Ladies Coupe, by Anita Nair.
Ladies Coupe, by Anita Nair. St. Martin’s Griffin (2004), Edition: 1st, Paperback, 320 pages.
SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS
A poignant novel about six South Indian women who share a women’s sleeping car and their stories of submission and self-assertion.
Just as Chaucer’s pilgrims shared their stories in Canterbury Tales, women traveling across southern India tell of their lives and struggles. They are in a”ladies coupe,” a women’s only sleeping car. (Two of them are accompanied by men in the next compartment, and several explain that they are only in second class accommodations because the train was too crowded for them to get better seats.)
Although the women differ widely in age and experiences, they share some basic characteristics. They are Hindu and residents of South India. All have been expected to practice rigid gender definitions requiring them to devote themselves completely to their husbands and families. All have felt the need to move beyond their restricted lives and to do something to define and honor themselves. What has happened to each and the ways in which they asserted their own needs make each of their stories compelling.
The central figure in Ladies Coupe is Akhila, a single, 45 year-old-woman who works in a government office. Her father died when she was a teenager and she became the family breadwinner, always yielding to demands of her mother and her siblings. No one has ever paid attention to her needs and desires, accept one man whom she had briefly loved and then rejected. When she declares her desire to live alone as a single woman, her family is appalled. She boards the train to escape their demands and give herself time to consider whether or not a single woman can successfully live alone. The women she meets on the train tell about their own lives obeying and disobeying the dictates of society. An older woman tells of her happy but suffocating marriage. Another relates how love turned into hatred and revenge when a husband’s cruelty became apparent. A woman, raped as a young girl, turned to sexuality to secure a place for herself and tells a story that some may find offensive. In the end Akhila choses her own unique path out of the prison of the demands of others.
Anita Nair is from South India and describes its people and places. This is real plus for those of us who know little of the country. She is a prolific author of other novels, children’s books, and poetry. It is easy to see why she is a popular writer. And yet I wanted more from her group of women. I am not sure whether my hesitation was her fault or mine, or simply the difference in our cultures. Certainly the need for self-fulfillment for women is universal. Some women in the USA have lives as circumscribed as the women in this book. Here, however, for many of us the choices are not as stark; the repeated messages of how women must always submit are more muted. We assume that women will have interests and occupations outside their home and family even as we struggle to succeed in two competing spheres. For me and the women I know the issues are less clear-cut and often we are less sure that our decisions really matter. Although some of the women express deep anger at those who have hurt them, they generally blame themselves for having let others use them. They, and perhaps the author, seem to think that deciding to be less submissive will bring them new happiness. They seem naively and even dangerously unaware of the risks and obstacles that family and society can throw in their way if they stop serving others.
Often when I read books by global women of color I am surprised by how strongly I empathize with female characters whose lives are very different than my own. As interesting and enjoyable I found Ladies Coupe to be, its characters remained distant and not quite real. But that may say more about me than the book.
I recommend this book to readers interested in southern India and eager to learn more about the women who live there.