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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2011



Alpna Rastogi

Quest for Meaning and Self Assertion: A study of Akhila’s Interior Journey in Anita Nair’s ‘Ladies Coupe’

Indian Writing in English has attained an independent status in the realm of Indian literature. Fictions by women writers constitute a major segment of the contemporary writing in Indian English. They are able to sensitively portray a world that has in it women rich in substance. Their women are real flesh and blood protagonists who make the readers look at them with awe with their relationships to their surroundings, society, men, children, families, mental makeups and themselves.

            Anita Nair is one of the finest writers in Indian Writing in English with an international reputation. ‘Ladies Coupe’ is Nair’s second novel and has been translated into more than twenty five languages around the world. Anita Nair’s engrossing Ladies Coupé raises what many readers might consider taboo questions about the role of women in contemporary post colonial India. Nair’s India suffers from a system of sex role stereotyping oppression of women that exists under patriarchal social organization. This novel is a profound discourse of womanism. All the characters of this “female culture” without exception go through the gruelling experiences of domestic oppression at the hands of their families and every one of them acquires an implacable resilience not only to stay alive, but even to discover their inner source of dynamism and creative wellspring.

            Akhila is a single forty-five year old pen-pusher in the Income Tax Department around whom Nair’s Ladies Coupé is woven. One day she sets out to seek certain answers for herself, mainly to the question whether a single woman can live alone, away from her family. She buys a ticket to Kanyakumari and is placed in ‘Ladies Coupe’ along with five other women giving her company for the overnight journey. These women share their life experiences with her, thus helping her to gain her full potential as a woman and grapple with the answers to the questions she’s been asking so long.

            The novel has also been called a novel in parts, perhaps because the lives and experiences of six women have been welded together by the author into a consummate whole, with Akhila or Akhilendeswari as a magnet in the centre. The unique bonding among the women makes each life story a learning experience for Akhila who contemplates upon the various aspects of her life after each session of tale-telling .It helps her to break free from claustrophobic multiple identities as daughter, sister aunt and provider. This paper seeks to analyse the interior journey of Akhila as she realises by degrees as to how she should live her life and assert her identity.

            Of all the saga of the six women, the most fascinating and most compellingly beautiful story is that of Akhila, mainly because she is in the process of discovering her own self identity, also because she finally emerges as a skilled obstacle –racing champion of life. The harshness of life and its cruel blows have triggered her inexhaustible spring of dynamism.

            As a child Akhila watched her father lionized by her mother while she and the other children were marginalized. Akhila remembers her mother’s pampering of her father with her exclusive cooking and the rhythmic movement of the swing on which her father spent the afternoons with his head cushioned in his wife’s lap. Akhila’s father is a born loser and could never get the promotion due to him mainly due to the manipulation of superiors who black marked his confidential files Akhila’s father has a perennial air of suffering about him and Akhila compares him unfavourably with Subramanyam Iyer, a counterfoil and also a neighbour and family friend. He is the husband of Sarasa Mami for whom Akhila has a soft corner. Iyer is just a peon and has a growing daughter and a dependent blind son. But he is full of the joy de vivre of life and has none of the aura of suffering around him, which Akhila’s father has. The negation of life seems to be the lot of Akhila’s father. His death too has an element of mystery. Did he deliberately plunge into his death by stepping in front of the bus? Anger fills Akhila’s heart and tears dry in her eyes so she takes on the mantle of the provider, her sole inheritance from her father.

            After her father’s death, Akhila as the eldest child, at the tender age of nineteen takes her father’s place as the bread winner of the family. She is not given the same sort of importance. She must have got equal pay for equal work but she certainly has not received equal respect even though the family survives only because Akhila brings home a decent pay packet. “Amma had her Akhila. Akhilandeswari mistress of the worlds. Master of none”(85).

            In comparison, Nair shows a parallel situation. It is Akhila’s neighbour Mr. Iyer’s family. When the man  of the house dies, the widow Sarasa Mami is forced to put her eldest daughter on the street as a prostitute.  Both the families are Brahamins and have lost the man of the family. The difference is that the neighbour family makes their survival in an undignified way. Akhila’s family’s situation could have been similar but as Akhila’s mother says; “I had you” (85) Akhila again feels her identity being lost in the role, she’s expected to play. “Young as she is, she hopes that one day she will have a home and family her own” (85). But Akhila’s great contribution to the dignified survival of her family is certainly not appreciated by its members and they never repay her in any way. She remains instrumental in arranging the marriage of her two brothers- one elder and the other younger the same day, but no one ever thinks if she also wants a husband, children, or a house of her own. “In their minds Akhila had ceased to be a woman and had already metamorphosed into a spinster.” (77) So at the age of thirty four, Akhila is expected to marry off her youngest sibling Padma by amassing a sizeable dowry.

            She is reminded often of a Tamil film whose heroine is just like Akhila-a work horse and a woman who gives up her life and hope of her marriage.: “….When Akhila thought of the film, she felt darkness lick at her. Would her life end like the life of the woman in the film?” (77)

It began more as a lazy and misty blur of self-confusing thoughts but soon Akhila’s resilient self began to take form and shape. At long last her “entombed desires” surfaced and decided to carve out a life of her own. She listed out her own problems with clarity and arrived at the conclusion that she was in need of an education which could give her a sense of firm footing. She discerned her own needs and began to take care of herself. “On her thirty-fifth birthday, she decided to get herself an education. She enrolled in the Open University for a Bachelor of Arts degree. Akhila chose history as her main subject.” (85)

Her decision to get enrolled in the Open University is a step towards asserting her own being. Akhila’s yearnings for tenderness, tough and erotic fulfillment are never vocalized. They exist only in her dreams and her unexpressed sub-consciousness. The quest for the recognition of her womanhood is expressed through her dream. Akhila’s longings are beautifully revealed through the dream where she experienced the touch of male fingers. The personal warmth through this touch in this dreamy sensation in a strange way soothed her though it is insubstantial. She is now emboldened to seek out emotional nutrients in order to cater to her sensation-starved body. The passion in her catches fire when she meets Hari. She then experiences the flow of life, as she yields herself to the finger-tingling of Hari. Thus the encounter with Hari marks the first phase of her transition to fulfilment and freedom. Contrary to the social norm she goes to Mahabalipuram and spends sometime with him. Satisfying the call of her innermost being even at the cost of lying to her mother speaks volumes about the pulsating urge of her being and reminds us of the fact that she is not an object but a woman who has a free will. Her mother asks her to seek her brothers’ permission before she steps out but she reacts vehemently: “Amma, I’m their elder sister. Why should I ask them for permission to go on an office tour?” (150)

She enjoys sensual pleasure unknown to her so far for a small period of time and realizes a fullness, a flowering of her personality: “Akhila felt a warm rush over her… she had never known anything like this before. An unfurling. Beads of sweat. A rasping edge to her muted breadth. A quite flowering.” (139)
Later in her trip to Mahabalipuram she makes love with Hari for the first time and she feels overjoyed. This proper adult love was different from ‘all those tentative fumblings that had been the sum total of their lovemaking before.’ (152) She enjoys Hari’s company but this relationship has a very short life span. This relation dies very soon partly because of her social awareness of any such relationship being a taboo and also because Hari is younger to her. Thus Akhila’s transition into a higher stage of her evolution occurs when she decides to call off her friendship with Hari. In other sense, Akhila’s decision to call off her relationship with Hari marks yet another important milestone in her evolution as an autonomous woman who is in search of “self”.

Akhila’s discerning mind helps her to recognize when to abide by rules and when to fling them to the winds. She is in the process of becoming more genuine and truer to her inner self. Akhila’s interior growth is also marked by her ability to take risks. When Akhila comes out with a proposal of living alone and Padma remarks that she needs her brothers’ permission, Akhila retorts: “For heaven’s sake, I don’t need anyone’s consent…. I will do exactly as I please and I don’t give a damn about what you or anyone else thinks.” (204)

She asserts herself in one of the conversations with Narayan, her elder brother: “For twenty-six years, I gave all of myself to this family. I asked for nothing in return. And now when I wish to make a life of my own, do anyone of you come forward and say… You deserve to have a life of your own.” (206)

It may be concluded with some reservations that Akhila’s free will has been curtailed to a large extent, by her own family and society, but she is courageous enough to listen to the voice of her own being and at times reacts to the dictates of her family and society. Besides, sometimes she is bold enough to take some drastic steps to please her own being. She has found the strength to break out from the prison-house of her old self as symbolized by the stiffness of the cotton saris she always wore to work. She can at least go back to her old life where perhaps nothing may have changed on the surface but on a mental plane a sure process of empowerment has taken place.


Works  Cited

Anita, Nair. ‘Ladies Coupe’, Penguin India, 2001

Manju, Roy. Being and Nothingness of Akhila in Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe, The Indian Journal of English Studies Vol.XLII ed. Dr. R.K.Dhawan,New Delhi, 2004-2005