Ladies Coupeby Anita Nair
Meet Akhila: 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. In the intimate atmosphere of the all-women sleeping car - the 'Ladies Coupe' - Akhila asks the five
Meet Akhila: 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. In the intimate atmosphere of the all-women sleeping car - the 'Ladies Coupe' - Akhila asks the five women the question that has been haunting her all her adult life: can a woman stay single and be happy, or does she need a man to feel complete?
This wonderfully atmospheric, deliciously warm novel takes the reader into the heart of women's lives in contemporary India, revealing how the dilemmas that women face in their relationships with hunsbands, mothers, friends, employers and children are the same world over.
“Modern India's vivid, sticky beauty is evoled beautifully...Nair's compassion for her characters shines through every carefully chosen word.” Sunday Tribune
“Nair's strength lies in bringing alive the everyday thoughts, desires and doubts of these six ordinary women.” Times Literary Supplement
“A deeply serious, enjoyably lucid book about real terrors and joys, full of sensual and surprising details.” Scotland on Sunday
“Nair conveys her protagonist's dilemmas with a freshness and charm.” The Times
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By Anita Nair
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Anita Nair
All rights reserved.
This is the way it has always been: the smell of a railway platform at night fills Akhila with a sense of escape.
The long concrete corridor that stretches into the night segmented by signboards and the light and shadow of station lights. The moving hands of a clock beating an urgent rhythm to the din of mounted TV screens and the creak of trolleys laden with baskets and sacks. The crackling of the public address system as it hisses into life, announcing arrivals and departures. Jasmine wound in the hair, sweat and hair-oil, talcum powder and stale food, moist gunny bags and the raw green-tinged reek of bamboo baskets. Akhila breathes it all in and thinks again of escape. A swell of people all escaping into aspects of richness of which she has no notion.
Akhila has often dreamt of this. Of being part of such a wave that pours into compartments and settles on seats, stowing baggage and clutching tickets. Of sitting with her back to her world, with her eyes looking ahead. Of leaving. Of running away. Of pulling out. Of a train that trundles, truckles and troops into a station. Akhila is seated by a window. Everything but the train is still. The moon hangs at her shoulder and rides with her. She travels through a gallery of nightscapes, each framed by the window. A light in a house. A family huddled around a fire. A howling dog. A distant town. Black oily waters of a river. A menacing hill. A curling road. A railway-crossing with the streetlight glinting on the glasses of a man on a static scooter, hands dangling at his side, heel on the ground, head cocked, watching, waiting for the train to hurtle past.
At the station, portraits replace impressions. Reunions. Farewells. A smile. Tears. Anger. Irritation. Anxiety. Boredom. Stillness. Akhila sees them all. The train begins to move.
Akhila dreams of being there. And not there. Of adding a memory by the moment.
But the truth is, Akhila has never bought an express train ticket until now. She has never climbed into an overnight train to a place she has never been before.
Akhila is that sort of a woman. She does what is expected of her; she dreams about the rest. Which is why she collects epithets of hope like children collect ticket stubs. To her, hope is enmeshed with unrequited desires.
Blue skies, silver linings, a break in the clouds. Akhila knows these to be mere illusions caused by putting on rose-coloured spectacles. She has long ago trodden to shards her rose-glassed spectacles and switched to metal-framed glasses that remain plain indoors and turn photo-chromatic outdoors. Even the sun ceases to shine when Akhila's glasses turn a dusky brown.
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 connect.
Akhila was not a creature of impulse. She took time over every decision. She pondered, deliberated, slept over it and, only when she had examined every single nuance and point of view, did she make up her mind.
Even the saris she wore revealed this. Starched cotton saris that demanded much planning and thinking ahead. Not like gauzy chiffons and ready-to-wear poly-silks. Those were for people who changed their minds at least six times every morning before they settled on what to wear. Those were for the fickle and feckless. Starched saris need orderly minds and Akhila prided herself on being an organized person.
But when she woke up that morning, stirred out of sleep by a tiny housefly with gauzy wings and a pert black body, hopelessly lost, vagrant and restless, humming and hovering above her face, Akhila felt within her a queer itinerant sensation. An aftermath of her dream the night before, she thought.
The fly settled on her brow for a fleeting second and rubbed its legs briskly. Flies did this all the time; loading and unloading disease and despair. But this one, new adult, had nothing to unburden but germs of disquiet. Akhila flicked the fly off with a sweep of her arm but the fly had accomplished what it had set out to do. A snarl of maggotlike notions swam through the redness of blood and thought till Akhila felt a great desire to board a train. To leave. To go somewhere that wasn't landlocked like this city of Bangalore. To the end of the world, perhaps. Her world, at least. Kanyakumari.
At Kanyakumari, the three seas meet. The Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. A quiet male ocean flanked by two restless female seas. Akhila had heard of how. it was at Kanyakumari, only then it was called Cape Comorin, that the headstrong and restless Narendra flung himself into the churning waters and the salts of the three seas and swam to a rock upon which he sat resolutely, waiting for answers that had eluded him all his life. So that when he left the rock, he became Vivekananda, the one who had found the joy of wisdom. The saint who taught the world to arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.
She had read that Kanyakumari had got its name from the goddess who, like her, had put her life on hold, condemned to an eternal waiting. And that the beach there was made up of multi-coloured sand; the fossilized remnants of a wedding feast that was never served or eaten.
Akhila lay on her bed staring out of the window and decided that she would go. Tonight.
Padma wouldn't like it, Akhila knew. These days her sister was suspicious of everything she did or said. Akhila felt her mouth draw into a line. Padma called it the spinster mouth, Akka's mouth: grim, determined and brooking no interference.
She rose and went to look at the calendar hanging on her wall. She skimmed the dates. December 19. The year would soon be over, Akhila thought, and then not knowing why, she searched the end of the calendar for the needle she kept pierced through the paper, threaded with a white thread. In readiness for an emergency — a loose hook, an unravelling hem ... The needle was gone. One of the girls must have taken it and forgotten to put it back. They did it all the time, no matter how often she told them that it was to be put back. That and the mirror by the washbasin dotted with maroon circles of felt — stick-on bindis which they peeled from their grimy foreheads and stuck back on the mirror for another day — made up her mind for her. She would go. She had to, or she would go mad confined within the walls of the house and the life she was expected to live.
Akhila opened her cupboard and drew out a black and red Madurai chungdi sari. It was cotton and starched but the colours and gold zari made Padma look up in surprise. Akhila had long ago ceased to wear bright colours, choosing to hide herself in drab moth tones. Yet, this morning Akhila was a butterfly. With magical hues and gay abandon. Where is the moth? Why aren't your wings folded? Why aren't you trying to pretend that you and the wood are one? Why aren't you hiding yourself among the curtains, Padma's eyes asked.
Padma will know then that this day will be unlike any other, Akhila thought when she saw astonishment swim across her face. Let it not be said that I gave her no warning.
'But you've never had to travel on work before,' Padma said when Akhila told her about her trip at breakfast time. Akhila waited till she had eaten her breakfast — three idlies, a small bowl of sambar, and a piping hot cup of coffee — and only then did she mention the journey. Padma was certain to object; to fuss and even make a scene, all of which would make Akhila lose her appetite. Akhila knew that as well as she had known how Padma's eyes would narrow suspiciously.
When Akhila didn't reply, Padma persisted, 'Isn't this rather sudden?'
For a moment, a lie crept into Akhila's mouth: it's official work. I was informed only yesterday.
But why? she asked herself I owe her no explanations. 'Yes, it is sudden,' she said.
'How long will you be gone?' Padma's eyes glinted with doubts as she watched Akhila pack. Akhila knew what Padma was thinking. Is she travelling alone or is someone going with her? A man, perhaps. Padma's nostrils flared as if she could smell the stench of illicit liaisons.
'A few days,' she said. There was a certain pleasure in being ambiguous, Akhila decided when she saw the look on Padma's face.
All cargo offices smell alike. Akhila pursed her nostrils in readiness. In a moment she would allow herself to inhale slowly. After twenty years of travelling by suburban trains to work and back, she was used to what made everyone else's face screw up in disgust. She drew the line at fish, though. She waited as the cargo handlers dragged a basket of fish to the far end of the station. When they were gone, she walked towards the edge of the platform and stared down at the tracks. Long metal lines that ran into the horizon. She needn't have come into the station but she felt she had to see by daylight what was to be the beginning of her escape route. The platform was deserted. Yet, she felt a hollowness in the pit of her stomach as though any minute the train she was to board would pull into the station and it would be time for her to leave. Akhila smiled at her own foolishness. She walked to the reservation counter where Niloufer was waiting for her.
There was a long line at the far end of the counter. A long line of women mostly. Husbands, brothers and sometimes fathers stood guard, hovering in the periphery while their womenfolk stood, hands knotting the ends of their saree pallus, shifting their weight from one leg to the other, waiting their turn.
Akhila read the board above the line. 'Ladies, Senior Citizens and Handicapped Persons.' She did not know if she should feel angry or venerated. There was a certain old-fashioned charm, a rare chivalry in this gesture by the Railway Board that pronounced a woman shouldn't be subject to the hustle and bustle, lecherous looks and groping hands, sweaty armpits and swear words that were part of the experience of standing in the General Queue. But why spoil it all by clubbing women with senior citizens and handicapped persons? Akhila stifled a sigh and looked for Niloufer.
In some previous birth, Niloufer must have been a bee. She was always in the middle of some project. For a while, it was Chinese cooking; then it was tufting; the last one was the Anchor Stitch-kit. All this meant that she was never out of topics for conversation. All one had to do was listen, and she would do the talking. But in spite of her garrulousness, she was one of the few people Akhila liked and respected. She didn't pry. She didn't gossip and she was very hardworking and efficient. She wasn't Katherine. But then, Akhila wasn't looking for another Katherine.
'Niloufer,' Akhila had said as soon as she walked into the income-tax office, 'can you get me a ticket on tonight's train to Kanyakumari?'
'Why? What's happening there?' Niloufer's kohl-rimmed eyes widened. Niloufer liked dressing up. She wore a lot of jewellery, made up her face and chose her saris to match her jewellery.
'Does anything have to happen there for me to want to go to a place?' Akhila retorted.
'It's going to be difficult. This is peak season with everyone wanting to go to Kerala on holiday, and there are hordes of devotees on their way to Sabarimala,' Niloufer said as she leafed through a sheaf of papers. 'But my friend at the reservation counter will help. Particularly when I tell her it is for you. I'll call her right away.'
A few minutes later, Niloufer had come to her table smiling. 'It's all arranged. I'll go there half an hour before the lunch break. You can come a little later.'
Akhila spotted Niloufer. She was standing alongside the reservation clerk, talking. They stood oblivious to the crowd and the furious looks darted at them. Akhila lifted her hand furtively. She didn't want to draw attention to herself, she thought, as she waved her hand. Niloufer's eyes met hers through the glass counter. Her face was beaming and she waved a ticket.
'She did her best but the train is full. There are no second AC sleeper or first-class tickets. What she has got you is a berth in a second-class compartment, but in the ladies coupé. Is that all right? You'll be stuck with five other women who will all want to know the story of your life.' The gold bells in her ears jangled.
Akhila smiled. 'That's exactly what I need,' she murmured, pulling out her chequebook from her bag.
Akhila was at the Bangalore Cantonment station by half past eight at night. It was only a few minutes away from where she lived. But she was in a hurry to leave. It was as if, once she had made up her mind, she wanted to shake the dust of home off her feet.
'How can you go by yourself to the railway station?' Padma had asked when Akhila reached home in the evening.
'I'm travelling alone, aren't I?'
'But it will be late when you go from here.'
Akhila reined in the irritation she felt and said, 'Don't worry. There are plenty of autorickshaws and they are very safe. Besides, the station is not all that far away.'
But Padma wouldn't give up and so the last words Akhila heard as she left home were veined with petulance. 'I don't know what Narayan Anna and Narsi Anna will say when they hear of your going away suddenly, and all by yourself too ...'
But Akhila had already ceased to listen. 'Cantonment Railway Station,' she told the autorickshaw driver with a lilt in her voice.
Ten minutes later, she stood at the entrance of the railway station, skimming the faces in the crowd.
I am here, her heart galloped. A tiny foam-edged wave of pure emotion rushed through her. She felt her lips stretch into a smile. I am part of a ripple that will escape this city tonight. I will board a train and allow it to lead me into a horizon I will not recognize.
Akhila walked towards the stationmaster's office. Outside on the wall, she searched the noticeboard for the list of passengers. The sight of her name reassured her. Beneath her name were five others. Sheela Vasudevan, Prabha Devi, Janaki Prabhakar, Margaret Paulraj and Marikolanthu. They must be the other passengers in the coupé. Who were these women, Akhila wondered for a brief instant. Where were they going? What were their lives like?
Akhila moved away from the reservation chart to locate her compartment on the position chart. Eleventh from the engine. She shifted her suitcase to her other hand and began to walk towards the signboard marked eleven. All the benches on the platform were taken, so she went to stand by a dripping water faucet. She bit her lip uncertainly. Was this the right place? She turned towards an elderly couple who stood a little distance away and asked, 'Is this where the S7 compartment of the Kanyakumari Express stops?'
The man nodded. 'I think so. We are in the same compartment too.'
There was something about the elderly couple that made her eyes home in on them again and again. They radiated a particular calm; an island of unhurried waiting in that sea of fidgety humans. As though they knew that sooner or later the train would arrive and it would be their turn to climb the three steps into the compartment that would take them to their destination. That there was no point in craning their necks, shuffling their feet or manifesting other signs of dissatisfaction until then.
The pong of urine rose and settled with the breeze. Redshirted silver-armbanded porters stood alongside the piled suitcases. A beggar with maimed limbs thrust his tin cup this way and that. An urchin and a dog ran busily from one end of the platform to the other. A bored policeman stared at the TV screen.
The Udayan Express, scheduled to arrive before the Kanyakumari Express, was late. The platform was crowded with people. Alongside Akhila stood a whole family of uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents who had come to see a lone man off. He was headed for Bombay from where he would catch a plane to a Middle-Eastern country.
She wondered what it must be like to be the wife of a man who was away for many years and when he came home was claimed for their own by parents, siblings, cousins, relatives, friends ... Akhila looked at the man who carried on his shoulders the burden of other people's dreams. That she knew all about. That she could understand.
She turned away from the man and watched the elderly couple. The woman wore a pale pink sari with a narrow gold border, a slim gold chain around her neck, and metal-rimmed spectacles. Her hair lay gathered in a little bun at the nape of her neck. A gold bracelet watch gleamed at her wrist. One hand held a water bottle while the other clutched a narrow leather purse. In a few years' time I will look like her, Akhila told herself Except that I won't have a man like him beside me.
He seemed nice enough. The well-tailored clothes, the horn-rimmed spectacles, the still muscular body, the pleasant features, the manner in which his hair had receded, the way he stood at his wife's side, they all seemed to suggest a non-aggressive confidence. The couple looked like they belonged together.
Excerpted from Ladies Coupé by Anita Nair. Copyright © 2001 Anita Nair. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Anita Nair lives in Bangalore, India. Her books have been published in several languages around the world.
Anita Nair lives in Bangalore, India. Her books have been published in several languages around the world. Her last novel, Mistress, was long listed for the 2008 Orange Prize in the UK, and named a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Beyond Margins Award in the U.S. The Lilac House was recently adapted for stage and film in India.
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I enjoyed this novel. I got so interested in wanting to hear each of the ladies story that I read more than half the book the first day. I am Mexican American so I know about family, culture and society obligations too, I think all women can relate to this novel, good story, loved it.