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Indian origin author Avni Doshi’s debut book published as Girl in White Cotton in India and as Burnt Sugar in the UK, is a Booker Prize finalist.
Like thoughts override one another, propelling against and pulling at each other without a break, Avni Doshi’s debut novel, Girl in White Cotton, does not take a breath as it bares its bones for everyone to see.
From the opening line, Doshi lets the reader know what to expect and reels them in. ‘I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.’
Antara, the narrator, is not your regular relatable or likable character. Neither are any of the others in this book. While it primarily deals with mother-daughter relations, it is also about a singular, a very particular mother-daughter relation, one which only Tara and Antara can fully anticipate, even if the understanding falls short.
Restless and filled with fluctuations, Tara is someone likely to run away soon as a feeling of dissonance sets in. But she won’t leave her own behind – her daughter, an extension of her soul, her skin and her body. Thus, within the first seven years, the little one has experienced an incomprehensible life at an ashram – where her mother was a mistress to the leader, Baba, and where she received motherly affection from a previous mistress, Kali Mata – and a short life as a beggar, living on the streets in front of the Poona Club.
Right when it seemed like perhaps things would turn normal, that she might get the affection she’s been missing from her mother, she’s sent away to a Catholic boarding school. Unable to adjust, regressing into ill-health quickly, the stint there, while short, created more cracks in the young mind.
Told from the perspective of only one character, Antara, the insights we get into others is limited, and coloured by her thought process. But she is quite an unreliable narrator. Even as she talks of a memory she is sure of, by the end of retelling it, she begins to question its authenticity. She too acknowledges this conflict of hers, if only once – ‘If I draw a line from point X to all its other connections, I find myself at the centre of something I cannot plot my way out of. There is so much to misinterpret.’
Tara is her mother and she loves her – ‘she’ and ‘her’ here could be either. Antara (‘… was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother’) and Tara love and hate each other, compete with each other and search for something the other is incapable of passing on. This friction, in turn, creates secrets and lies.
When the lies inevitably fall apart, the line separating what’s right and what’s wrong becomes blurred. ‘How many times must a performance be repeated before it becomes reality?’
Doshi explores how one has the capacity to self-destruct, especially when they bottle in everything within, and if they get exposed prematurely, it might be more detrimental than cathartic. Her depiction of both post-natal depression and caregiver burden, without putting the terms into words, is worth a mention, given that they managed to elicit some form of empathy for Antara.
In the heart of all the lies Antara seems to have crafted, is a twisted truth. When it’s unwittingly discovered, and that too by the mother she’s been painstakingly trying to mend, Antara makes a decision which sets the stage for the final act.
This final act is possibly how the title Burnt Sugar came to be. When I read the name the first time, I got curious about the reason behind it. From the summary where it speaks of the ashram stint, it’s easy to guess where Girl in White Cotton might stem from. But Burnt Sugar is more intriguing.
Going into the book, I could only think of caramelization process. Burnt sugar is a delicacy quite hard to perfect. You need to give it your full attention. One little distraction and the sugar might be burnt for real. It is a very fine line to maintain. And this very fine line is what the book toys with. That thin line separating the right from the wrong. That grey area which exceedingly turns dark and quickly falls into the shadows. Burnt Sugar is not easily digestible.
The first half of the book runs a course at its own pace, but the second half flies by quicker. As though Antara had grown anxious about divulging so much and wished to reel it in, finish it. Even some of the flashbacks fall short from providing a proper insight into what developed young Antara’s thinking. Still, when the conclusion came in, when the final scene and the final sentence rolled out, it was perfect.
If someone ever wondered what goes on inside another’s head, this book is a good example of how deep a mind can delve into topics which would be considered too dark, too vulgar and too promiscuous to discuss. Not every mind works the same, but every mind has things best left to its vaults. If we did not have Antara narrating, even her mind would be an inexplicable maze, her decisions as strange as she considers her mother’s to be.
With the unapologetic, tell-all thoughts and opinions of the narrator written in the form of as and when they come in, the book comes close to the stream of consciousness style of storytelling. The fact that most of its dialogs happen in passive voice, it gives the sense of how much Antara feels detached from the proceedings in her life. Avni Doshi, for most part, does not hold back when it comes to laying out the psyche of her main character, all of its fractures, its mechanisms, gears, wirings and its novelty open for viewing by all.
While this style might discomfit a large base of readers, it is also bold and stays true to its flawed, broken characters, imprinting them thus with the distinct honour of being a finalist for the Booker Prize 2020.
If you would like to pick up a copy of Girl in White Cotton or Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.
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Image source: Avni Doshi and book covers Amazon
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Clumsy. Awkward. Straight-forward. A writer, in progress. A pencil sketch artist by hobby.
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