Ladies Coupe. 2002

Anita Nair. London: Chatto & Windus (Random House), ???. ISBN: 1887128964.

Postcolonial feminist literature has always carried the heavy burden of dealing with, not to say unraveling, layers of misinterpretation of traditions and religions. At the center of this dilemma is the role of woman and her (in)dependence, economically and socially. The more traditional a postcolonial society is, the more problematic the question of women's emancipation is, and, therefore, the more passionate its women writers are.

No wonder, then, that Anita Nair's engrossing Ladies Coupe raises what many readers might consider taboo questions about to the role of woman in contemporary postcolonial India. Nair's India suffers from a system of sex-role stereotyping and oppression of women that exist under patriarchal social organization. Of course, patriarchy, in its different forms, has tried in many ways to repress, debase and humiliate women -- especially through the images represented in cultural and traditional forms. Ladies Coupe deals with such issues by asking fundamental questions that not only shake the ideological ground of man's patriarchal role in a traditional society, but also imply the existence of an alternative reality. Put differently, the novel questions whether the role of Indian woman -- as a representative of other women living under oppressive patriarchal systems -- in relation to culture resistance should be restricted only to their roles as wives and mothers. In such a world, woman's role is limited to reproduction regardless of her own desires and needs.

The Brahmin heroine, Akhila, whose life has been taken out of her control, is a 45-year- old "spinster," daughter, sister, aunt and the only provider of her family after the death of her father. Getting fed up with these multiple roles, she decides to go on a train journey away from family and responsibilities, a journey that will ultimately make her a different woman.

So this then is Akhila. Forty-five years old. Sans rose-coloured spectacles. Sans husband, children, home and family. Dreaming of escape and space. Hungry for life and experience. Aching to content.

In the all-female Ladies Coupe she meets five other women each of whom has a story to tell. The stories are all an attempt to answer Akhila's problematic question: can a woman stay single and be happy at the same time?

Each chapter of the novel is devoted to one of the women's stories: Janaki, the old woman whose relationship with her husband is a "friendly love;" Margaret, the chemistry teacher, who succeeds in "disciplining" her narcissistic husband/principal; Brabha, the rich submissive wife who loves swimming because it, metaphorically, gives her a sense of achievement; Sheela, the 14-year-old whose understanding of her dying grandmother paves the way for her own future liberation; and Marikolanthu, whose rape, literally and metaphorically, coupled with extreme poverty and class-exploitation is the culmination of all other stories.

What comes under speculative pressure in Nair's novel is the opposition between ideological appearance--represented in a mythic and metaphysical understanding of the material world---and reality--represented in the material oppression of women of low caste and their sexuality. Ladies Coupe deconstructs that which is taken for granted: the sacred, the traditional, and the ideological. Akhila is not given the opportunity by her family to get married and have a family, as "traditions" dictate; she is rather expected to provide. Brahmin traditions, in this case, become flexible, but Akhila is still called a "spinster!" Marikolanthu gets raped and, unsurprisingly, she is to blame: "Why does a young woman walk alone?"

By narrating the stories of these six women, Nair moves them from a state of passivity and absence into a state of active presence, from the kitchen and the bedroom to the street and the world at large. These are the stories, which together make a single story, of women rediscovering their bodies. The coupe becomes a metaphor for a utopian world that is liberated from patriarchy, one that is not characterised by false binaries. Hence the conscious action taken by Akhila at the end of the novel, an action that aims to overcome the contradictions that are characteristic of the "traditional" world and its essential determinant: that is, alienation.

Haidar Eid