Book Reviews

Review Published in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT
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A sisterhood of space; Books;Fiction
Navtej Sarna
24/05/2002

LADIES COUPE. By Anita Nair. 292pp. Chatto and Windus. £12.99. 0 701 17315 7

It is ironical that Anita Nair should choose a ladies-only train compartment as the setting for a novel that is predominantly preoccupied with issues of women's equality. The ladies coupe of the Indian railways was based on the assumption that one sex was weaker than the other and needed to be protected from wandering eyes and hands. Six women could lock themselves in safety and respectability in this mysterious coupe, while the multitudes shoved and pushed in the rest of the train. Naturally, in an age of increasingly vocal feminism, it has gone the way of the steam engine.

But in Nair's Ladies Coupe, the six women retain this unfair advantage, as they ponder the question, thrown down like a tantalizing black leather gauntlet in the centre of the carriage by the protagonist Akhila: "Can a woman cope alone?" In the sisterhood of their privileged space, the women bare their souls freely to each other, vent their resentment against a male-dominated world, recall their small victories and minor acts of revenge against the men who have dominated or used them. Akhila, the forty-five-year-old spinster, is leaving home, now that her duties as the eldest in the family are finally done, in search of what she truly wants. She is the chief listener to their tales, and she interweaves them with her own, as each of the occupants tries to help her sort out her mind. Can she live alone? Will she manage?

As the train rushes through the south Indian night, the stories unfold, ranging from the ordinary to the bizarre. We meet Janaki, an elderly woman, loved and protected by her husband and challenged finally by her grown-up son. Also of the company is the teenager, Sheela, whose defining act of defiance was to make up the face of her dying grandmother, believing that the old lady would have preferred it that way. Prabha Devi tells a see-saw tale. Her imagination ignited by the assertive and self-confident way women walk in New York, she seeks sexual liberation in an extramarital liaison. But when the affair is on the point of happening, she loses her nerve and retreats for years into docility -only to be charged up all over again, this time by the thought of learning how to swim.

Margaret is a chemistry gold-medal winner, who sees people in terms of the different chemicals -cobalt, lithium, arsenic. She is stuck with a husband who is the most vicious chemical compound of them all -concentrated sulphuric acid, oil of vitriol. Tired of his domination, she seeks freedom in an unusual fashion. Inspired no doubt by a stray comment in Julius Ceaser, she feeds her husband with irresistible delicacies, until he is fat and his vain edges are lost in soft, round rolls of flesh.

Finally, curled up on the top berth is Marikolanthu. She is of a different class, a maidservant who learns about lesbian love from two foreign mistresses. (One wonders why Nair felt she needed to bring in foreign characters to illustrate this particular aspect of feminine freedom of choice.) Having returned home, she uses the lessons in caresses for her local mistress. To protect the mistress from her husband's unwanted lovemaking, she selflessly makes love to the man instead, believing all the time that she is doing her mistress a favour by keeping the husband from going off to another woman. All this takes place while a mad woman is chained up in another part of the house, in an echo of Jane Eyre.

By the time the relatively short journey -from Bangalore to the tip of the Indian subcontinent at Kanyakumari -ends, Akhila seems to have done sufficient soul-searching to be able to invite a beach Romeo into her hotel room and seduce him, in what is meant to be a fundamental act of self-knowledge. She then proceeds to make contact with another man with whom she once shared a weekend of furtive love. Her plaintive questioning about a woman's need to find herself seems to resolve suddenly, and somewhat disappointingly, into a straight- forward need for sex. In telling these women's stories, Anita Nair demonstrates convincingly that she is a writer committed to highlighting the travails and contradictions of women's lives, the sacrifices and choices required to build a relationship, a marriage and a family. Her strength as a writer lies in bringing alive the everyday thoughts, desires and doubts of these six ordinary women. Yet the somewhat contrived narrative situation and her desire to force lessons from the stories sometimes constrain the fictional flow.