Articles / Interviews on Ladies Coupé

Hindustan Times
Breaking away
(By Urvashi Butalia)

Anita Nair’s second novel, Ladies Coupe, upholds the promise of the first. Five women—later joined by a sixth —find themselves travelling together on a long train journey in that well-known space, the ladies coupe, or ladies compartment.

Among them is Akhila, single, mid-forties, her family’s sole breadwinner, whom everyone takes for granted but without whom they would all be lost. Akhila is one day seized by a nameless desire — to get on to a train and travel to the farthest point on the map of India, Kanyakumari.

She gives in, and finds herself on a train with four other women— Janaki, Margaret Shanti, Prabha Devi and Marikolanthu.

As it often happens on long train journeys, your fellow-travellers are both curious and giving, and share not only their tiffin but also their lives with you.

After her initial resistance, Akhila begins to listen, and to tell, and in the process to learn.

At first, she asks for and expects to get help in making her decisions, and is told that she must decide for herself. Initially somewhat upset, she later recognises the wisdom of this advice and her respect for her fellow travellers goes up.

Each of the women is finely drawn (as are their men), each caught in a net of relationships partly of her own making and partly one that is ‘made’ for her. Once Akhila assumes the role of family head, her own wishes and desires are forgotten by everyone and she too puts a firm lid — not always successfully — on them. Margaret boils with rage against her drawer-of-genitalia-in-library-books husband, Ebenezer, for his many conceits but remains silent . Until such time as she decides to resist and finds her own unique weapon, like the others, to do so.

The young Sheela, who dresses up her dead grandmother’s body because she cannot bear to have her face the world looking so unprepared, could be a young Akhila or a young Prabha Devi in-the-making.

In the end Akhila, having made it to Kanyakumari, finds herself in a hotel called — what else ? – Sea Breeze, acutely aware of everyone’s surprise at a woman-on-a-beach-alone, and decides to make her own private rebellion. Much like Margaret who decides to rebel by feeding and feeding her husband into a state of benign fatness, Akhila takes desire by the horns so to speak. She releases herself from the hold of convention and family expectations, at least mentally. Now she can go back to her life, but with the knowledge that she is free of some of the shackles at least.

Even though, as Anita Nair tells us in an author’s note at the end of the book, the ladies queue and the ladies coupe are no more (presumably because the railways authorities have decided that women no longer need special concessions), women’s stories, such as the ones we hear in this book, will continue to tell a tale, and will find other spaces. Anita Nair’s low-key, sometimes funny and sometimes hard-hitting book, is not earth-shaking but is definitely worth a read. And if you’re a woman, and one who has had the experience of travelling in the ladies coupe, you might even find yourself in there !






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