Title: Ladies Coupe
Author: Anita NairMy GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Akhilandeshwari, Akhila for short, is 45 and single, having put her life and dreams on hold to care for her mother and three younger siblings after the unexpected death of her father when she was 18. Expected to do her duty by the others, her own pleasures and desires go unrecognised by her siblings and mother.
Wishing to get away from it all, Akhila goes on a one-way trip to Kanyakumari. Travelling in the ladies’ coupe, she seeks to know the stories of the five women travelling with her, in the hope of finding the answer to her question, does a woman need a man?
Each woman then relates her story in a separate and lengthy chapter, some in first person, others in third person. Each story is a short story in its own right. We see the shades of their lives. None of the lives are spectacular, but it is the ordinariness that makes it so relatable. We know these women. We are these women.
We meet Janaki, a pampered and much-loved wife, but a confused mother whose only son can’t stand her, and she wonders if her own selfishness has stained him.
There is Sheela, a young girl, only 14, whose household is held in thrall by her maternal grandmother.
Of these, it was Margaret Shanthi’s story that touched me the most. She is a Chemistry teacher, entranced by the poetry that is Chemistry, but doomed to live in resentment by a brutal, narcissist of a husband, the brilliant Ebenezer Paulraj, principal of the school. How she succeeds in keeping his controlling nature under control is her story. I felt a wave of revulsion and disgust for the man and yet there must be so many women whose lives are whittled away by his kind.
Through these stories we see glimpses of Akhila’s life, her taste for the forbidden boiled egg, which becomes a metaphor for so much in her life that is forbidden to her. How she has no friends, how she has sacrificed herself for her siblings who take advantage of her. The worst of these is Padma, who shamelessly sponges off Akhila’s good nature.
A woman with an opinion was treated like a bad smell illustrates the manner in which Akhila is regarded by her family. In a world in which marriage is made to define a woman’s very existence, Padma was a sore trial in Akhila’s life.
The lesson that this book sets is that a woman must set the tone for her marriage and for her own life. At the end of the book, and the close of her journey, Akhila takes her first tentative steps towards asserting her independence and control over her own life, reaching out to the younger lover whose proposal of marriage she had rejected for fear of upsetting her family. Whether her overtures are successful or not is beyond the book, but it is enough for us, as readers, to know that she is finally ready to take charge of her own destiny.
Whether a woman needs a man or not is a question that remains unanswered. Indeed, it ceases to be a question for Akhila. What she realises is that a woman needs herself in full measure.