Interview — Rinki Bhattacharya & Maithili Rao

Rinki Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao in conversation with Amborish Roychoudhury

Motherhood, a Love Story: Rinki Bhattacharya and Maithili Rao in conversation with Amborish Roychoudhury on their delightfully complex anthology on mothers & motherhood. The pic above is from the official book launch.

Author-filmmaker Rinki Bhattacharya and film critic Maithili Rao came together to create a book on mothers and motherhood. It is called The Oldest Love Story, and it contains essays from voices as diverse as Shabana Azmi, Kamala Das, Saeed Mirza, Deepa Gahlot, Sudha Arora, Nabaneeta Dev Sen and a host of other luminaries. The book brings together a refreshingly complex set of perspectives on the idea of motherhood. Including some that ought to shake up established notions.

Rinki Bhattacharya comes from cinema royalty, being veteran director Bimal Roy’s progeny. She is also a documentary filmmaker, journalist and author. Maithili’s book Smita Patil: A Brief Incandescence has attained a cult following of its own. She is also an esteemed journalist and critic. They took out time to talk to me about their book, which has garnered generous praise in literary circles and among readers.


Amborish: Some of the stories were so heartrending and moving, I took my time going through them. How was this book conceived?

Rinki: I had already done a book called “Janani: Mothers, Daughters, Motherhood”. That was sometime around 2003 or 2004, and it was one of the season’s bestsellers. Maithili will tell you that I had gone with that book to Mysore…

Maithili: At Mysore, we have a thriving book club culture. One of the new members of our book club had come and on an impulse, I gave her Rinki’s book Janani. They wanted to discuss the book in the club. When I told RInki, she came all the way to Mysore to be a part of it. People could relate very strongly to the book. Some of them came forward with their own experiences. They loved Rinki. When Rinki was going back, she said to me, ‘I think we need to do a sequel to this book, and you have to come on board as co-editor.’ So I said ok. Then we decided together which pieces from that book could be used in the new one, and which new voices could be included. This is how The Oldest Love Story took shape.

Amborish: The book includes very diverse voices. It even has voices from the beyond, if I may say so. There are pieces by Kamala Das and Nabaneeta Dev Sen, both of whom passed away years ago. How were they obtained?

Rinki: I obtained an NOC from Nabaneeta’s daughter, Nandana Dev Sen. Nabaneeta had written in Bangla and it was translated to English. And the Kamala Das piece was from Janani. Unfortunately, they are not around to see the book, but I think it’s turned out very readable.

Amborish: Two of the things that grab your attention when you pick up the book are the cover and the title of the book. How did you arrive at the title? It’s such a poignant and powerful title.

Rinki: It just popped into my mind. I was thinking about the children. The thing is, we don’t love anybody as much as we love our children. So I thought, it is the “oldest love story” in that sense. And the title clicked very well.

Maithili: We had about 4-5 different possibilities, but nothing stuck. Once The Oldest Love Story was found, we said we are simply not going to look anymore, we’re all set.

Rinki: And there’s an interesting story about the cover. I suddenly got a call from Jamini Roy’s grandson in Kolkata. He had read my Janani book at a friend’s place and loved it. He said if I ever wanted any of Jamini Roy’s paintings, I was to get in touch with him.  I was so touched. I told him that we were in fact thinking of another book. So he sent me two images which belonged to a private collector. We preferred this one for The Oldest Love Story. This is so unlike Jamini Roy’s other paintings. Very impressionistic and just beautiful.

Maithili: It’s so tender, the whole gesture of protecting that baby, and the colors are so earth colors. I think we couldn’t have found a better painting than that.

Amborish: It has been said in the introduction that this book is not some kind of a feminist manifesto. But it is the woman’s perspective as the daughter/mother that lends these stories their power. How do you look at this?

Maithili: I think daughters have a much more complex relationship with their mothers than sons. I’m not generalizing, but most sons don’t see the woman behind the mother. For daughters it’s not just a bond, it can be a cross as well. We didn’t want anyone to write with the feminist agenda. Now, feminism comes through the way you see a woman in those circumstances. What are the forces working for her and against her? How does she overcome them? If a daughter can see that struggle and then write about it honestly then the organic feminism in it comes through. Also, I don’t think we had any refusals from anyone to write.

Rinki: Except one, which I have to share with Amborish. Maithili tried to enthuse me into writing about my mother. I found it impossible. It just wasn’t coming out. Because I had a very complex relationship with my mother. It was just not possible. It would have been a very grim peace and not spontaneous. I just gave up. I eventually wrote a piece about the birth of my son, where she also appears. We plan to use it for a future edition of the book.

Amborish: All these years, cinema and literature have largely upheld the picture of a sacrificing mother and devoted children. But The Oldest Love Story is refreshingly complex. Was this a thought right from the beginning?

Maithili: Deepa Gahlot’s chapter is a dissenting voice that says it’s not essential for a woman to be a mother to feel complete. I mean, that’s her argument. I thought we needed that voice. That’s very essential. It speaks for a generation of women who choose to remain childless by choice, you know. And Shoma Chatterji…her parents had a very troubled relationship. We see the anger that she felt about her very liberal father, who couldn’t be supportive of his wife.

Amborish: Maithili ji, in your own story you were very candid about your mother’s relationship with your father. Your step-brothers and sisters appear in the story, not essentially in a favourable light. What was going through your mind? Were you worried about the reactions?

Maithili: My sister was very affectionate, like a surrogate mother. Akka passed away more than ten-eleven years ago, but I knew she would never read it anyway. She was only into film magazines and things like that. My oldest brother, he also passed away 3 years ago. There’s a half-brother who lives in the US and is married to a Norwegian. He’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. So there is no one to feel hurt on behalf of their parents. My cousins read it, but they knew all of that. Some of them did not, they were very young. They didn’t know the details. Some of them weren’t even aware of the death of my youngest brother and how it was so hard…my mother was almost collapsing with grief at that point.

Amborish: The book is structured very interestingly. There is a series of essays and suddenly there’s a bunch of poems, and it’s also segmented accordingly, which is beautiful. How did that idea of inserting verse between essays come about?

Maithili: Once we had the introduction and the preface, we decided we’ll start with the smaller section on motherhood, followed by the two outliers. I didn’t know what else to call them. There’s Deepa’s dissenting essay and then there’s Saeed Mirza’s piece which is an excerpt from his book. We put them both together in one section. We were looking for a section divider after this. Actually, we had a very nice poster that we wanted to use – a Russian poster of Bimal Roy’s film Maa, which we wanted to be a section divider. But it wasn’t producing well. The colours were bleaching out. We realised it would detract from the book rather than add anything. It was then that the poems became the section divider.

Amborish: A lot of this book is looking back. Many of them are looking back at their mothers’ lives and maybe juxtaposing them with their own experiences. But the whole motherhood experience might also be changing as we speak. With that in mind, do you think that a follow-up to this book could be on the cards?

Rinki: Maybe not a follow-up, but definitely many new pieces are going to be included in the next edition of the book. Like Girish Karnad’s story about his mother can be an addition. So can be my piece, and my daughter Anwesha’s piece can also be included. In the earlier book Janani, Anwesha’s piece was about losing a child. An extremely dark piece, but it got the most attention. So, all those different kind of stories will be featured in the reprint. Also a very exciting news is that some schools are going to include The Oldest Love Story in their syllabus.

Maithili: It is additional reading material for 11th standard students. And I have a feeling that this book should go even to the Women Studies department. This is not an academic book. It is full of real-life experiences.



Amborish Roychoudhury is a National Film Award winning Hindi film historian, who writes for Outlook, Mubi, Free Press Journal, Live Mint, Deccan Herald, and First Post. In addition to two published books, one on Hindi cinema and another on Sridevi, he has completed the official biography of Raj Khosla, and is a co-author of a book on 70s Bollywood.

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