Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair
Synopsis Of Ladies Coupé
The story of a woman’s search for strength and independence.
Meet Akhilandeshwari, Akhila for short: forty-five and single, an income-tax clerk, and a woman who has never been allowed to live her own life – always the daughter, the sister, the aunt, the provider.
Until the day she gets herself a one-way ticket to the seaside town of Kanyakumari, gloriously alone for the first time in her life and determined to break free of all that her conservative Tamil brahmin life has bound her to.
In the intimate atmosphere of the ladies coupé which she shares with five other women, Akhila gets to know her fellow travellers:
Janaki, pampered wife and confused mother;
Margaret Shanti, a chemistry teacher married to the poetry of elements and an insensitive tyrant too self-absorbed to recognize her needs;
Prabha Devi, the perfect daughter and wife, transformed for life by a glimpse of a swimming pool;
Fourteen-year-old Sheela, with her ability to perceive what others cannot;
And Marikolanthu, whose innocence was destroyed by one night of lust.
As she listens to the women’s stories, Akhila is drawn into the most private moments of their lives, seeking in them a solution to the question that has been with her all her life: Can a woman stay single and be happy, or does a woman need a man to feel complete?
Praise for Ladies Coupé
These women’s life stories give an insight into expectations of married Indian women, the choices they make and the choices made for them. Anita Nair’s story-telling is superb and each woman could easily spawn a novel of her own. …There is a strong message of hope through change and even the ending is revealed as another beginning. Enticing and uplifting.
Nair conveys her protagonists’ dilemmas with a freshness and charm that makes her story more than just the predictable feminist homily it might appear. She is particularly good on the domestic details such as lazy Sunday lunches, a family row, the sights, sounds and smells of a busy railway station, which make up her characters’ lives. These give her writing a sharpness and immediacy that lifts it above the commonplace.
Nair is a powerful writer: all of these stories are intense and replete with cultural detail. …Nair has created what must be one of the most important feminist novels to come out of South Asia
Anita Nair is a fine writer with a great sense of character vivid knowledge of South Indian culture and an eye for telling detail. She can move from tender compassion to sensuality to raging hatred and is a compelling teller of stories.
Like a ragpicker with an eagle eye, she [Nair] observes the ordinary lives of maidservants, masseurs. vendors, and other women who course through daily life. It is the strength and resilience of the everyday woman that Nair brings out…Nair’s women are fleshed out to the last detail. You can visualise them clearly – their faces, their bones, their desires…
Anita Nair’s second novel upholds the promise of the first…Each of the women are 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….Anita Nair’s low key, sometimes funny and sometimes hard hitting book… is definitely worth a read.
…A brilliant evocation of sisterhood on the move…Nair’s tale is light enough to relieve the tedium of a long journey and yet filled with the incantatory power to burn up tracks, to seek a new destination. To change.
Evokes experience that are drawn from everyday life and across the social strata…suddenly it seemed to us their lives have attained epic dimensions. All this with insightful prose devoid of cluck-clucking or an impressionistic top-angle look at the plight of these women.
Articles & Interviews
India Today: She's Got A Ticket To Write (By Geeta Doctor)
In the flood of “wimmen’s writing” that depicts women as battered, bartered and abandoned on the shoals of low self worth, Anita Nair’s second novel rides triumphantly against the tide. Second novel? Is it possible? The ink has barely dried on Nair’s first one, The Better Man, that trawled with intent through fiction’s latest heart of darkness, the matrilineal murkdom of Kerala, when she’s produced another one. Apparently, Nair’s imagination teems with stories that leap out like tiny silver fish, struggling to escape a fisherman’s basket. As though to acknowledge the fact, she has signalled that her book is “a novel in parts” and indeed she seems more adept at stringing together a collection of short stories than in going for the long haul.
In Ladies Coupé Nair has resorted to one of the oldest ploys. She has taken a leaf out of Chaucer’s mixed crowd of pilgrims travelling to Canterbury telling tales to each other. He himself, as is well known, borrowed from Boccacio who had his well-heeled cast of characters relating stories to each other while sitting out the plague. Nair’s characters too are singularly life affirming. Though they do not confess their life stories publicly to each other while sitting in what used to be a regular feature of rail journeys, the “ladies compartment” or coupé of the title, the manner in which she has them sharing their experiences with the protagonist, Akhila or Akhilandeswari, as she becomes towards the end, assuming her full potential as a woman, quite often sounds like a female version of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Were the railways providing a hitherto unknown service to the sisterhood of women by throwing them in together for a night and a day of bonding through the boondocks of the Indian countryside? We shall never know. Part of the charm of Nair’s narrative is that we are lulled into accepting her thesis. Once locked in together, it’s a question of age no bar, caste no bar, sex no bar, indeed the intimacy with which the ladies discuss their sexual adventures seems to underline the message that “having sex” is destiny.
Akhila herself is the magnet for their stories. She has suddenly decided to take her life in her hands. At the age of 45, having achieved near anonymity working as a clerk in the income tax department she is suddenly filled with the idea of revolt. She decides to bolt, to take a long train journey to Kanyakumari. Are there shades of an Anita Brookner heroine here, encased in stiffly starched cotton saris and the disappointments of a lifetime of sacrifice travelling to her own Hotel Sea Breeze by the seafront? Though she might lack the subtlety of a Brookner heroine, Akhila is not without her desires. There’s a hilarious description of her singular form of revolt when she wants to taste a boiled egg brought by an Anglo-Indian colleague to work and, much later, a tense moment when she discovers herself responding to the anonymous groping of a man’s hand in a crowded bus.
Nair’s evocation of the ordinariness of a middle-class Brahmin family struggling to keep itself afloat in Chennai, hanging on to the rigid pattern of their lives, as exemplified in the patterns of kolam traced in front of their houses and expecting an unquestioning sacrifice from the women in the family to underwrite this myth, is what powers her narrative.
Akhila and her friends are on the threshold of self-discovery. The manner in which Nair relates these transformations is in turn revelatory and redeeming. Her tale is light enough to relieve the tedium of a long journey and yet filled with the incantatory power to burn up the tracks, to seek a new destination. To change
Outlook: Interview - By Sheela Reddy
The backwaters of Kerala often haunt her dreams. No wonder she rebuilds them through her words. Bangalore based author Anita Nair has just launched her third book and her second novel, Ladies Coupe (Penguin). She says the novel has only helped her to discover some more mysteries of life.
From aspiring to be a psychiatrist, to almost being sure of becoming a journalist, to finding a hold in the world of advertising, to actually becoming a writer, Ms Nair has travelled life on her own terms. And the journey, she says, has been most delightful.
It’s finally becoming a writer that the lady settled for when she quit her 12 year old job in advertising a month ago. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed advertising. In fact, there was a point where I knew it helped me in my writing.” So why did she decide to quit her job? She smiles. “There is a point in time when you need to be disciplined. Advertising was that time for me. Now I’ve outgrown that phase and sort of enjoy it like this.” Does she miss advertising? “Not really,” she chuckles, “because my husband is into advertising. So I still keep hearing about board meetings and campaigns.
” What is it that she aims to look at through her writing? “See, it’s not really an issue I’m trying to answer. Only that I try to understand what disturbs me, be it things in me or things and people around me. And by the time, I finish writing a book, I know there are some answers that I’ll have.”
So what answers did she find after her two novels, The Better Man and the more recent The Ladies Coupe? Says the author, “I’m not trying to be a moral science teacher, but there is this certain strength deep inside that every individual has—I look at how each character achieves this.”
Our curly haired writer is almost transferred to another world when she talks about her moment of strength and, yes, her sleeveless shirt only shows the goose pimples more prominently.
Gathering herself together, she says, “It was a night in my village. I was sleeping out in the open, when I woke up with this bright light shining in my eyes, it was almost like a flashlight. And when I opened my eyes, there was this beautiful white light and a lovely star-studded sky, It was then that a feeling of contentment and beauty filled me. I realised that no matter what goes wrong, this beauty, this feeling of serenity, will always be there. It was much later that someone told me that the milky way is very clear from that part of the village.”
While her novel The Better Man has a male protagonist, The Ladies Coupe revolves around Akhila, a 45 year old single woman. Having explored writing for both men and women, who is it she prefers to write for? “I’m more comfortable writing for men. You can be yourself, unlike with women, where you have to be very careful, politically correct to be precise. One wrong word, and you’ve made a wrong move,” she says, matter of factly. And has she been careful in her new book? “That is where I’ve missed. I always tend to take my own turns.”
Ms Nair builds her story around an imaginary village in Kerala—what is it that she is looking at? “I’ve never had a chance to really live in my village. It is through my writing that I tend to go back into a world of my own.” Ms Nair is currently working on a children’s book on folk myths, which will be published by Puffin. And yes, she is going back to her village after the hectic schedule surrounding her book release is over.
Cafedilli.com: Ladies Coupé was harder to write - By Bindu Menon
It wasn’t the usual thing, a woman writer exploring unusual territory – the man’s world, in this case. But readers and critics alike gave their verdict: Anita Nair’s debut novel The Better Man, published last year, was a winner. So is Anita a writer “who is only secondarily concerned with her gender and the like” (Gentleman)? Her second novel, Ladies Coupe, recently published by Penguin India, should answer that. It has an all woman cast and is about a single woman’s decision to break free from claustrophobic traditions and multiple identities as daughter, sister, aunt, provider, and live life on her own terms. The Bangalore-based writer has also just bid goodbye to her advertising career and will concentrate on her “addiction”, writing. Man, woman, and what’s next? Gods, she says, adding, “I need a break from humans.”
Ladies Coupe: In the beginning… Some years ago I was buying a ticket and I found this special ladies line clubbed with the handicapped and senior citizens. I was a little disturbed by the blatant inequality and I wanted to write about it. Either you discuss it or write essays. In my case, whenever things perplex me, I write fiction.
“I am not a feminist” I wanted to show the quality of strength in a woman, in this novel. I am not a feminist but I feel strength is not usually considered a womanly thing. There is a lot of strength in women that doesn’t come out naturally, it has to be forced out of them – it could be circumstances or a change in lifestyle.
The course I started writing Ladies Coupe in February 1999, then stopped when editing work began on The Better Man. Then I resumed in February 2000 and finished by the end of the year.
The way it works… I plan certain incidents and the narration happens as I write, which is in long hand. Then when I key it in, I add some things, elaborate on it. I partly draw my characters from stories, films or people I see, sometimes at a railway station. I remember meeting someone like Akhila some time back very briefly. She had a sad look in her eyes. I wonder about their lives and write.
Ladies Coupe vs The Better Man I found Ladies Coupe harder to write.It took a lot out of me. There were multiple voices and multiple lives that had to be lived out in my head. The Better Man was a quieter novel that way, the character too had his problems but it was all within his mind rather than actual problems. These women had actual problems. It was quite exhausting trying to experience them.
On criticism about the lack of women characters in The Better Man: Women may not have been larger than life characters in that novel but they had dignity. Some reviewers thought they were all props and not essential to the story but the book was written from a man’s point of view and what his needs are – women had no importance in his life, so the book too reflected that.
On the other hand, Ladies Coupe hardly has any men; it’s a woman’s book. If I had to include it all, then it becomes this magnum opus with points of view of everybody.
The Better Man was published by Picador USA but this book had initial problems being published by them. Why was that?
Well, actually what happened was that the editors had changed. Though they did like the book they felt that for the book to work in their country it required certain changes. So it was a question of how much I was willing to do that. I was not willing to change it. So they didn’t feel it was worthwhile. But it was all very amicable and I’ll be doing another novel for them.
Publishing abroad for recognition at home Well, that’s the way it seems to be happening. I don’t think it is very positive. Though I have never faced a problem that way – The Better Man (the first book by an Indian writer to have been published by Picador USA) was acknowledged here and abroad. In fact, I didn’t even meet my foreign publishers. I don’t even know what they look like.
Being a writer Writing is a necessity for me, an addiction. The best thing about being a writer is to be anonymous in one’s writing, being genderless, ageless, classless. It’s a challenge writing about people completely different from myself and my kind of life.
The art of storytelling Literary fiction can be written without being too academic or highbrow. I don’t think it’s fair to the reader to play those literary games. When I create characters they have to have a physical form, I need to touch and feel them. What next? I am doing a book for Puffin on Indian myths, resurrecting the not so well known myths. I need a break from human beings for a while. After that I’ll probably work on a novel, which will be set in Kerala, of course. I have planned this trilogy, starting with The Better Man.
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 !
Publishers: Ladies Coupé
- Penguin Books – India
- DC Books – Kerala, India
- Mehta Publishers – Maharashtra, India
- Chatto & Windus – UK
- St Martin’s Press – USA
- De Arbeiderspers – Netherlands
- Alfaguara – Spain
- Editions Philippe Picquier – France
- Neri Pozza – Italy
- Hoffman & Campe and DTV – Germany
- Diigisi – Greece
- Machborot – Israel
- Dom Quixote – Portugal
- Swiat Literacki – Poland
- Citlembik -Turkey
- Alfa-Narodna knjiga with Alnari d.o.o- Serbia
- Eroika – Czech Republic
- Forlaget Hjulet – Denmark
- Editora Nova Fronteira – Brazil
- Marjan Tisak Publishing House – Croatia
- Bokförlaget Tranan – Sweden
- Magyar Könyvklub – Hungary
- Didakta – Slovenia
- Varrak – Estonia
- Tyto Alba – Lithuania
- Atena – Latvia
- Dinamo – Norway
- Penguin Hindi
- Munhakdongne Publishing Corp., Korea
- Ugo Guanda Editore, Italy