“People are asking: ‘Are you looking forward to the Booker announcement?’ And honestly? my stomach is in knots about the American election.” It has been a strange year for Avni Doshi. The American-Indian author’s debut novel, Burnt Sugar, was longlisted for the Booker Prize three days before its release in July. She has also welcomed her second child and dialled into countless book events and media interviews from her home study in Dubai, where she speaks over Zoom to me. “I just gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby girl, who is just amazing and I’m on the shortlist for the Booker: I’m really having a great year, and yet the world is falling apart.”
Burnt Sugar, though, has been one of the few good things 2020 has offered. It is a stirring, uneasy and starkly original novel. Based in Pune, India, it presents us with a portrait of a complex mother-daughter relationship that continues as one might expect from Doshi’s much-quoted opening line: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.”
Womanhood, motherhood and memory intertwine as our narrator, Antara, a cosmopolitan artist in her 30s, takes in her ailing mother Tara as Alzheimer's disease takes hold. At the same time, Antara becomes a mother herself. From the sweltering backdrop of Pune, where “Cows, dogs and humans dropped dead in the streets. Cockroaches came to pay their respects”, and Antara and her husband Dilip find respite in a modern apartment slicked in mirrors, the histories of Antara and Tara play out with devastating effects.
Despite being Doshi’s debut, Burnt Sugar has already earned something of a creation myth: she wrote it over seven years, the book was re-drafted eight times – statistics that are so familiar to her that when I ask her about them, she laughs resignedly. “I quit a lot,” the 38-year-old says of her process. “Weekly, I would say, ‘Forget this’. I would tell my husband, ‘I don’t want to do this any more’. I was getting in my own way and I was looking for external validation that I should be doing because I had no way to know if I was doing the right thing. I was really writing in the dark.” It was only several years into the process, she says, that she realised she “needed to throw everything away, start from the beginning and that’s just the way I have to write. There’s nothing that can be salvaged.”
Doshi grew up in New Jersey, where her parents moved shortly after their arranged marriage (her father emigrated in the mid-Seventies, her mother joined him in 1980, spending her days “sitting alone in this apartment. She moved in the winter. I think it snowed. And she was completely traumatised") and studied Art History in New York and London before moving to Pune, where her family are from and where she started to capture scenes of life there that would become Burnt Sugar.
She makes the novel’s origins sound organic – “a series of images that kept coming into my mind and I wanted to write around those images in a way. And somehow a narrative kind of formed” – but what encouragement she received by winning fellowships to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia didn’t follow from the publishing world. “There were just so many rejections along the way, and I’m very bad at handling rejection. I tried, for a little while, to get an agent in the US and the UK and it didn’t work so I tried to get an agent in India, and ended up publishing in India. And I even thought, if I end up publishing in India and that’s it that’s fine.”
Burnt Sugar was picked up for UK publication upon its release in India. The book’s initial similarities to Doshi’s life – Antara and she are a similar age; Doshi was an art curator, Antara is an artist; Doshi's grandmother has Alzheimer's disease – have caused her to be asked if it is autobiographical, a question she says she often doesn’t know how to answer: “I think to some degree the novel is me, in a way, probably more than anything else in my life, and in another way it’s completely fictional and has nothing to do with me.”
What is based on her own line of inquiry, however, is Tara’s time at an Ashram, causing the child Antara to be largely neglected by her own mother and raised by another woman, instead. Those scenes are among Burnt Sugar’s most potent – the guru as a “croaking” giant, who inspires animalistic reaction in his followers: “They are all around me, closing in and receding, and I sit on the ground and they seem to forget I am there, but I can smell the skin of their feet as it rubs against the tiled floor.” Antara remembers her mother, herself still a teenager, “disappear[ing] every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed.”
Doshi says “a lot” of her mother’s family were early followers of Osho, the guru who inspired the hit Netflix documentary Wild Wild Country, but that it was her mother’s cousin who sparked so many questions. After resisting joining an Ashram, having watched her mother and sister follow Osho, she attended a talk by another guru when she was 18. “He was much older,” Doshi says, “and she sat – and this person had never meditated in her life – for hours and hours and hours, and when she opened her eyes she turned to her mother and her sister and she said, “I’m going with him”.
The woman remains at the Ashram to this day. Doshi visited it, at the base of the Himalayan mountains, because she says she was “always just so deeply confused and I had so many questions and nobody wanted to answer them!” She never really got any answers: her cousin, now appointed “mother of the ashram”, “looked so different and she wouldn’t touch me anymore”. But the experience – and the lingering curiosity – fed Burnt Sugar.
Motherhood is the dark, sticky treacle that holds Burnt Sugar together: the duty of it, the insistence of it, the ambivalence of it. Antara’s grandmother is a woman still grieving the miscarriages of her younger years; like her, Tara had a child because it was expected of her. Antara, the first woman in the family to have some kind of agency over her reproductive organs, is told she will fall pregnant by her mother before she does. Conception, childrearing – this is what is distilled in the heavy atmosphere of Pune that seeps into Doshi’s book.
“I think that ambivalence is intrinsic to motherhood. And I don’t believe any woman that says, that once she’s a mother, she doesn’t have any ambivalent feelings about the position she finds herself in,” Doshi says when we raise the subject. It’s a bold and taboo-touching notion, not least for its honesty. Ambivalence runs through the three generations of women in Burnt Sugar, almost hand-in-hand with the “ancestral traumas” – small and large – of social expectation heaped upon women.
While Doshi is swift to describe Tara “as one of those women who you meet, and we all meet them, who are mothers and you think, ‘she probably shouldn’t have become a mother, because it doesn’t seem like she ever wanted to”, she is also keen not to villainise her difficult central character. What Burnt Sugar does so well is to contextualise the ways in which these women are framed in their societies, from the child bride boredom of the Sixties and Eighties, to the contemporary (when her husband’s vegetarianism is praised at a party, Antara quips: “have you noticed when men men change their diets everyone is so respectful, but when women do it everyone tries to convince them to cheat?’).
They may have endured a long and feverish gestation, but now that Burnt Sugar is out in the world, Doshi is keen to separate herself from it a little. “I don’t know how much ownership I feel over it any more. It’s got a life of its own,” she says. “I don’t even recognise it any more, sometimes. And I think probably that’s healthy, to some degree? I think now it’s in the hands of readers it should probably belong to readers. I don’t think it should belong to me anymore.”
Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin
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