Fellow travellers

Six women in a railway compartment, each having a story to tell. As the stories unfold, the central character rediscovers the possibilities of life. Areview of Anita Nair's fascinating new novel by ANNA SUJATHA MATHAI.

FIVE, no-six, ladies cooped up together in a couple, all the way to Kerala? A perfect setting for the unburdening of memories and experiences that have singed, shaped, destroyed, and helped release these women.

Anita Nair's first book, The Better Man, was a finely structured novel set in a small Kerala village. Mukundan, her hero, returns to the village, hoping to exorcise bitter memories. Anita Nair not only has a wonderful knowledge of life in the village, but shows an almost Dostoevskian feeling for the undercurrents of consciousness, as Mukundan seeks and finds redemption.

In Ladies Coupe, Nair uses the fictional strategy of the ladies compartment to bring her six characters together. Where else but in a train would strangers reveal and bare their innermost souls with such freedom and abandon? In a sense, each story is separate. However, each story illuminates the central story of Akhila, alone at 45, and wondering whether a woman can survive alone. Akhila, born into a Brahmin family, her parents happily married, finds herself the person in charge after her father's death. She gets a job in the Income Tax Department, and gets her sister and brothers on their feet.

At 45, she finds herself adrift, with no life of her own, deeply lonely, and yet too conservative to seize any happiness she might have found along the way. A brief love affair with a much younger man is firmly put aside, because of what people might think. Akhila decides to escape and make a journey to Kanya Kumari, just to be on her own, and grasp some of the sense of fun and adventure she has not yet lost. Where the oceans meet and the land ends is surely where some answers must emerge! Personally, I found the story of Akhila so absorbing, the Brahmin background and the tenderly drawn family scenes, that I moved reluctantly to the other stories! But then the other women's lives claimed me, and showed other facets of the female predicament. The women are bound by their common human experience. They are the other faces, other possibilities of Akhila.

Janaki, the oldest of the women, has been married 40 years, and like many marriages, hers has grown into a close, happy bond. There are many shadowy corners she does not examine, and maybe, just as well. "Friendly love," understanding and loyalty is what she has as her reward.

Prabhadevi, rather flirtatious and lively when first married, is frightened into a lifeless conformism, until she rediscovers her own possibilities and learns how to float, symbolically and otherwise. "...if Prabhadevi could triumph over her innate timidity and rise above the traditions to float, she could do the same, Akhila thought. I too must learn to move on with the tide of life rather than be cast on its banks."

Margaret Paul Raj's story has an element of black humour in it. She begins to detest her pompous husband, and takes her revenge by helping to make him fat. The story seems a bit far fetched, but the hatred is recognisable.

Sheela's story contains the unforgettable portrait of the grandmother who defies and loathes the obscenities of death and age. Her granddaughter conspires with her to keep her looking beautiful even in death. But the most horrifying story is that of Marikolanthu, raped, cast out, abandoned, beyond hope.

All these lives form a kind of mirror in which Akhila may see her reflection made whole, so that she may move to grasping the happiness she has a right to.

Akhila was suddenly struck by the condition of individual lives. All these women, she thought, all these women, Janaki, Sheela, and even Margaret who wears her self-sufficiency as a halo, are trying to make some sense of their own existence by talking about it to anyone who will listen. I am the same, she thought. I'm trying to define the reality of my life, justify my failures and my own sense of hopelessness by preying on the fabric of their lives, seeking in it a similar thread that in some way will connect their lives with mine, make me feel less guilty for who I am and what I have let myself become.

Indeed, at the very end, Akhila is empowered to reclaim her lost love (though I would have preferred her to have done so without the crude seduction that precedes it.)

What is the answer to the question of whether a woman can survive alone? Yes, she can, and all too often, the security provided by marriage is illusory. Women must be courageous and claim their own lives and possibilities.

Anita Nair is a fine writer, with a great sense of character, a vivid knowledge of South Indian culture, and an eye for telling detail. She can move from tender compassion to sensuality, to raging hatred, and is a compelling teller of stories.

Ladies Coupe, Anita Nair, Penguin India, Rs. 250.