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The Oldest Love Story – In Conversation with Editor Rinki Roy

The Oldest Love Story, edited and curated by Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao published by Om Books International, 2022, carries multiple voices across cultures on a most ancient bond and nurtures pertinent questions and observation, which hope to redefine the role.

‘Antara 1’

Antara rising from primordial waters
As the first sun, forever new, forever old,
You made me the universe.
History and prehistory filed through me hand in hand 
In gradual evolution.
Antara, because of you
I have earned the right to enter
The tenfold halls of my foremothers.
Clutching your baby hands in my fist,
I have made the future a debtor to me
Antara, in an instant you have filled all time
By your grace I am coeval with the Earth today.

-- Nabanita Dev Sen, The Oldest Love Story(2022)

The Oldest Love Story, curated by two eminent authors and journalists, Rinki Roy Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao, is an anthology that not only describes a human’s first love, their mother, and their lives, but also explores the social and psychological outcomes and ramifications of motherhood with powerful narratives from multiple writers. They range from eminent names like the late Nabanita Dev Sen, Shashi Deshpande, Kamala Das to Bollywood personalities like Shabana Azmi and Saeed Mirza and contemporary names like Amit Chaudhuri or Maithili Rao herself.

The anthology has narratives clubbed into three sections: ‘Being a Mother: Rewards and Regrets’, ‘Outliers’, ‘Our Mothers: Love, Empathy and Ambivalence’. The headings are descriptive of the content of each section. These real-life narratives, some of which include translations by editors Roy and Rao among others, make for interesting and fresh perspectives of the age-old story that is as natural as water or air. More than two dozen diverse voices as well as Roy’s powerful “Preface” and Rao’s exhaustive “Introduction” paint motherhood in new colours, giving it an iridescence that glitters with varied shades. Stories of what mothers faced — bringing up a child with Down’s syndrome, a child who drove his roommate to suicide and yet another daughter who marries a man old enough to be her father — bring us close to issues we face in today’s world.

One of the most interesting and unusual aspects of this book is at the end of each essay is a takeaway from the narrative where the writers write about themselves. This is not a biography but a description of the writers’ perception about their mother or what they learnt from their experience of motherhood. The most interesting takeaway is given by Shabana Azmi, who wrote of her dynamic mother Shaukat Kaifi (1926-2019).

“I am cut from the same cloth as her. But who am I?

“I would say I’m a woman, an Indian, a wife, an actress, a Muslim, an activist, etc. My being Muslim is only one aspect of my identity but today it seems as though a concerted effort is being made to compress identity into the narrow confines of the religion one was born into, at the absence of all other aspects. This is not the truth about India. India’s greatest truth is her composite culture.

“The Kashmiri Hindu and the Kashmiri Muslim have much more in common with each other because of their ‘Kashmiriyat’ than a Kashmiri Muslim and a Muslim from Tamil Nadu in spite of them sharing a common religion. To me, my cultural identity is much stronger than my religious identity.”

And she concludes: “My mother taught me that identity must not be a melting pot in which individual identities are submerged. It should be a beautiful mosaic in which each part contributes to a larger whole.”

Major social issues are taken up in multiple narratives. Mirza used the epistolary technique to describe how his mother discarded her burqa forever in Pre-Partition India.

“You were emerging from the hall of the Eros theatre and were about to wear your burqa in the foyer when Baba popped the question to you.

“‘Begum, do you really want to wear it?’

“You told me you paused for a moment, and then you shook your head. And that was that. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I am trying to imagine that moment. The year was 1938 and you had been wearing a burqa ever since you were thirteen years old.”

Mannu Bhandari’s spine-chilling narrative of her mother, a child bride around the time when Mirza’s mother shed her burqa, shows a young girl punished and abused for accidentally tearing her sari. It showcases a conservative, abusive culture where women turn on women. An extreme contrast to the bold maternal outlook described by Mirza or Azmi, the narrative highlights the reason why women need to protest against accepting familial abuse bordering on criminality. That these three mothers lived around the same time period in different cultures and regions of India only goes to enhance the large diaspora of beliefs, customs and cultures within one country.

Dalit writer, Urmila Pawar’s reasserts her mother’s belief, “A woman is a wife for only a while/ She is a mother all her life.” “Screams Buried in the Walls” by Sudha Arora dwells on the abuse borne by women to pander to societal norms. Narratives of abuse of women who could not stand up to social malpractices seem to have turned into lessons on what not to do for daughters who condemn patriarchal norms for the suffering their mothers faced.

On the other hand, Shashi Deshpande tells us: “Motherhood becomes a monster that devours both her and her young; or, when the children go away, there is an emptiness which is filled with frustration and despair. I have been saved from this because of my work. My children no longer need me, but my life does not seem empty.” While Shashi Deshpande found her catharsis by writing her stories, Deepa Gahlot, justifies her stance of remaining unmarried and childless by espousing a voice against motherhood.  She contends that the only reason to perceive motherhood as a viable alternative would be propagation of the species. But concludes with an interesting PS: “Does it even make sense to bring a child into such an ugly, nasty, brutal world?” As one hears of senseless violence, wars and mass shootings in the news, Gahlot’s words strike a chord. She has actually researched into the subject to draw her conclusions. But one would wonder how would humankind propagate then — out of test tubes in a bleak scenario like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932)? Would humans really want such an inhuman existence?

I would rather go with Dev Sen’s outlook. While she emoted on motherhood in her poems on her daughter Antara, she has given a powerful prose narrative elucidating her own perspective. Antara, the daughter to who these poems are addressed, has given a beautiful takeaway on her mother at the end of Dev Sen’s narrative. Despite being abandoned by her husband, Amartya Sen, who later became a Nobel laureate, Dev Sen not only fulfilled herself as a woman and a mother but threw out an inspiring statement that well sums up motherhood for some: “[C]ould I do anything to make this planet worthy for my kids?”

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya, one of the editors of this sparkling collection and author of a number of books, especially on the legendary film maker, her father, Bimal Roy (1909-1966), had published an earlier collection on a similar theme called, Janani (Mother, 2006). She agreed to tell us more about the making of this meaty and gripping anthology, The Oldest Love Story.

Editor Rinki Roy Bhattacharya at the book launch in Mumbai. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

Motherhood as a concept that is ancient, natural, and yet, not fully understood nor explored. What made you think of coming up with this collection that highlights not only stories of mothers and how it influenced women but also discusses the process of being a mother?

The present collection, titled “The Oldest love Story” goes back several decades. This is mentioned in my preface. It began when I woke up to the fact that I was redundant as a mother. By the time the children had grown up one-by-one and left home. I began to explore the situation with other women to understand, why we give so much importance to motherhood? Foolishly, I felt. Motherhood as a concept is indeed natural but taken for granted. I have a problem with that. My maid, Laxmi, is a classic example of a mother who is exploited to the hilt by her children. She is blind to their exploitation and refuses any change that will help her live with comfort or dignity. As if women are just mothers and nothing else?

Was it a personal need or one that you felt had to be explored given the current trend towards the issue where women are protesting the fact that looking after children saps them of individuality? Can you please explain?

I answered this issue as have others in this book. The deep resentment that follows after raising kids who then go away to find greener pastures, is an extremely common, and collective experience for most parents. Particularly in the Indian context. Parents cannot let go. The main reason, I think is, the parent’s fear. The fear of who will light the funeral pyre if not the son? In the event of not having a son,  a close male relative takes over. Do you see the gender bias, the patriarchal assumption? Daughters are not considered legitimate enough to light the pyre?! Yet it is daughters who care for elderly parents in most cases.

This is not the case in Europe, nor the West, where children are expected to become independent very early. In fact, European teenagers seize their independence at the earliest opportunity. It is the expected thing, and no one resents that inevitable shift.

You had an earlier collection called Janani (Mother). Did that have an impact on this book?

I am glad you referred to Janani, published by Sage books in 2006. That collection is the cornerstone of our new book. In this collection, we have included eight extraordinary essays from Janani. We have retained, for example, Kamala Das and Shashi Deshpande to name two. And guess what we discovered out of the blue? In the oldest love story, we have several Sahitya Akademi winners amongst our writers, including these stalwarts. This raises our book to a huge literary stature.

How was it to work jointly on a book with Maithili Rao? Did you both have the same vision for the book?

Working with Maithili was fantastic, and it was great fun. She is the most generous of people and shares without fuss. Ours was a good partnership. I could not have produced this book without Maithili. She has been and continues to be a rock.

You have done many translations for the book. Why is it we did not find an essay from you as we did from Maithili Rao?

Yes, I did. I helped fine-tune Mannu Bhandari’s story It ranks as one of my personal favourites. Her narrative is beautifully visual. I find it cinematic. I also translated Sudha Arora’s poignant essay. Sudha is a noted Hindi writer. It was, however, difficult for me to write my personal story. But the hope is, our next reprint will carry a story I wrote on my son Aditya’s birthday in 2021. In this I have given graphic details of how childbirth robs women of their dignity in the so-called natural process of birthing children. My essay is entertaining and somewhat satirical in style.

You have written a beautiful preface to the book, reflecting your own experience with your children. Were you, like the other writers, impacted by your mother?

I take that as a compliment. Yes, I wrote a heartfelt preface. My relationship with my mother, admittedly, was a strained one. Our age difference was just eighteen years…whatever the reason, I have not been able to fathom or pinpoint it. So, I thought it was best to refrain from the troubled territory.

Would you say that Bollywood had some bearing on the book as a number of writers are from within the industry? Also, your father, the eminent Bimal Roy, made a movie called Maa in 1952. If so how. Please explain.

I do not see any bearing from Bollywood. The fact we have eminent personalities from the world of cinema, for example, Shabana Azmi, Saeed Mirza, and Lalita Lazmi do not make it a Bollywood-driven work. My father, Bimal Roy’s Bombay debut was with a film called Maa. Apparently, Maa was inspired by a Hollywood film titled Over the Hills. The main protagonist was an elderly mother of two sons. Maa bared a socially relevant issue, elder abuse, that has been globally recognised and is prevalent. My father’s empathy for the elderly is well documented in this fictional account. In day-to-day life, my father supported the elderly. His widowed aunt in Benaras was maintained by him. His brothers were educated and helped by his generosity. Compassion was his second nature. From him, I learned that a silent, discreet way to support others is the best way to reach out.

There are so many women in the anthology who reiterated the huge impact their mothers had on them, and they were quite critical of their ‘patriarchal’ fathers. Do you think this is true for all women? At a personal level, did your father or mother have a similar impact on you?

I am glad to hear that these woman are critical of their patriarchal fathers…while most women tend to overlook the patriarchal aspect. In general, women tend to ignore or even neglect, their mothers. In my case, it was distinct. My cultural upbringing was instilled by my father’s secular and inclusive vision and social values. These played a decisive part. Much more than my mother, who was a gifted photographer. My parents, by the way, were a made for each other couple. Rarest of rare in the movie industry. My father is my mentor. If you contemplate his well-loved films, let us take Sujata [1959], for one. I have yet to see another film that speaks so eloquently of social boycott. It is not just the caste issue of Sujata, which doubtless is the main thrust. It is the combined forces of class, caste, and gender that play havoc with human relationships as portrayed compassionately in this work.

Yes, Sujata is indeed a beautiful film and your book has taken up many of the issues shown in the movie through the voice of mothers, whether it is caste or religion. Was this intentional or was it something that just happened?

The voices of our contributors in the book are of individuals who write with exemplary honesty and spontaneously. Nothing is contrived in their writings. We did not brief our writers to take up any specific issue. They wrote from the heart.

One of the trends that emerged from my reading of the book was that educated and affluent mothers through the ages had it easier than child brides and less educated mothers, whose children also reacted with more vehemence, looking for a better world for themselves. Do you feel my observation has some credence? Please comment on it.

I do not agree entirely. Bearing children, and raising them in our complex, the confusing socio-economic culture is a challenging matter for all mothers. For all parents in fact. Child brides are subjected to it more intensely than others. There are no shortcuts, nor ready-made answers.

There is an essay against motherhood in this anthology. Do you agree with the author that it is a redundant institution and can be replaced by test-tube babies? Do you not think that could lead to a re-enactment of what Aldous Huxley depicted in Brave New World

I think, you mean Deepa Gahlot’s essay. This was from the earlier collection. Deepa is entitled to her views. As are others. I think many younger women would agree with Deepa. Balancing motherhood with one’s professional life is a knotty business. I know women who have opted for one or the other to do full justice to it.

Yes, it was Deepa Gahlot’s essay. As you have rightly pointed out in your preface, motherhood can be interpreted variously. What do you see as the future of motherhood in India, and in the world?

Motherhood, remains subjective. Interpreted differently in each case. Every childbirth is a different experience. It may be life-threatening. A case to note is my dear friend Smita Patil’s. She died giving birth. But, I doubt women will stop being mothers, or abandon stereotypical mothering options that live up to that Deewar [Wall, 1975] dialogue: “Mere paas maa hain [I do not have a mother]”. There is a change, a shift, nonetheless, it is slow. Women are afraid to rock this entrenched image of motherhood. At least in India. I know successful women filled with guilt that they failed to be good mothers.

Well, that is certainly a perspective that needs thought.What books and music impact your work?

I read both Bangla and English. After leaving Calcutta where I read the children’s Ramayana, Raj Kahini, or stories by Tagore and Sukumar Ray. But there was an interruption when I got into an English medium school. Culturally I moved out of Bengal. During that phase, my mother introduced me to Agatha Christie. I was 12 years perhaps…I devoured her works. And I still do. Christie fascinates me.

I fell in love with the piano and began to learn it. As a result, Chopin, Mozart, and Liszt were my musical inspirations. I also learned Rabindra sangeet and Manipuri dance in Calcutta…. there was no dearth of cultural grooming. We are especially fortunate that our parents enjoyed the best in performing arts. Pandit Sivakumar Sharma, the great santoor maestro who just passed away, played at home. Sitara Devi danced for private programs. We were wrapped in a rich tapestry of culture.

What is your next project? Are you writing/ curating something new?

I am a compulsive writer, always itching to write.  I believe that writers do not age…they mature and get better. Currently, I am compiling non-fiction episodes about some of the most celebrated artists from Indian cinema who I was privileged to meet…the collection may be titled, Brief Encounters. Writing keeps me creatively busy. Before I sign off, we have to thank our editor Shantanuray Chaudhuri for his unconditional support to make this book a reality. He has been marvellous.

Thank you for taking our work seriously.

Thank you for giving us your time and answering the questions

From Left to Right: Rinki Roy, Maithili Rao and Shabana Azmi at the Mumbai book Launch in June 2022. Photo sourced by Rinki Roy

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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