I read Anita Nair’s 2001 opus Ladies’ Coupé recently. Many thanks to Sunandini, who lent me the book, saying she didn’t much like it herself. As for me, I am not too sure. But the writing quality is pretty good, and despite writing about women’s travails, Nair does not come across as a rabid feminist (‘My identity and self-worth depend in a very important way on the shortness of my skirt and on how loudly I can quarrel with my elders’), so I shall certainly encourage everybody to try it before forming opinions.
See the wikipedia summary here. Akhila has grown up in a closed and orthodox Brahmin community in small-town Tamil Nadu, she has had to become the ‘man’ of the family since her father’s untimely death – working as a clerk in the income tax department in Bangalore – looking after her mother, sister and brothers, she has never had much chance to have romantic flings or time to get married, she has always been one who tries to think for herself, she is lonely and frustrated, and finally at 45, egged on to live her own life by a school friend who is now a widow and lives with her daughter, she decides to do herself the favour of taking a holiday, and goes travelling by train towards Kanyakumari, even having to fight to assert that much freedom of action for herself. On the train, in a ladies’ coupe (the kind that existed on Indian Railways till the early 1990s), she makes an acquaintance with five other women of varying ages and from considerably different social strata, and overnight, they all tell her their own stories.
The stories are well told. Though nothing here is new or really shocking to my kind of reader, you cannot help feeling shame, sorrow, pity and a strong sense of the ridiculous about the way most women are still treated in our society, regardless of which part of India one belongs to, whether they are educated and well-off or not (ridiculous that one woman finds a modicum of ‘liberation’ in eating eggs on the sly, another from learning to swim in middle age without her husband’s knowledge. My daughter has much to be thankful for!). Horrifying and disgusting, too, that women have so strongly internalized all the iniquitous mores supposedly imposed by a patriarchal dispensation that they are the first and cruellest to condemn other women in distress, so they will heap opprobrium on the head of a mother who sells her daughter into prostitution for want of any other way to keep the headless family going but won’t do anything to help; other mothers will routinely blame daughters for ‘tempting’ men into raping them, and women who find brief pleasure in lesbian relationships will then turn around on themselves and their partners in revulsion and self-loathing. The writer is honest enough to show how women can use deadly wile in all stages of life to keep their men under their control, as far as they can. And moreover, that men – real men, not the straw monsters constructed by feminists to hurl their barbs at – are not all bad and ugly but merely weak and stupid creatures, often trying to simply do the best they can and failing miserably to make their women happy, either because it is beyond their power or the women simply do not know what they really want.
That brings me to the crux of the matter: what is it that Akhila wants, and does she ever really find it? From her childhood she has been resentful of other people’s happiness (even her own parents’ – why should they be so devoted to each other in such a conventional way, and why should they ‘make’ her feel neglected owing to their own closeness?), unable to find any for herself: is it entirely a matter of unfavourable circumstances or something to do with her character? Love does come her way, but she runs away, convincing herself that a much younger man would be highly unsuitable – leaving him shocked and apparently heartbroken. Later, on her time out, she exults in seducing another younger man literally off the street and having a one-night stand with him before rubbing him out of her life without so much as a goodbye, and immediately thereafter rings up her former beau, no doubt to check if the old flame still burns, and whether something can be made out of it yet. Remember, she had set out to find out for herself whether a woman really ever needs a man in her life (other than as a stud, I presume), and this is how it ends. Look at the last lines of a blogpost written about it by a woman here. Just what I ended up feeling myself.
P.S.: My family is just different, I guess. My aunt has lived unmarried all her life, and alone since her mother died several years ago. She retired as a professor in a Calcutta college 14 years back, and has travelled all over India and more than twenty other countries all by herself. I wonder what the Akhila type would say if they met her?
[Ladies’ Coupé, by Anita Nair, Penguin Books India 2001, pp. 276, Rs. 350, ISBN 978-0-141-00595-9]