AUTUMN BLOSSOMS: OF MOTHERHOOD & OTHER RELATIONSHIPSby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri November 21 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 7 secs
The 50 stories in this collection, divided into three sections, deal with woman protagonists coping with the vagaries of relationships with men, with other women and with their own selves. The author spoke to Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri on the various aspects the protagonists in these stories deal with.
Award-winning screenwriter of some of India’s most popular television series, Gajra Kottary, started on her journey as a writer with short stories. With her sky-rocketing profile as a screenwriter, and her engagement with three novels published by HarperCollins Publishers, short stories took a back seat, until recently. With Autumn Blossoms, recently published by Om Books International, Gajra Kottary returns to the short story. Here she shares her thoughts with Editor, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.
This theme has been tangentially covered for a different class of women in ‘Sisters-in-Arms’, ‘Happily Ever After’ and ‘A Cure for All Ills’. The last two are special for me for another reason. They are also about how urban women can ‘learn’ about the art of survival from rural women’s lives, and both have journalists at their centre. One faces a professional situation and one a personal one. They were written many years apart and I analysed the pattern much later, while putting together this collection.
There are some other stories that deal with the emotional abuse that women often face. Of course, it makes them hate their partners, but why is it that many of them choose to stay on and find other options where no logical ones exist, either in the form of turning a blind eye or leveraging the one weapon they have in their arsenal – their sexuality perhaps?
Motherhood with a Twist
There are some stories in Autumn Blossoms that centre on a child and its mother. ‘The Tall Tale’, ‘Just for My Son’ and ‘Face-to-Face’ are all about different facets of motherhood. Then there are some about daughterhood, like ‘Papa’ and ‘Thank you. Pneumonia’. I am fascinated by how children process the reality of adult relationships around them. I am moved by the helplessness and lack of comprehension that children with disturbed families experience. Yet children are sometimes capable of selfless sacrifice and wisdom that far surpasses that of adults. My first novel, Broken Melodies, was the story of a girl growing up in a dysfunctional family from the age of seven to seventeen and it’s a very important theme that I believe needs to be dealt with in more stories. This has become more important with every passing year, as divorces are increasing and children are growing up lonely and confused. We need to get into their minds and hearts, to help them cope, and adults need to be sensitized for that
‘Two Gold Guineas’ covers the interpersonal relationships between a mother, daughter and grandmother. I write about what we need to learn and unlearn from each generation's choices of life and love, love and hate. I was even motivated to expand this story into a full-length novel titled Girls Don’t Cry. This generational interface is also reflected in stories like ‘Mother Comes Back’ and ‘Not without My Sister’. In the latter, for example, I touch upon a mother-daughter relationship in a new light. I believe that relationships between mothers and daughters are often fraught and competitive. I explore that in this tale, setting it in the backdrop of the film industry, which adds another layer to the already troubled nuances that mark the relationship. There are many stories which address this most fascinating aspect of a woman dealing with another woman. So often one hears a young woman say she would hate to be like her mom, and invariably she ends up being like her. She can’t help it. There’s love, there’s a friction arising out of that love, there are expectations they have from one another. Does the mother look upon the daughter as denoting the youth she has lost? Does the daughter resent being cast in the mother’s mould? Many stories in this collection deal with the intricacies of the relationship.
Women at the Workplace
In the last three decades of my observing women keenly I have seen the urban woman’s sense of self developing more and more. They have been soaring in terms of career, education etc., but I wonder if they are happier than their mothers who didn’t have these options. Is a work-life balance missing for them, or for the men for that matter? There is often this elephant in the room that we all sense but never speak about to play safe and I needed to address that in my stories, where I am not judging but merely throwing light at the place where I want. It’s up to the readers to determine and judge what they read. ‘Ms September’, ‘Broken News’, ‘Happily Ever After’ are just two examples. I would like to believe that these stories make you think about this issue. In these stories, sometimes the urban working woman needs to prove a point to herself and to the world and sometimes it’s she who learns a lesson.
Women’s Desire to be in the Spotlight
Ah! This is a proper and huge elephant in the room and frankly it exists as much with men as it does with women. Most of the time a woman wants her share of the sunshine. It’s a fantasy, which is not talked about too much but exists, usually subliminally. Everyone wants to be famous and recognized and these times of social media have made this need even more sharp. I am always fascinated and curious as to why both men and women do crazy things to somehow be in the limelight. And those who are in the limelight for genuine reasons want to desperately hang on to it, by hook or by crook. This actually takes away the magic of life itself. It’s a bit like how we forget to enjoy moments while on a holiday or at an outing at a restaurant because we are preoccupied with capturing it on our phone cameras for posterity and social media.
Some of the stories that look at this phenomena are ‘A Heroine’ (in which paralysis stops a woman in her tracks), ‘A Race Against Time’ (a woman with the death wish), ‘Ms September’ (a blind chase for success in showbiz), ‘Sugar and Spice’ (a lesser twin shows the way to the more successful one), ‘Dawn to Dawn’ (a special story – my first-ever fiction stemming from a newspaper clipping around the Sri Lanka crisis, also triggered by an article I wrote about women political leaders in South Asia coming into their own after the departure/tragic deaths of their husbands and fathers).
Relationships – unhappy marriages, relationships with the self
Whether we like it or not, most women are predominantly concerned with the men in their lives. As such, romance, marriage and challenges of marriages, including divorce, hold our attention. ‘Couple Goals’ and ‘A Clean Slate’ are two very different stories about man-woman relationships, one optimistic, the other bizarre. Sometimes the challenges are the cause and sometimes the effect of an event. ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘Insane and Able’, ‘Papa’, ‘Such a Long Journey’, ‘The Final Act’, ‘The Perfect Switch’, ‘The Revelation’, ‘The Turning Point’, ‘Your Guilt or Mine’ are all about bad marriages, and what happens thereafter. As a writer, I believe that what makes an interesting story about this theme, ironically, is not breaking away, but surviving a bad marriage.
‘Not Man Enough’ is a story that I surprised myself with by writing. I am not intrinsically comfortable with writing about sexuality, and especially don’t consider myself being fit to write around subjects of alternate sexuality without proper research on it. But this one – after the short-story version refused to go away – nagged at me until I wrote it as a full-length e-novel published in 2021 titled ‘Not Woman Enough’. Of late, LGBTQ issues have been in the limelight and one gets the impression that there’s a greater acceptance for the choices we make vis-à-vis our sexual preferences despite the fact that our courts still do not recognize same-sex marriages. When I wrote ‘Not Man Enough’, this was not the case. The subject was taboo. Popular culture – films, literature, songs – rarely spoke about it openly. Also, the aspect of class and the rural-urban divide play an important part in such debates. While we might be self-congratulatory about our open-mindedness to such issues sitting in our air-conditioned condos in metro cities, the reality is stark in semi-urban areas, where such relationships can be a matter of honour and life and death.
Some stories speak of women and the choices they make for their lives, for they are expected to choose all the time, unlike the men. To be career women or housewives, put others before themselves or vice-versa – choices that men don’t have to make too often. For a man, it’s a given that he will be the earning member of the family. A woman is expected to bear children, keep home. Sometimes this creates angst, with families and relationships torn asunder.