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Life is a journey that must be treated no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.
– Oliver Goldsmith.
Life is filled with lessons, hardships, heartaches, joys and sorrows in which women are suppressed by patriarchal society. Journey of women is a frequent theme in literature. It provides experience, quest for self-identity and one’s own individuality. It helps for personal growth. From ancient period, women are portrayed as the souls of dependence. Indian society believes that women should always hang on to men for their life. Indian society projects women as always gentle, dependent and submissive. According to Sarabjit Sandhu, “The position of woman appears to be very strange. Like a pendulum, she is swinging between the contrasting forces of acceptance and rejection, flexibility and rigidity, fantasy and reality, revolt and compromise” (46).
In India, a woman’s life is merely strange and pathetic. Many Indian writers raise their voice for women’s freedom. They have discovered female subjectivity in order to establish an identity, which is imposed under the patriarchal society. Woman is neither free nor dependent but she is lying somewhere between the two. Simone de Beauviour in The Second Sex says: “One is not born but rather becomes a woman. No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society, it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature” (283). She explains women do not have any difference in biology, psychology or intellect rather they differ in their situation. Woman is born free but all the powers in the external world forces her to take a submissive role. “It is necessary for women to live within relationships. But if the rules are rigidly laid that as a wife or mother you do this and no further, then one becomes unhappy” (Niswanathan, 230).
Anita Nair is a renowned Indian English writer with a great sense of knowledge. She talks about South Indian culture. She typically concentrates on the problems of feminine psyche and effects of social system. Ladies Coupe is a novel by Anita Nair which puts forward a long journey of women. The journey undertaken by the women is not a physical one but more emotional in nature. At the end of their journey, each one has a better understanding about themselves. Nair successfully provides a glance into the women’s world.
With deep, psychological insight, Nair skillfully utilizes the stories of six women characters and their voyages in Ladies Coupe. The lives of all these women are about survival, balancing between individuality and society with the demands of the system which is biased against them. Nair presents the existential struggle of women and their mental torture in the male chauvinistic society. Even in this contemporary world, women are considered as not equal to men but as the weaker sex. In The Second Sex, Beauviour says, “Women feel they are powerless against things, volcanoes, police, patrons, men. Women are born to suffer, they say, it’s like-nothing can be done about it” (613).
In Ladies Coupe, Nair depicts the plight of women in Jingoistic society. During the journey, in the second class apartment to Kanyakumari, Akhila meets five other women – Janaki Prabhakar, Margaret Paulraj, Sheela Vasudevan, Prabha Devi and Marikolunthu. As they are travelling, Akhila puts a question to them: “Can a woman stay single and be happy?” (LC 01). To answer her question everyone start narrating their own life. All the characters lead a stereotyped life, which is moulded by patriarchal society. Through this Nair has explained the woman’s anguish and woes.
Akhila, the protagonist of forty-five year old single woman, work as an Income tax clerk. After her father’s death, she is fully dominated by her whole family. Akhila becomes the breadwinner of the family. She is the provider, man of the family. She is repressed by them. She does not live with her own identity. Akhila belongs to an orthodox Indian Brahmin family. She was very happy in her young age like other children, but after her father’s death everything changed in her life. She cares for her family but in return she gains nothing.
She becomes Ammadi for her mother, akka for her sister and brothers and madam for the office people. But no one care for Akhila as an individual, who must get married, that she has needs of her own. Though she is the breadwinner of the family, her place in the family is not accepted by the society, because patriarchal system reserves this place for a male- being. When Akhila asks her mother’s suggestion for her office trip, her mother says, “‘Perhaps you should ask your brothers for permission first.’ ‘Amma, I’m their elder sister. Why should I ask them for permission to go on an office tour?’ ‘You might be older but you are a woman and they are the men of the family,’” (LC 150). Anita Nair herself has experience at a railway station of how women are treated as a weaker sex. In one of her interviews with Bindu Menon, she says:
Some years ago, I was buying a ticket and I found this special ladies line clubbed with the handicapped and senior citizens. I was a little disturbed by the blatant inequality and wanted to write about it. Either you discuss it or write essays. In my case, whenever things perplex me, I write fiction.
Akhila’s mother is the best example for how woman is supposed to be an ideal wife, portrayed as an excellent home maker with multiple roles in the dominated society. Akhila’s mother married her father when she was fifteen years old. When Akhila asks her mother, “How could you have agreed to marry your uncle?” (LC 11). Her mother replies it is a perfectly accepted norm in Brahmin community. Her mother has her own theories of what a good wife ought to be like. She says a good wife learns to do her husband’s interest before anyone else’s even her father, a good wife must listen to her husband and do what he says.
According to her mother there is no equal relationship in marriage; wife should always be inferior to her husband. A woman is not meant to take a man’s role in her life. In her amma’s world, “Men married women younger than themselves. Women never offered their bodies to men before their union was sanctified by marriage. Women never went away with men who were not their husbands” (LC 151).
For Akhila’s mother, whatever her husband says is the best. She never takes her own decisions. Through the character of Akhila’s mother; Nair projects the ideal wife and social system of South India. When Akhila’s father is at home, her mother plays the exact role of an Indian wife. She represents all the old generation women, who remain at home doing chores and not thinking about them. On Sundays, Amma cooked Appa’s favourite food
On sundays, Amma cooked Appa’s favourite dishes. Piping hot, fragrant and with the alchemy of steam, spices and Amma’s devotion to this man who for her sake and the children’s sake lunched on rice and curd and a slice of lime pickle six days a week and never complained. . . . Sometimes Akhila wondered if Appa would have preferred for all of them to dine together but she never found out. Amma liked it this way. (LC 45)
In those days women were judged through the household chores. Akhila hates every morning because her mother forces her to draw a kolam which she does not like. Her mother says, “Your kolam should reflect who you are: a good housewife,’” (LC 50). Akhila simply does all the work assigned by her mother. She completely loses her self-identity and freedom for the sake of her family,
Sometimes Akhila thought what she hated the most was not having an identity of her own. She was always an extension of someone else’s identity. Chandra’s daughter; Narayan’s Akka; Priya’s aunt; Murthy’s sister-in-law . . . Akhila wished for once someone would see her as a whole being. (LC 200-201)
In patriarchal society, women should not be treated as equal to men. They are highly inferior in the male dominated society. Nair’s depiction of Akhila in the beginning of the novel throws light on the inner psyche of a spinster, who is past the age of marriage, has to cooperative with the demands of Indian society. Akhila’s mother remains silent on her daughter’s marriage. Padma her younger sister gets married, even her brothers get married but no one talks about her marriage.
The members of the family selfishly ignore her feelings. The writer raises a question about who Akhila is in her own house: “So who was Akhilandeswari? Did she exist at all? If she did, what was her identity? . . . Did she sing? Did she dream? Did she weep for no reason?” (LC 84). To escape from her multiple roles, she decides to go on a train journey away from her family responsibilities. This journey makes her a different woman at the end of the novel. The introduction of Akhila is a great evidence for woman in Indian context. Through Akhila, Nair narrates how women should emerge as individuals. Akhila undergoes many ordeals in her life. She tries to find her own identity and happiness. At one point, she questions her own family members,
Why shouldn’t I live alone? I’m of able body and mind. I can look after myself. I earn reasonably well.’ Akhila paused when her voice choked with tears, and began again. ‘Has any one of you ever asked me what my desires were or what my dreams are? Did any one of you ever think of me as a woman? Someone who has needs and longings just like you do?’ . . . ‘I don’t have to explain my actions to any one of you. I don’t owe you anything. I hope I have made myself clear to you.’(LC 206)
Akhila is in search of freedom and identity. She does not like to be an extension of someone else’s identity. When Karpagam asks her what happiness is, she reply is happiness is one having all rights to live his or her own life without others’ interference. Happiness is loving each other and making someone to love. Happiness is being able to hope for tomorrow. This feeling of being independent and having someone to love makes Akhila undertake her journey by train.
Akhila decides to come out of the nest because life has become intolerable for her. At the end of the novel she takes off her mask and discovers herself and starts to live an independent life as her choice. Nair concentrates on the emotional, intellectual and physical responses of female characters when they are placed in a situation not routine to them. She feels that psychic violence leaves a greater impact on their inner mind than physical violence on the body.
Marriage is a social institution in which life is according to conventions. It is a union of two different minds. Men are apposite to be more rational and emotional, their attitudes and interests are different. In a marriage, adjustment means woman has to delete her identity. It affects her entire psyche and behaviour which destroy her sensibility.
In most families, man is the head of the house, wife a minister who helps but not the head of the family. Whenever women try to come out of their place from the male dominated society, they have to fight for their freedom. According to Indian tradition a good wife should be faithful, obedient and virtuous. As Simone de Beauviour says: “Marriage is the destiny traditionally offered to women by society” (445).
Janaki Prabhakar is another example of an ideal wife in male chauvinistic society. Janaki is married to Prabhakar when she was eighteen and he was twenty –seven. She plays diverse roles in her life like daughter, wife, mother but she does not live her life for herself. On her wedding night, when he touches her lips with his, Janaki feels strange to accept him but she recalls her aunt’s word. “He is your husband and you must accept whatever he does” (LC 25).
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