ALL ABOUT MOTHERS: THE OLDEST LOVE STORYby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri May 5 2022, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 6 secs
In a conversation with writer and journalist Maithili Rao, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri discusses the new anthology on motherhood she has just edited with Rinki Roy Bhattacharya
Motherhood is one of the most conflicting of paradoxes in human relationships. Though if popular culture, Hindi cinema, for example, is any indication, it is the be all and end all of womanhood. Mothers are seen as the archetypical Shakti, the Annapurna, the Madonna. But what about the women who have lived through it? Is it actually the ecstatic experience it is made out to be? In our propensity to elevate motherhood to almost godly status, have we missed the forest for the trees? What does it mean to be a mother? And of course, also, a daughter for that matter…
A new anthology (edited by Maithili Rao and Rinki Bhattacharya Roy), The Oldest Love Story, looks at the concept of mother from the prism of 24 essays by mothers, daughters, and 2 sons. Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri, who published this anthology for Om Books International, spoke to Maithili Rao on the genesis of the anthology, the selection of contributors and the decision to have only two male voices.
Give us an insight into how the anthology originated. What was the thought behind putting this together?
It all started over a sumptuous South Indian lunch, wine and non-stop conversation. Conversation that was informed, stimulating and explored new ideas. It was for a book club meeting in Mysore. A friend who read Rinki’s earlier collection on motherhood suggested that we discuss it for our next meeting. Rinki was so excited that she decided to come down for a couple of days. The response and spontaneous sharing of our own stories enthused her. The next day, before she left for Bombay, she said it was a good time to bring out another collection on the subject that resonated so strongly with a group of well-read and discerning women. The seed for a new collection was planted and she insisted I co-edit it with her. It then grew into this more wide-ranging anthology.
Rinki and I felt that motherhood is not going out of fashion anytime soon - if ever! And the challenges are multiplied now. We retained some essays from the original collection. They are as valid and insightful now as they were when first written. The authors held the copyright and gladly gave it for this new collection.
We know that motherhood is as old as life itself but the concepts and expectations change with every decade. We wanted to explore these challenges in the context of professional women who do the delicate balancing act between motherhood and work. Women today don’t take motherhood for granted, as something inevitable in a woman’s life. There are choices to be made. We looked for more varied perspectives. Our aim was to get authentic stories told in their own voices. Voices that is introspective when sharing deeply personal experiences.
How did you go about selecting the contributors for the anthology? What were you looking for in the essays?
We wanted writers from languages other than English. From different cultures and backgrounds. We were aware that much can be lost in translation but did our best to weigh each word to get the essence of the original. When I settled in Mysore, I happened to see Vaidehi in conversation with a critic. I realised how eminent and widely read this Sahitya Akademy award winner is. We had to get her to write for us.
We got lucky. Sudha Arora, Rinki’s friend, is a Hindi writer and she suggested Mannu Bhandari’s essay on her mother. We again lucked out and discovered two marvellous writers from Assam, Asha Kuthari Chaudhuri and Roopa Barua. It seemed serendipity was particularly benign.
Deeply personal, sometimes very painful stories told with transparent honesty, turned out to be records of social history. We were searching for original perspectives that would overcome the inevitable nostalgia that is part of writing about your mother. It is a fine balance between emotion and objectivity.
Mannu Bhandari writes about her mother’s harrowing life as a 12-year-old new bahu of a well-to-do orthodox family. Bhandari is angry with her mother. That she bore it all without protesting; it was the condition of women a little more than 100 years ago.
A totally different cultural context comes from Vaidehi’s tribute to her mother who kept an open house in a small Dakshina Karnataka town. Her mother was a vibrant, empathetic homemaker, alive to the struggles of ordinary folk who thronged their backyard. This had a deep impact on Vaidehi’s writing. So you get a glimpse into the background of two eminent women writers and the influences that shaped them.
Asha took us to the hitherto undiscovered lives of Marwari women who were marooned in culturally alien Assam. Her engaging three-generational saga unfolds the gradual change of attitudes and acceptance. C.S. Lakshmi brings her storytelling skills to weave in the fragrance of jasmines, the aroma of rasam, the resonant strings of the veena on the thread of subtle humour.
You have a wide spectrum, from, say, Deepa Gahlot who absolutely abhors the concept of being a mother, to people who say that they wouldn’t have it any other way. How did you go about striking a balance?
We didn’t want a saccharine collection dripping with cloying sentimentality. Motherhood is not the inevitable destiny for every woman. Deepa Gahlot is bracingly honest about her decision not to succumb to the pressure of adopting a child. Her good friends argued that a woman is only complete when she becomes a mother, either biologically or by adoption. Deepa cites examples from her experience of how dissatisfied so many women are when they are saddled with unruly brats and ungrateful children who can’t be depended upon in one’s old age. Dissent is as important in a matter as personal as motherhood as it is in politics. Isn’t the personal also political?
Shashi Deshpande’s magisterial overview on mothering questions the assumption of motherhood coming naturally to women as a matter of instinct, something implanted in her DNA. Brutally honest, she points out how motherhood can devour a woman if she makes it central to her life.
Sita Bhaskar’s story is the only fiction in the anthology. She too traces a mother’s burden of guilt when the son she has raised to leave home for college does the unpardonable. She encases the story in small telling details of everyday life of a desi family in the US. It is based on a real incident and the mother’s guilt weighs heavy on the narrative.
As a counter, we have Sandhya Sharma’s moving story of how she overcame her instinctive denial when she had a Down syndrome son. Slow acceptance of this fact was a tumultuous journey for a very young mother who learnt to overcome her challenges. She not only went on to get a master’s in special education but found her vocation as a developmental educator.
Women across generations have found this balance and through their stories, our book found its balance. Kamala Das summed up her journey as a full circle: from a teenage mother who was enthralled with her live baby toy to a detached matriarch who hesitates to hug her adult sons. Each woman who has birthed a child goes through the ups and downs, the highs and lows of motherhood. Our anthology captures both the stated and unstated that underlies these experiences.
There are only two males in the collection, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Amit Chaudhuri. Do you think it would have been a bit more representative to have men talk about their mothers?
Maybe it is a subconscious predilection. We had found so many women willing and eager to write about their mothers. I find that women can be critical and empathetic in equal measure when it comes to this subject. They can discover the woman behind the mother; peel her persona layer by layer. At some point in the growth to adulthood, women can see “the woman” behind the externals of circumstances and conditioning the mother has been subjected to.
Men have the Mere Paas Ma hai possessiveness, restricting the ability to see beyond the venerated image of the all-giving, ever-forgiving and loving mother. I am not for a moment denying that men can be objective about their mothers. I must confess that we already had so many essays that we actively did not look for men who would be willing to write about their mothers. Perhaps the fear of the Oedipal complex clouds our judgement. Confessional writing is rare among men. There are exceptions of course.
I had read Saeed Mirza’s absorbing first book Ammi, Letter to a Democratic Mother. From recollections of his childhood, fond without being sentimental, wryly self-critical at times, his remarkable Ammi emerges as a pragmatic woman who held her own. Saeed was too busy to write another essay for us but generously offered his book to take as much as we could. It was difficult to select from a veritable treasury of stories that often had a political point to it.
Amit Chaudhuri gave us his charming poem that sees the quirks of his mother’s personality with such affection. It forms the perfect counterpoint to Vaidehi’s long poem, My Mother’s Sari, that marries memory to her own shortcomings when she tries to wrap herself in her Amma’s sari.
What is it about the concept of ‘motherhood’ that intrigues/fascinates you the most? Your thoughts on the mythical qualities we ascribe to and expect our mothers to have.
The fact that motherhood symbolises life makes it a magical myth. The paradox is the daunting reality women have to cope at many levels. I have always been interested in finding connections between contemporary culture, its popular icons and the poetic, historic connotations of mythology.
The earth mother is a concept expressed in art and poetry. Who can resist this archetypal connection, rich in suggestion and imagery? At the same time, it is absolutely essential to recognise contemporary reality and not get carried away by the mythical associations. Unlike the deified mother of mythology, women find it hard to be always giving, meeting every reasonable and unreasonable demand made on them. She is a human being first and then a mother.
Mother Annapurna, Shakti, Prithvi and Madonna, fertility goddesses of all folk cultures are abiding icons. It is inhuman to expect all these qualities of unconditional love, self-denial, of a fierce protector and warrior goddess in an all-too-human woman. Women often love their children without really liking them. Mothers too have expectations from children that are often unmet: of loyalty, acceptance of her moods, her commitment to work. Popular cinema has made her a devi to be put on a rickety pedestal. It is unjust to her and the children as well. Such unrealistic expectations are bound to crash-land on the hard ground of resentment and dissatisfaction.
As editor of the volume, what has been your greatest takeaway? In what way has it added to your understanding of motherhood?
It was a humbling and enriching experience. There are stories to be discovered everywhere, not just in the narratives of established writers. I felt that it was a cathartic experience for many of our writers. It made me realise that affection could exist alongside resentment, empathy with anger, and irritation with humour. When writing about the experience of being mothers, there is a searching look within. Something that is hard to do in a process that is being lived every day. I think it made me more forgiving of faults, my unjustified judgemental attitude and myself that crept in when writing about my own mother.
The deep vein that connects generations, through memory and retold family stories, are often centred round the mother. Honouring the “Motherline” is crucial at the subliminal level for emotional wellbeing, and deepening our understanding of the past. The rigid orthodoxy of the past held so many mothers captive - often as willing captives.
Girls have their biggest conflict with mothers in Indian society. The men, especially fathers and older brothers, carry the authority of patriarchy and exercise it in many ways, often thinking it is for the good of their daughters and sisters. That’s why the small and big quarrels often happen with mothers, because you are closer to her. Father figures are respected and in a patriarchal culture, it is rare to find emotional intimacy with them. The mother is taken for granted, and often familiarity may breed disdain from a more educated daughter. Women don’t want to be like their mothers. Love is mixed with rebellion against conformity.
Women found a key to their own journey of motherhood when writing about their mothers. We are all our mothers’ daughters and some of us go on to be mothers of daughters. It is fascinating to chart this continuum.