Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair: Book Review

The story of ‘Ladies Coupe‘ has remained closer to my heart ever since I first read it, about fifteen-years-ago. This is one of most cherished reads of mine from the Indian fiction scenario.

Years back in my college library, when I picked up this book and started to read, I felt an instant connect with its characters. Surely, in an entirely female-driven fictional landscape, it is sure to capture a female reader’s mind. The second time, reading this book made me value the simplistic writing of Anita Nair, sans unnecessary jargons or ostentations, and yet so effective in touching the emotional chord of a reader.

Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair

‘Ladies Coupe’ by Anita Nair was published in 2001 and was slotted as a feminist book. Indeed, it is the journey of a 45-year-old woman, Akhila in her quest to decide to live independently on her own terms. After a certain background on Akhila, she is led on a train journey to Kanyakumari. It is a time in India when there were only-for-ladies coaches in trains. Inside her train compartment, Akhila discovers the lives of five other women, their struggles and tribulations.     

The lines that set the tone of the book are from the night these ladies spend on the train – ‘Sweet Dreams‘ by Prabha Devi is replied as ‘I don’t dream, ever’ by Janaki. And, Margaret saying, ‘I do, I think. But I never remember what I dream.‘ Dreams are an integral part of a woman and their stories mostly meander towards crushed dreams. Then, there is Marikolanthu who has problems to drift off to sleep; she is pestered by the evil from her past in sleep. As Akhila shuts her eyes, the train lulls her into sleep and her past.

Akhila’s life has been full of hardships after the untimely death of her father which overnight turned her into the breadwinner of the family. She learned to provide for her family but her siblings never showed gratitude. Her own desires and wishes were crushed under social pressure and family needs.

Anita Nair surely emphasizes on the ingrained patriarchy in Indian society. There is a paragraph when Akhila recollects from the past.

“Amma had her own theories on what a good wife ought to be like. First of all, no good wife could serve two masters – the masters being her father and her husband. A good wife learnt to put her husband’s interests before anyone else’s, even her father’s.” 

A sloppily drawn kolam (pattern on the floor) suggests the character and traits of the woman of the house – defined as careless, indifferent and incapable. On the other hand, an elaborately drawn one indicates self-absorption, a lavish hand…and the categorisation goes on. The special occasion and everyday kolam, every design deciphers the qualities of the woman for the judgment of strangers, outsiders.

“That’s how a home is judged….Do you know what Thiruvailuvar said? A true wife is she whose virtues match her home.”

Akhila’s mother was married to her uncle, a common custom in South India which Akhila’s Anglo Indian friend at work was unable to understand, “But how can anyone marry their uncle? It is incest!” This was the friend who brought ‘eggs’ into Akhila’s life, considered to be a real sin. The distaste with which the society sees the friendship between an Anglo-Indian girl and a Brahmin girl is depicted within the prejudiced office environment. The second reference is when Marikolanthu is sent to work at the Missy’s, the all-woman Anglo-Indian family. Their mannerisms and lifestyle is ridiculed by the locals, by Marikolanthu’s mother and even their gardener. These perceptions counter our views as a society on women and a liberal culture.  

In Ladies Coupe, one finds a collection of short stories with each story, set within a different context.

Except for Janaki’s story, every other story is quite intriguing. Possibly, Janaki’s story doesn’t pitch as well, for it is of a pampered wife and a confused mother.

The young restless Sheela and the relationship with her now-dead Ammuma (Grandmother) explores the young girl’s understanding of life and relations.

Margaret Shanthi and Ebenezer Paulraj is the picture-perfect couple for the outsiders. But, the truth is darker than perceived. It is a marriage devoid of love and overpowered by a tyrant husband. This story examines how a girl is taught everything at home about marriage except the practical aspects of living with a man. The man’s achievements are for the display everywhere as one finds Ebe’s certificates on the walls, even the ones he’s won in frog jumping in pre-school. Though there are long boring sections that talk about chemical combinations and reactions owing to their profession, I can sail through this. Perhaps being a chemistry teacher that Margaret is, the author found it suitable to incorporate such details. 

Then the rich spoilt Prabha Devi. The swimming pool, the desire to swim and brush with the swimming pool instructor made me think of Ratna Pathak’s character from ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’, the Bollywood movie. 

Marikolanthu’s story is the last but I think the author has given maximum thrust on this character or probably as this comes the last, the story tends to linger with you. And, towards the end, it is as if Marikolanthu usurped the prime position from Akhila, the ‘sister to the real thing‘ takes it away from the protagonist.

One thought on “Ladies Coupe by Anita Nair: Book Review

  1. Pingback: Black Volta by Pete KJ: Book Review | Bookishloom

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