Indian author Nair’s first US publication offers a quietly powerful feminist message in the story of a middle-aged spinster, one who finds the courage and support to live independently as she and her fellow passengers on an overnight train share their stories.
Like so many travelers linked by chance and circumstance—here the six-berth overnight Ladies Coupe—the women tell their stories to pass the time, while Akhila, the protagonist, listens and adds her contributions. Now 45, Akhila gave up her education when her father died and she became the family breadwinner. She’s spent her life providing for them and now is taking a vacation to decide what she should do with the time left to her. Her siblings are shocked that she wants to live alone—she should be with the family, contributing her salary to their well-being—but Akhila is tired of their greed and self-absorption, and wants to live as she pleases. Listening to the other women, Akhila soon realizes that her feelings are not unusual. Between each story, Akhila adds her own: her brief affair with Hari, a younger man; a Christian friend who introduced her to eggs, a food her devout Hindu family thought unclean; and her thwarted efforts to live alone after her mother’s death. The first passenger’s tale is told by the elderly Janaki, who recalls how a visit to her son convinced her to live only for her husband, whom she loved deeply, rather than her selfish children. Sheela, a teenager, remembers her closeness to her imperious grandmother, who has just died; Margaret, a chemistry teacher, describes how she finally got even with her tyrannical, and possibly perverted, husband; wealthy Prabha, a wife and mother, tells of recapturing her independence when she learned to swim; and Mari, who was raped as a teenager, relates how she hated the son she bore as a result, even indenturing him to gain money, until she was ashamed of what she had done. As the journey ends, Akhila is ready to act.
On message, but with refreshing subtlety.