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Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe: A Poststructuralist Critique

 


Anita Nair’s Ladies Coupe: A Poststructuralist Critique

 

Sushanta Sarkar

M.A. in English

University of Gour Banga

Malda, West Bengal, India

 

Abstract:

 

The world is organised in terms dictated by men and in the interests of men. Culture plays a vital role in constructing and fixing identity. It originates from the fundamental perception of the patriarchal structure. In order to question the place and role of women in the patriarchal circle, feminist criticism is concerned with the representation of women in literature and the changing woman’s behavioural patterns in society. French writers like Julia Kristeva, Helen Cixous and Luce Irigaray were influenced by the poststructuralist criticism and the psycho-analytic theories of Jacques Derrida and Lacan. Both Lacan and Derrida expose the fragility of the rational order that exists in the society. Lacan explains the symbolic order or language and culture with the rules centered around the phallus and the father. He discusses how the patriarchal values have permeated even fundamental things like the structure of language and the psyche. Nair’s Ladies Coupe is a cirtique of existing definitions and representations of woman. By creating a radical character Akhila, Nair has created a new phase of female subject. The patriarchal system finds Akhila as passive object, but Akhila decentres the patriarchy and ascends into the centre by redefining her body. One cannot fix Akhila as a female body as she is capable of enacting her role as a male subject by choosing a sexual partner for herself. By demystifying womanhood, Akhila forges her new identity. Just as language is slippery giving way to various interpretations, woman is also capable of playing multiple roles and identities in the process of becoming. Thus the fragility of the ideological order of society is stressed by the Poststructuralists. This criticism is useful in dismantling the values of patriarchal culture and re-examining the cultural and social order.

 

Keywords: Culture, Gender, Identity, Patriarchy, Poststructuralist, Woman

 

The world is organised in terms dictated by men and in the interests of men. Culture plays a vital role in constructing and fixing identity. It originates from the fundamental perception of the patriarchal structure. In order to question the place and role of women in the patriarchal circle, feminist criticism is concerned with the representation of women in literature and the changing woman’s behavioural patterns in society. French writers like Julia Kristeva, Helen Cixous and Luce Irigaray were influenced by the poststructuralist criticism and the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Derrida and Lacan. Both Lacan and Derrida expose the fragility of the rational order that exists in the society. Lacan explains the symbolic order or language and culture with the rules centered around the phallus and the father. He discusses how the patriarchal values have permeated even fundamental things like the structure of language and the psyche.

 

The anti-essentialist position views cultural identity as one organised around points of difference. Cultural identity is seen not as reflection of a fixed, natural state of being, but as a process of becoming. There is no essence of identity to be discovered. But cultural identity is continually being produced within the vectors of similarity and difference. Cultural identity is not an absolute one, but one which undergoes many shifts. The points of difference around which cultural identities could form are multiple and proliferating. They include the identification of class, gender, sexuality, age, morality and religion. Each of this discursive position is itself unstable. The meaning of masculinity and femininity are subject to continual change since meaning is never finite and complete. Thus identity becomes a strategic positioning which makes meaning possible. The anti – essentialist position points out to the political nature of identity as a production and to the possibility of multiple, shifting and fragmented identities which can be expressed in a variety of ways. The post structural critics are of the opinion that identities are contradictory and dislocate each other. No single identity can act as an overarching organizing identity. Identities change according to how subjects are addressed, are represented. As such, every woman is constituted by fractured, multiple identities. The shifting and changing of identities mark the way in which one defines himself and others.

 

In Anita Nair’s reputed novel Ladies Coupe, the main character Akhilandeswari undergoes many shifts before evolving her identity. At first, Akhila is an obedient, passive daughter living within a confined, domestic sphere. Her identity has been defined as a dependant being with no freedom for herself. In order to cover her womanly feelings, she wears shift cotton sarees. Her kolams are drawn within the dots established by man-made society. There are fixed points prescribed for her to establish her identity as a Hindu Brahmin house woman, Sarasumami, who is abandoned as a widow from the Brahminical society has no other means of survival but to sell her daughter Jeya as a prostitute. She is viewed as ‘other’, an object of contempt by Akhila’s mother. The novelist explains the reaction of the other Brahmin women thus:

 

Then they talked in voices that quivered with righteous indignation of the slur Sarasumami was inflicting by this brazen behavior. On Subramani Iyer’s good name. On the Brahmin community. On womanhood. Wasn’t there a more honourable way to stay alive. (Nair 81)

 

Woman’s individuality is suppressed because of the structural values associated to her gender. Akhila’s mother puts Akhila in the role of a man as she becomes a bread winner of the family. Again as a gendered subject, Akhila is denied the privileges which her father has enjoyed as a bread winner. Akhila redefines her identity after she listens to Karpagam’s words : “live alone, Build a life for yourself where your needs come first” (Nair 202). She shifts her fixed identity from a passive object into a subject who can handle any issue. Hence she assumes an assertive tone and claims her right to live alone: “why should I not live alone?... I can look after myself” (Nair 206).

 

Akhila establishes herself as an autonomous being who needs none to sustain herself. Hence she turns down the passionate love offered by Hari who is much younger than herself. She does not want to barter her self-dignity by marrying a man whom the society views as his younger brother. In separating herself from her lover, she wants to redeem her distinct self, though her separated self does not help her to fulfill her passions and dreams. Hence the cultural feminists attack the post structural view of woman as a deconstructed being with no identity of her own. Linda Alcoff in her essay Cultural Feminism versus Post structuralism: The Identity crisis on Feminist Theory alleges, “… an effective feminism could only be a negative feminism deconstructing everything and refusing to construct everything” (Alcoff).

 

Being a radical, Akhila collapses all the binary oppositions framed by selfish men and tries to establish a separate zone for herself. At Kanyakumari, she feels the potential strength of her female body and releases herself from the deadlock of sensations. This makes herself a feminine self. Akhila searches herself and in this process gains her identity as a feminine. As a radical, Akhila refuses to play the role of feminine and Karpagam informs her “..it is natural for a woman to want to be feminine. It has nothing do with whether she is married or not” (Nair 202).

 

Akhila’s biological body as a woman should be appeased to gain herself. Akila undertakes a journey from being a passive object to reach her selfhood as a woman across many phases. In each phase, Akhila assumes different identities. Thus Akhila exhibits contradictory characters in the course of her action. At times, she is very passive, allowing herself to be exploited by all her family members as a spinster. By slowly regaining her identity as an individual, she becomes a rebel against the society and culture. At last she gains an awareness that her femininity needs a man fulfill her identity as a woman. In the words of Rosi Braidotti: “… Feminist theory is not only a movement of critical opportunity of the false universality of the subject, it is also the positive affirmation of woman’s desire to affirm and enact different forms of subjectivity” (qtd, in Eagleton 411).

 

Nair’s Ladies Coupe is a cirtique of existing definitions and representations of woman. By creating a radical character Akhila, Nair has created a new phase of female subject. The patriarchal system finds Akhila as passive object, but Akhila decentres the patriarchy and ascends into the centre by redefining her body. One cannot fix Akhila as a female body as she is capable of enacting her role as a male subject by choosing a sexual partner for herself. By demystifying womanhood, Akhila forges her new identity. Just as language is slippery giving way to various interpretations, woman is also capable of playing multiple roles and identities in the process of becoming. Thus the fragility of the ideological order of society is stressed by the Poststructuralists. This criticism is useful in dismantling the values of patriarchal culture and re-examining the cultural and social order.

 

Works Cited

 

Eagleton, Terry. Feminist Literary Theory. Basic Blackwell, 1989.

 

Nair. Anita. Ladies Coupe.Penguin Books, 2001.

Alcoff, Linda. “Cultural Feminism versus Post-structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory”. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, vol. 13, no. 3, 1988, pp. 405- 436.