The Freedom of Women: Reading “Ladies Coupé”

“This is the world. Half of it is lit by the sun and the other half remains in darkness. It is the same with life. There is good and bad and it’s our duty to remain in the light, be good.” 

This paper deals with the concept of women’s emancipation and freedom thereof through the novel by Anita Nair “Ladies Coupé”. Epiphenomenal to that effort, this piece sheds light on the post-colonial feminist approach to the concept of emancipation and freedom of women. In “Ladies Coupé” Anita Nair raises questions about the role of woman in contemporary post-colonial India. This novel challenges the phallogocentric structure of the human experience, showing the same human experience using terms that are essentially feminine, thereby radicalizing the said structure and the experience associated with it from the repressive space it occupies within the patriarchal system.

Part I of the paper discusses mainstream feminism and its notions of freedom and emancipation of women. Part II reviews the novel, discussing the role of the Indian woman as a representative of other women living under oppressive patriarchal conditions and deriving the notion of freedom of women. Part III examines whether the concept of freedom that emerges out of the novel corresponds to the notion of freedom in mainstream feminism. Part IV epistemologically situates the concept of the freedom of women.


Feminism and Literature- Understanding Women and Emancipation

Feminism is in the customary grips of man. Since time immemorial in the world, especially in Asian nations and in India the social custom and doctrines have general control of man. Its artistic sense is the physical and psychic liberation of women from the remorseless. 

Liberal Feminist Liberation remains a contemporary thought in Women’s Activist Political Thought. Its essential concern is to secure and enhance women’s personal and political autonomy, the first being the opportunity to carry on with one’s life as one wants and the second being the freedom to choose the course of their particular political group.

Liberal feminists hold that the exercise of personal independence depends on certain enabling conditions that are inadequately present in women’s lives, or that social arrangements often fail to respect women’s personal independence and other elements of women’s flourishing. They also hold that women’s needs and interests are insufficiently reflected in the basic conditions in which they live and that those conditions lack legitimacy because women are inadequately represented in the processes of democratic self-determination.(Baehr, 2007)

Patriarchal paternalistic laws restrict women’s options on the grounds that such limits are in women’s interest. Consider the laws that limit women’s employment options on the grounds that taking certain jobs is not in women’s interest. (Baher, 2007) Patriarchal moralistic laws restrict women’s choices on the grounds that certain options should not be available to women because morality does not allow for women’s choice. There are various laws that prohibit or restrict prostitution or abortion, or laws that favour certain kinds of sexual appearance or family forms. Together, patriarchal paternalistic and moralistic laws steer women into socially preferred ways of life. These are unfair limitations on women’s choices, on the liberal feminist view, because women’s choices should be guided by their own sense of their self-interest and by their own values.

To comprehend and identify the Feminist sensibilities that define Indian women’s activism in the present we must also understand the long and difficult endurance of women – the intense battle for the exceptional idea of equal pay for equal work, the continuing battles for abortion rights. The Feminist situation in India possesses a dissimilar privilege. Indian society has always been highly male-dominated. The several hierarchies within the family concreting age, sex and ordinal position, congenial and relationships or within the community referring to the caste lineage, learning, career and relationship with ruling power have been maintained very strictly. It was mainly after the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s that the contemporary feminist ideology evolved and the female voice was heard with special concern. The focus of the literary studies was shifted to Women’s writing with a view to re-read, re-envision and re-decipher it, in the light of long existing gender bias and sexual politics in history, culture, society, family, dialect and literature.

“He was too smitten by his second wife and the sons she produced easily and regularly at eighteen-month intervals to bother too much about a daughter.” 

The Idea of Emancipation in Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé

Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupé reflects the sentimentalities of middle class working women in Indian culture. The characters are the impressions of women’s status in India. The actual middle-class home and the absurdity of the petty issues the day by day living are depicted delicately and subtly by Nair. 

Anita Nair’s ““Ladies Coupé ” has an excursionary theme. This book takes you back and forth, into and out of, the lives of six women struggling women, fighting the patriarchal norms and trying to achieve a sense of emancipation. This book shows the differing experiences of women as subalterns and exposes the differences inside and among women. Anita Nair’s characters in “Ladies Coupé” have their own torment and distress, and yet they struggle and have the life of their own apparent choice in the society.

“Ladies Coupé” is a very powerful novel demarcating feminine sensibility, despite the fact that this demarcation is chiefly expressed through the projection of the crisis of social norms and inner urge for self-determination.

“Love beckons with a rare bouquet. Love demands you drink of it. And then love burns the tongue, the senses. Love blinds. Love maddens. Love separates reason from thought. Love kills. Love is methyl alcohol pretending to be ethyl alcohol.” 

Each chapter of the novel is devoted to the story of one Woman. The first story is of Janaki, the old woman whose relationship with her husband is a ‘friendly love’, the second story is of Margaret, the Chemistry teacher, who succeeds in ‘disciplining’ her egotistic husband who was the principle in the same school; the third story is of Prabha, the rich obedient wife who loves swimming because it metaphorically gives her a sense of freedom; the penultimate story is of Sheela, who is fourteen years old but has the understanding that her dying grandmother overlay the way for her own future liberation; and the last story is of Marikolanthu, whose rape, coupled with extreme poverty and class-exploitation is the culmination of all other stories, and is perhaps the most impactful story of all.

Akhila is the central character of the “Ladies Coupé”, she is a 45-year-old single woman working as an Income tax officer. Born in a conservative Brahmin family, she was brought up in surroundings wherein the society had the ultimate power and the people living in this society would never ever dare to rewrite its baseless norms. 

“Akhila, if there is one virtue I have, it is immunity to what people think of me. Naturally, this makes them dislike me even more. People don’t like to think that their opinion of someone means nothing to that person. And when it is a woman . . . the thought is intolerable. But like I said, I don’t care.” 

The six women are rediscovering their bodies, transcending darkness into light, from a  lifeless world to a vibrant life. The Coupe becomes a simile for an imaginary life that is free from all chains laid down by darkness of early civilization. The story depicts the suffering caused to the protagonist, Akhila and other women in a patriarchal and tradition-bound society. Her fight for gaining identity is depicted in the novel. In her writings, Nair discusses restructuring male-female relationships to bring about a change in social attitude. The women characters in her novel fight against the male dominated community and criticize cultural ideologies to become free individuals. They didn’t even care about the impact such a fight would have on their lives.

As an author, Anita Nair depicts her own Indian sensibility and attitude in the novel. She replicates the image of the contemporary middle-class, educated, urban Indian women. Her novel portrays how the situation has not changed much even in today’s world. She deals with such issues by asking radical questions such as – Should the role of women be restricted to only wives and mothers? Should a women’s role be limited to reproduction regardless of her own desires and needs? She projects various models of feminisms. Her view is that the same code of morality must be applied to both men and women. 

Women must themselves break chains that have kept them in the state of confinement. Anita Nair uses certain characters like Akhila’s mother to depict how women are powerfully orthodox in a patriarchal society. Akhila’s mother is what one would describe as a loyal wife. Like Akhila, other characters are also fumbling about their identities and their status in society.

It is pleasurable to analyse Nair’s remarks on the uneducated, poor and rural women, like Marikolanthu, who says NO to the demands of a male-dominated society, perhaps more than educated and urban women. She contends the notion that education aimed at changing social attitude can, in fact, liberate women. She has used the character of Karpagam to bring to light women’s need for self-expression. Karpagam is depicted as powerful women struggling for self-respect. Being a widow, she wears Kumkum and colourful clothes. She says,

“I don’t care what my family or anyone thinks. I am who I am. And I have as much right as anyone else to live as I choose.”

In a beautiful portrayal – Akhila gets down to Kanyakumari as an empowered woman. She wants more of her life and more of Hari and her decision to get reunite is nothing less of empowering. She, finally, destabilizes the forces that have stopped her from not letting her discover her “self”. 

“I was so drunk on my feelings for him that all I wanted to do was be with him. Please him. Show him in a thousand ways how much I loved him. Everything else was unimportant.” 

Ladies coupé as a Feminist Novel

“Love beckons with a rare bouquet. Love demands you drink of it. And then love burns the tongue, the senses. Love blinds. Love maddens. Love separates reason from thought. Love kills. Love is methyl alcohol pretending to be ethyl alcohol.” 

The idea of Women’s Emancipation portrayed by the book “Ladies Coupé” is quite similar to the Feminist approach to emaciation. The book shows how one needs to fight in order to gain what one desires, it shows that despite the patriarchal norms set by the society the women needs to fight against it – in order to live freely and on one’s own condition. Feminists also suggest the same thing through their work, they say the women should have the autonomy to choose her personal and political life. She should not be grounded by the norms set by the society. Women are more than a wife and a mother, they also have the right to work outside and earn as much as men do. They need to see outside the arena of the house. As depicted in the novel, every woman has to fight against the world to get what she deserves.

Conclusion

“When you get to a certain age, nothing matters. You only want to cling to your serenity and leave the dreaming and storming for those with steaming blood in their veins. Emotions are for the young; the elderly have no use for them.” 

It has been understood that feminism is a struggle for equality of women, an effort to make women equal to men. In its agonistic definition, feminism is seen as the struggle against all forms of patriarchal and sexist aggression. It can be clearly seen that there is a growth of Indian Feminism and there is a development. A development that shall only be enhanced. On one side Nair explores women’s suffering and on the other, she suggests a number of ways to fight against these agonies to make their life, a battleground,  a more fruitful and a more peaceful one. Nair explores women’s suffering and suggests ways to overcome them. The women characters are brave and have the willpower to fight. In all these senses Anita Nair’s novels can be considered a microcosm of the female world.

“arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.” 


Dolvi is a Fourth Year Law Student at Jindal Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana. 

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