Friday, June 22, 2007

The magnificent chaos of women's lives

Anita Nair's best-known novel in Europe (besides her poetry, essays and non fiction travel writing) is Ladies Coupé: basically 6 ordinary women telling their life stories during a long train ride. This might remind you of Chaucer’s pilgrims traveling to Canterbury or of Italo Calvino’s ‘Castelli Incrociati’. It is an old literary ploy. Until recently there were women’s coupés on the trains in India. So it refers to a recent past and the women tell their stories not publicly but almost as an intimate aside to the protagonist who at the end realizes her full potential as woman. The anonymous passers by give life to all women we see and the book reminds us that all women have a story to tell. During the long train ride the women elucidate the different life choices they made. The women are real, the feelings ring true, also to me as a western reader. The main quest is: can a woman stay single and be happy or are we all incomplete without a man. Through her skillful writing she lets us taste and feel and smell and sense modern India. She conjures up our empathy so we realize that the women’s dilemmas and relational choices are the same in Western Europe as in South East Asia. I doubly like her book, as her novel is not burdened with exoticism: her characters speak plain English and there is not an elephant in sight in the novel! Yet without a shadow of a doubt it is set in India. The quotes I chose are all questions and encouragements that maybe even some of us need to hear once in a while. At the request of her translator into Italian she put at the end the traditional recipes of India that are cooked by the women in the book. So we really can smell and taste what the author suggests.
Quotes from Ladies Coupé
- Margaret had got off at Comibatore. Before leaving, she ran a comb through her hair and adjusted her sari pleats, then said, ‘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. I ‘m not saying that you ought to think like I do. But you’ll discover that once you stop worrying what the world will think of you, your life will become that much easier to live.’
- When Brahma writes our destiny, they say, he allots a specific number of years to each one of us to experience all aspects of living. My time as a housewife was spent long before I became an adult. In my mother’s house, I did all that a woman with her own house does. Perhaps that was meant to be.
- Would she who wore marriage as if it were Kancheepuram silk understand that what Akhile most desired in the world was to be her own person? In a place that was her own. To do as she pleased. To live as she chose with neither restraint nor fear of censure. That while Akhile did ache to be with a man and yearned to allow her senses to explore and seek fulfilment, that while she wished to be loved by a man who would fill her silences and share all of himself with her, she didn’t want a husband. Akhile didn’t want to be a mere extension again.
- But you know the heart is a glass bangle. One careless moment and it’s shattered… we know that, don’t we. And yet we continue to wear glass bangles. Each they break, we buy new ones hoping that these will last longer than the others did. How silly we women are. We should wear bangles made of granite and turn our hearts into the same. But they wouldn’t catch the light so prettily or sing so gaily…
- Once she had thought that she couldn’t love another man as she had loved Hari. Giving him all of her body and soul. This morning, she thinks anything is possible. That she has the courage to pick up from where she left off and begin again. That much as she desired Hari, she desired life more.
- So this then is Akhila. Fourty-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 content.

Recipe from Ladies Coupé:
1 ½ cups of lentils, preferably red
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
2 finely chopped onions
½ teaspoon of chill powder
1 teaspoon of curry powder
½ teaspoon of turmeric
2 tablespoons of dried coconut
1 cup of water
1 teaspoon of salt
1 medium cauliflower
juice of half a lemon

Wash and soak the lentils overnight, before cooking. Heat the vegetable oil in a deep frying pan and brown the onions. Add the pieces and cook for one or two minutes. Add the lentils, coconut, water and salt and bring to the boil. Cut the cauliflower into small pieces and add to the sauce. Cover the pan and cook until the cauliflower is soft. Add the lemon juice and serve with boiled rice.

I should have added that not only does Anita Nair -who lives in Bangalore-, run a publicity company and write a weekly column in a newspaper, she also is a foody writing about restaurants….

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