” Secretly, she booked a train ticket in the ladies’ coupé or women’s overnight compartment.
When the book was first published in India in 2001, Nair called it “a novel in parts,” and so it is, a series of short stories strung together like pearls with the progression of Akhila’s own life story. Once Akhila poses her question to the women in the compartment, each is allowed to tell her story without interruption. During the journey, we meet five women from 14 to 60 years of age, with vastly different tales, but the common thread between the stories—Akhila’s as well—is that the women take their destinies into their own hands.
Janaki had been married for 40 years. She was well-cared for, adored by her husband, but her grown son saw her as spoiled, pampered, unable to act on her own or think for herself. When confronted by her son, Janaki decided she would rather be comfortable at home with her husband than to rationalize her son’s behavior under his roof. She earned her life with the man she married so long ago: “After forty years, there were no more surprises, no jarring notes, no peek-a-boos from behind doors. There was just this friendly love. It was the kind of love advertising companies liked to capitalize on.” And that’s the way she wanted to keep it.
Fourteen-year-old Sheela regained herself when her grandmother died. As a child, Sheela was encouraged by her father to be clever, charming, and witty; however, her father one day saw her as a rude, cheeky, and rebellious woman. Her father’s new attitude confused her—what kind of daughter was she expected to be? When she saw other fathers encourage their daughters as hers had, she wanted to plead: “Kill her spirit and tame her tongue. So that when she grows up, she won’t be like me, wondering what it is I said wrong and what blunder I am going to commit next by opening my mouth.” When her dear grandmother passed away, she was left unattended, a shriveled corpse. Sheela decided to celebrate the woman’s life by grooming her, applying makeup, and doing what she felt her grandmother, in spirit, would have wanted.
Margaret, a chemistry teacher, reduced everyone to chemical equivalents in order to classify and understand them. She saw herself as water: dissolving, raging, sustaining life. The only orderliness in her life was her chemistry lab, and the rest was a whirlpool of unhappiness. Margaret’s husband, Ebe, dismissed everything about her, suffocating her with his lack of interest and his self-importance. “Love beckons with a rare bouquet,” she explained. “Love demands you drink of it. And then love burns the tongue, the senses. Love blinds. Love maddens. Love separates reason from thought. Love kills.” Out of revenge, she decided to hit Ebe in his softest spot: his very fit body. Slowly, carefully, Margaret catered to his stomach, and as he ate, he grew, as did his dependence upon her. And like her chemistry lab, life for Margaret became orderly.
Newly 40, Prabha Devi woke up one day and discovered that she had become a woman she didn’t recognize. Her life had been one of waiting for others: for a groom to make her father happy in business, for the groom to come home each night, for the children to grow up, for someone to notice she was alive. A trip to New York city yielded souvenirs of sexual confidence and chic Western clothes, but after sending the wrong message to a friend of her husband, Prabha Devi reverted to her old self: quiet, waiting, undemanding. Still, she had to break free, and she would do so, she decided, by learning how to swim. When she finally took the plunge, “she felt the years slip away from her. This body that had been the cause of much unhappiness, first with its excessive demands for gratification and then with an abrupt deadening of nerve ends, now melted. She was the blue of the pool and the water was she.”
Marikolanthu, a poor girl who worked in a rich man’s house, tried to live life as her mother prescribed. An unfortunate meeting in an orchard with a relative of the house who believed he had “rights” to her body left her in a situation that changed her life forever. Tricked by an aunt into having the child, Mari shunned him, leaving the baby with her mother. “Sometimes,” she said, “I think I was so used to despair that even if it shied away from me, I beckoned it back, and when it drew close, instead of pulling a basket over myself and hiding from it, I welcomed it with arms flung wide …” While the shame lingered, Mari endured each day. Finally, the father of her child died, and she saw his body become ashes. Only with his demise did Mari feel the desire to embrace her child, who welcomed her. Overwhelmed by her child, Mari knew they could move forward with their lives.
As Akhila listens to the women tell their stories, she reflects on her own life. She has her own story, one that touches on love, loss, and heartbreak. She recalls her brief affair with Hari, a younger man on the commuter train who couldn’t understand why she ended their relationship; he didn’t care what others thought about their age difference, why should she? And she thinks of her younger sister, a two-faced woman who expected Akhila to support her family while gossiping about how useless and incapable a woman her unmarried sister is. As the miles separate her from her memories, Akhila rejuvenates. By the end of the trip, her life begins anew, with a new journey—however temporary—in a new setting. With this, she becomes the woman she has longed to be.
Ladies’ coupés were discontinued as late as 1998, but the concept provides a safe environment in which the characters are free to speak of their needs, desires, shame, and triumphs. Through this, coupled with Akhila’s realization that the women will never see each other again, Nair releases the constraints that female characters in other settings might feel. Sad stories and painful situations, each tale is a tribute to women. Running the gamut of end results, Nair rejoices in the strength that women possess. Her confidence in the power of taking control is evident in her attitude toward her characters, the challenges they face, and their ultimate decisions and outcomes. On odd occasions, Prabha Devi would think to herself, “How lucky I am to be me!” Perhaps readers of this book will think the same thing if even in comparison. If that is the case, then perhaps this book has done its job.
|Jeanne E. Fredriksen reads and writes near Chicago, where she freelances as a copywriter and teaches Creative Writing to children through the Center for Gifted-National Louis University.|