Indian-origin writer Avni Doshi's first novel, Burnt Sugar, will be published internationally today. However, she is no stranger to critical acclaim.
Her book has already been longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize this week, with the judges calling it an 'utterly compelling read' that is 'emotionally wrenching but also cathartic, written with poignancy and memorability'. Last year, Burnt Sugar was published in India under the title 'Girl in White Cotton', and here too, Doshi garnered many praises from the critics for her unusual writing style and deft storytelling.
Doshi took seven years and went through eight drafts to complete her novel. She says that the most difficult part of the writing process was to not have any real feedback. "The hardest part was writing alone. Not having anyone to show your work to." the writer tells News18 in an email interview. "Having your husband read your work doesn’t count - he’s never going to be as harsh as he needs to be. I needed someone who was going to be willing to hurt me and gut the manuscript. I needed my very own Ezra Pound." she adds.
Burnt Sugar, at its core, is about a dysfunctional mother (Tara) - daughter (Antara) relationship. The book opens in Pune, where we meet the narrator, Antara, who is trying to cope with the declining memory of her mother, Tara, whom she resents deeply. "The relationships between mothers and daughters (and in general, the relationships between women) are really interesting to me. In particular mothers and daughters replicate each other and become foils for one another - I was fascinated by how we can contain these contradictions within our most intimate relationships," says Doshi.
Doshi masterfully interweaves past with the present narrative to show readers the root cause of Antara's resentment, and how Tara's impulsiveness and constant neglect of Antara during her childhood have shaped her as an individual, but more importantly, as a mother. Therefore, in some sense, this book is also about motherhood. Doshi's sentences have the precision of an acupuncturist's needle, and her writing style is spartan, stark. She draws up the mundaneness of Antara and Tara's lives in meticulous details, it feels more like studying a painting, than reading words. Perhaps, Ezra Pound would have liked this novel very much.
As the narrative of Burnt Sugar darts back and forth, time and memory become central themes in Doshi's book, and her characters carry the essence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's characters, who often walk through their present-day mundaneness, with their eyes in the past. "Time and memory are endlessly fascinating to me. Even when I worked in the art world, I was really interested in work that played with duration, decay, and transformation," says Doshi who had been a student of art history and worked as an art curator.
"Writers like Javier Marias are also so skilled at playing with registers of time in a single sentence. For me, the fascination with time and memory is not only in lived experience but also in how language is constructed... I’m really drawn to the way Marquez wrote time into his work, not just in terms of story, but also in language choice and tense." adds the author. Doshi chose the tense and the point of view of her novel wisely while writing its third draft and Antara's voice became the thread that carries the story forward. Antara's voice sets the tone right from the very beginning, and summarizes her entire existential turmoil in the first sentence of the book, "I would be lying if I said that my mother's misery has never given me pleasure."
Doshi writes Antara as someone who is often resentful, morbid, and sometimes really dark. By the end of the book, as Tara loses almost all her memory, Antara feeds her sugar every day, 'not to kill' her, but just to sedate her. '...she (Tara, her mother) consumes it like an addict. She becomes more like another sofa every day. No one notices this is the reason - no one makes the connection. They don't believe in science unless it comes from the mouth of a doctor and in the form of a tablet." Antara says in the book and then goes on to add, how easy it is to kill someone, slowly, sanctioned by friends and medicine. If that doesn't make your blood freeze I don't know what will.
But Antara is no sociopath, in Doshi's masterful hands, Antara is an articulate, and incisive woman merely flawed but not evil. "Characters must be flawed because people are flawed. I didn’t want Tara and Antara to feel like abstractions. I wanted them to be human, and as a result, to be damaged as we all are." says the author.
Through Antara, Doshi gives words to women's innermost feelings of resentment, guilt, and alienation, which we are often too afraid or ashamed to own up to even our own selves. Despite her morbidity, Antara doesn't alienate you as a reader, in fact, there are many places in the book, where you would find her relatable, especially when she is facing her overly critical mother, or treading gingerly as she articulates her thoughts to her husband, Dilip.
In one of the chapters, Antara describes her mother-in-law with a great deal of dark wit and says, " She (the mother-in-law) must have read up that the way to win a girl over, the girl who has stolen your son, is to make her believe that she has surpassed him in your heart. Kill her with kindness." In another chapter, she talks about the dangers of the proximity of neighbors, " Sometimes, while we (Antara and her husband) shout at each other, I imagine the neighbours on the other side pressing their ears up to the plaster. Or maybe they sit on their sofa side by side and watch the sounds invade their rooms, sounds that nearly take shape, shifting weight". During these passages, and many others in the book, like when she is a new mother and struggling to deal with postpartum-depression she is utterly familiar, made of flesh and bones.
Tara too, as Antara's 'obverse', is a wonderfully realized character. Doshi builds her past in an ashram in Pune, where she was the paramour of an Osho-like baba with vivid images. Many women from Doshi's family had been a part of Osho's ashram but the author said that she wrote more from imagination than from reality. "To be clear, the ashram in the novel is not the Osho ashram, but an invented one. I didn’t do any research about ashrams and actually I didn’t draw directly from my family’s stories very much. That’s because the women in my family aren’t great storytellers - they leave out a lot of details and I’m left to fill in the silences." she says.
"I suppose that’s how I wrote about the ashram - as an exercise in filling in those silences, using my imagination, my fears, and my expectations about what must have happened there," she adds. However, in depicting Tara's dementia, Doshi is very accurate in references to the physical transition of Tara, and had done a great deal of research to get that right. But, she shines as an author when she shows how people around Tara, especially her daughter Antara, are dealing with her memory loss. In one of the early pages, Antara confesses, " Sometimes I cry when no one is around -- I am grieving but it's too early to burn the body'. Anyone who has seen their loved ones disappear into a shell of their bodies would instantly know that feeling.
After a glorious debut, Doshi, who currently resides in Dubai, is gearing up to write another novel. "But don’t ask me what it’s about because I have no idea what my manuscripts are about until they are finished," she says.