Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi is a difficult read yet gripping at the same time, problematic but honest, troubling with a sense of realism that you the reader can’t dismiss. From the very first sentence “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” A sense of uncomfortable feeling emerges within the reader as we question, how can a daughter enjoy her mother’s pain then we turn the question into ‘what has the mother done that is so bad for her daughter to feel this way’? These questions set the tone for the duration of the book and its also the very same reason that keeps us reading to the end, to find out who is right in the way they feel and who deserves their fate.
Set in Pune, India, the story follows Antara as she reckons with her mother Tara’s cognitive decline and the boiling resentment she still feels over being neglected. As a girl, Antara suffered at the whims of her rebellious young mother, who ran away from her middle-class upbringing to join an ashram, where a guru espoused free love and freer sex. Antara’s name alone – Antara, of Tara, un-Tara – stands as testament to both her mother’s egotism and impetuousness, and their unbreakable tie. As adults, neither woman can stand to be with the other for long, nor can they escape each other. The push-and-pull of their relationship has reverberations for Antara’s art, marriage and views on children, all amplified by Tara is losing her memory, which distresses Antara as it means there’s “no way to baste her in guilt” about her past offences. “It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time.” The past spills into the narrative, which weaves Antara’s memories of her miserable childhood (life in a free-loving ashram, begging outside her grandparents’ club, boarding school run by sadistic nuns) with the daily struggle of watching her mother disappear before her, “a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing”.
Although its hard to connect with Antara, and some might not even like her but there is an element of a natural human flaw that attracts the reader to her, she is real in her portrayal of a daughter scarred by the past and frustrated by the present, afterall why should one forget the wrong doing of a person just because they became ill? May be Antara is justified in this attitude, given that her mother later says to her, “I always knew that having you would ruin my life”. The fact that the mother shows no remorse makes it all more difficult to sympathise with her and understand Antara’s struggle. The mother – daughter relationship is explored with such intensity that it will touch every woman reading it regardless of their own relationship with their mother or daughter. Can we judge Tara, the mother, for the way she treated her daughter? Wasn’t she too a victim of her past and her husband. This love hate relationship between Tara and Antara grips the reader, knowing full well that we all can love someone but not like them or their wrong doings limit our love to them and the fact the book ends with this dilemma unresolved gives the book a realistic edge.
There is a distinct lack of hope in Burnt Sugar and the novel can sometimes feel depressing, as if born from that same urge to shock. In considering the act of mothering a baby, Doshi raises an interesting question: “Is the sensation of receiving a kiss less pleasurable than that of giving it?” She then takes it to its logical, brutal conclusion: “Maybe our mothers always create a lack in us, and our children continue to fulfil the prophecy”. Maybe that’s not entirely true but what is certain is that whatever we experience from our mothers will be reflected in the way we respond to motherhood when our time comes.
A worthy contender for the 2020 Booker Prize, we would highly recommend to give it a try, though there are segments of the book that can be tedious read or pointless but we give it 4 out of 5.
Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey to Indian parents, Doshi studied art history in New York and London before moving to Mumbai, where she worked as a curator. There, in 2012, she wrote the first draft of her story in a month to meet the deadline for the Tibor Jones South Asia prize for an unpublished manuscript. The five judges unanimously voted her the winner, earning her literary representation – and extensive notes from her new agent. Her first novel, Burnt Sugar, was originally released in India under the title Girl in White Cotton, and is being published in more than 20 languages.