Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
We all turn into our mothers. Such is the truth universally disavowed by daughters, until one day we look in the mirror and realise that in ways minor or major, partial or near-total, we have done precisely that. For better or worse, we are in some way bound to, and bound to become just like, our mums.
‘Do you worry you are like her now?’ a therapist asks Antara of her mother Tara in Burnt Sugar. The inextricable knotting and inevitable mirroring of mother and daughter is at the heart of Avni Doshi's scouringly brilliant debut novel. Tara, in her fifties, is starting to lose her memory in what appears to be early onset dementia, although medical scans show nothing wrong with her brain. Antara’s life has been a series of abandonment and sheer embarrassment by her namesake: when her mother’s maid calls to tell her that Tara is roaming the house at night, looking for plastic bed liners for a child Antara who she imagines has wet the bed, adult Antara reflects that ‘even in her madness, my mother had managed to humiliate me.’ She is determined not only to prove that there is something wrong with her mother, but to force her to remember their shared past.
When Antara was a baby, Tara ran away from her unsatisfying arranged marriage in Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, to join an ashram and marry its leader, an eight foot sexual predator called Baba. Antara was abandoned to the care of the other ashram members. After leaving, they became beggars outside the Pune country club, until Antara’s father eventually deigned to take pity. Antara is later betrayed by her father, who moves to America without telling her; by her grandparents, who send her to a sadistic boarding school; and by her husband Dilip, who wilfully misunderstands her. Ultimately, though, the overarching betrayal is the failure by her mother to care for her. Antara must reconcile this howl of historical pain with the present reality of the ailing mother she feels not only obliged to care for but, on some fundamental level, loves.
But is that really what happened? Because Burnt Sugar is also about the subjective nature of memory, and the way in which we rewrite the past to suit our own version of the truth. ‘Maybe she doesn’t remember because it never happened’, Antara’s grandmother suggests when she complains of her mother’s forgetfulness. ‘We don’t need to exercise your memory, Antara’, Dilip shouts. ‘We need to exercise hers [Tara's].’ ‘Reality is something that’s co-authored’, preaches a life coach. A queasy current of instability runs through the novel; shady characters with hidden motives stalk the pages then vanish, like the ashram mother figure Kali Mata and Tara's boyfriend Reza. Antara herself creates her own truths: she is an artist, whose three-year project involves drawing the same photograph of a man every day without looking at the original, to examine the differences that memory works on our portrayal of reality. It is work that ‘celebrates human fallibility’ even though - irony! - Antara struggles to accept that fallibility in those around her.
Doshi draws our relationships, both with the truth and with other people, with words that glitter sharp as shards of broken mirror. As symbolic too, with a lyrical style that occasionally dips into flowery verbiage. Burnt Sugar is a blazing debut, one that sticks in the mind, yes, rather like caramel blackened bitterly to the bottom of a pan. To twist Larkin’s old adage: sure, our mothers might fuck us up. But then maybe we fuck them up too.