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 pubished by Om Books International, Gajra Kottary, returns to the short story. 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 5 stories in the collection that stand out for the subjects they deal with.
Autumn Blossoms is a rare collection in the annals of Indian writing in English. Here are 50 stories by Gajra, culled from a lifetime of writing, that all have at their centre a woman. As Anupam Kher says in a very perceptive foreword to the book,‘I once asked her why she confines herself to women. “Aren’t you leaving out the menfolk in your stories?” Her reply was pithy. “Because men too are more interested in women than in themselves!”’ Gajra herself writes in her ‘Afterthoughts’: ‘I have always liked to write about women, because they interested me much more than men. Writing about them was like peeling the layers of an onion, due to their layered personalities and the complexities that inform various dimensions of their lives.’
And lest men get the incorrect impression about a collection of stories with woman protagonists, the author is no fire-breathing ‘feminist’. Though there is never any doubt about which side of the gender coin her sympathies lie, one remarkable feature of the collection is how balanced her take is on the issue of gender. Not only does she not indulge in ritualistic flagellating of men, it is with a refreshing wonder that you encounter stories where the men not only get a fair hearing but also where the emerge as the ‘better half’ for a change.
A few years ago I read about how the phenomena of wife swapping (now at least it’s termed more politically correctly as partner swapping) had begun to infiltrate even smaller towns. I was shocked that such a thing even existed and began to read about it more and more … how these parties were organized, what actually happened there and more importantly what really was going on in the minds of the husbands who felt that it was okay to bring spice back into their bedrooms by being ‘fair’ and ‘letting’ the wives have some fun too. Most such men gave themselves a pat on the back for being so liberal. It got me thinking. Was this really being ‘liberal’? What if both partners were not equally enthusiastic about it? At the same time, did it it inadvertently open the eyes of an unexposed woman to a better alternative to her husband? Despite these parties having rules, could these rules be followed? It was fascinating to think of all the ifs-and-buts and it was even more challenging to make this into an audio book then. I have tried not to judge or be overly moral, but I leave it to the readers to figure what they would like to glean out of this story.
This one began with an innocuous statement from a friend of mine going through a divorce, about the double standards of men. She was describing one of her fights with her husband. It stemmed out of a hypothetical discussion between them about him confessing that though he had had many affairs before he got married, he was clear he wouldn’t want a wife with a similar past. She had accepted this from the start. She teasingly asked him: what if he discovered that she too had had an affair? His defiant response was, ‘I will kill you.’ The conversation intrigued me, preoccupied my thoughts. So I decided to write this as the content for bedroom talk between a husband and a wife – who is otherwise besotted and in new-found lust for her honest but double-faced husband. This isn’t a happily-ever-after story, unlike a lot of other stories I write. It might shock the readers.
Not Man Enough
This is a story that I surprised myself with 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 after I had done the short-story version, it refused to go away. It kept nagging at me until I wrote it as a full-length e-novel published in 2021 titled Not Woman Enough. The genesis of the story was a newspaper item on two women in the interiors of India declaring that they lived as man and wife and the furore it created more than two decades ago, before LGBTQ could become as acceptable as it is today. What struck me then was that both of them were very disillusioned with their parents and siblings and leaned on each other for life and love. It got me thinking about love beyond gender.
The Final Act
This is a story of pretence in a marriage. Unlike many other stories, there was no specific or immediate trigger for this one in terms of anything I had read or heard. If you come to think of it without the romantic blinkers we associate with marriage being a communion of souls beyond lifetimes, we will probably realize that the best marriages are a factor of the pretence that underlines it. It was entirely situational, coming out of just imagining a situation of a woman who had for the longest time pretended normalcy in marriage (we all know millions of such sham marriages) and how she would have to act grief stricken when her husband died, else all the pretence of all those years of marriage would be up for questioning. How she brings herself to pretend, one final time, to grieve his passing is what the story is all about. I actually felt really sad after writing this one for some reason.
This was written during a time I was intensely influenced by Roald Dahl, in terms of the macabre twist-in-the-tale style. But thematically it deals with a subject I often think about – our love-hate relationship with beauty. The fact that women feel impelled and compelled to look good, the discomfort and pain we are willing to endure so that we do, our self-worth which is so intensely coloured by how we look to others – all this is an important part of being a woman. I often wonder why we can’t liberate ourselves from the pressure. I do respect men, especially of my generation, who really couldn’t be bothered about their looks, beyond basic hygiene and being presentable. There was little vanity about them. Sometimes I wonder if isn’t something worth aspiring to in becoming equal with men? But then again, I too am guilty of giving in to the temptation of wanting to look younger and nicer than age allows me.