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Posts Tagged ‘Avni Doshi’

Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi was on the 2020 Booker shortlist – and was one title that I felt like I might like to read. My book group chose it as our February read and I was fairly certain it would be a book I would enjoy and was looking forward to it. However, as it turned out my relationship with this book was not quite so straight forward or always quite so positive.

I didn’t actively dislike the novel, however I found it very difficult to engage with it fully. I always think that is one of the most important thing for any book to do – the reader must engage at some level – be it positively or negatively. Doshi’s writing is beautiful, the prose is rich and visual – though because I failed to engage with the novel as I should have, many of those images that lovely writing should have left me with, have already faded. There was something about the flow of the novel that jarred a little for me – following discussion with my book group I wasn’t the only one who felt like that.

“…the mother I remember appears and vanishes in front of me, a battery-operated doll whose mechanism is failing. The doll turns inanimate. The spell is broken. The child does not know what is real or what can be counted on. Maybe she never knew. The child cries. I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands. Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved. I should be sad instead of angry. Sometimes I cry when no one else is around – I am grieving, but it’s too early to burn the body.”

The mother daughter story is one that is written endlessly, it is a theme I generally like reading about. The viewpoint here though is all one way, our narrator is Antara, the daughter – a fairly unlikeable, unreliable narrator.  She is a young woman living in Pune in India – married to Dilip who grew up in America before coming to live in India. They live in their own apartment, Antara’s mother lives nearby.  Now Antara’s mother Tara is having memory problems, starting the gradual slide into dementia – forcing Antara into the role of a caregiver. There is a sharp resentment here – Antara never having forgiven her mother for the chaos of her childhood – for the times when she was absent.

As a young woman having entered into an arranged marriage, Tara shocked her family by leaving her husband and taking her young daughter to live in an ashram. Here Tara became the chosen lover of the ashram leader, leaving young Antara to be cared for by another devotee.

“The whites are still bright, some glaring and some almost blue, the white of widows, of mourners and renunciants, holy men and women, monks and nuns, the white of those who no longer belong in the world, who have already put one foot on another plane. The white of the guru and his followers. Maybe Ma saw this white cotton as the means to her truth, a blank slate where she could remake herself and find the path to freedom. For me it was something different, a shroud that covered us like the living dead, a white too stark ever to be acceptable in polite society. A white that marked us as outsiders. To my mother this was the colour of her community, but I knew better: the white clothes were the ones that separated us from our family, our friends and everyone else, that made my life in them a kind of prison.”

Later, Tara and her daughter endured a brief period of time as beggars, before being taken in by Antara’s grandparents. Antara’s memories of this period are bitter – but as others around her sometimes contradict her memories of that time – not to be relied upon.

In the present, with her mother clearly declining Antara is burdened by the expectations placed upon her – stifled by her memories and resentments. Should she try and move her mother into her apartment – or is she better in her own place? Antara and her husband often disagree about what the best course of action is. He doesn’t understand the anger that flares up between the two women. As much as Antara resents her mother – she is strongly connected to her – and starts to look into ways to help her mother, slow down the progression of her illness. Yet she also wants her to acknowledge the past and its effect.

However, it appears that there are things that Antara wants to remain hidden – things she would rather not have come back to the surface. There is a slightly shocking toxicity to Antara’s treatment of her mother as the novel progresses – a cruelty that while not physically abusive is still hard to read about.

As a novel about the roles of mothers and daughters – and women in general this provided my book group with a lot to talk about. Tara wasn’t the only neglectful, selfish parent, yet all the blame is placed on her by her damaged daughter. In this way I think Doshi is telling us something about modern Indian society. Antara is expected to look after her mother – and so she does or attempts to. None of the men in the book are portrayed sympathetically at all.

“I wonder how I will love Ma when she is at the end. How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know as my mother is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she is and who I am, will it be possible for me to care for her the way I do now, or will I be negligent, the way we are with children who are not our own, or voiceless animals, or the mute, blind and deaf, believing we will get away with it, because decency is something we enact in public, with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?”

I was left ultimately unsatisfied, wondering what I was supposed to take from this novel – and thinking I had maybe missed something. Perhaps Avni Doshi is showing us that the complexities of the mother daughter relationship are never-ending.

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