Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Burnt Sugar is one of those captivating great works that you just can’t put down even when you wish to do precisely that when it gets too intense. But that is what exceptional literature does: shakes you, slaps you, turns you upside down, leaving your thoughts jumbled as if your head went on a jolly ride in the spin cycle.

The very first sentence will pull you straight into Doshi’s universe: I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure. Not quite the sentence you would expect from a daughter, but that is only the beginning of this love-hate, caring-neglecting, forgiving-avenging mother and daughter tale. Interestingly, both main protagonists are repulsive. The whole time you feel their pain and your heart bleeds for them, yet you just can’t like them and they make you uncomfortable.

I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption ‒ a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned.

But now, I can’t even the tally between us.

The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it.

The mother, Tara, must have learned the basics from her mother although Doshi doesn’t say anything about their relationship. However, the young author leaves a few ironic hints: Nani places her hand on her cheek. “She’s become so fat, your mother. Her knuckles are swollen to double what they were. How will we pry the jewelry off her hands when she dies?”

Tara’s story is also full of suffering: The room was a cage, but it was the only place where Ma felt relief. Sometimes she would bang her body against the wall and scream silently to herself…My mother knew marriages were generally unhappy, but she was young and had not fully metabolized the idea that this would be her reality. She still believed that she was special, exceptional and had thoughts that no one else did… In the light of Tara’s circumstances, her actions aren’t that surprising, they are a desperate try to escape the existence she can’t endure. Yet it is difficult to side with her because of her behavior to her daughter, Antara ‒ un-Tara, which she hoped will have a life diametrically opposed to her own. But did she damn Antara to be her carbon copy instead?

So, is Antara doing the same as Tara? Is her art only a form of rebellion as Tara’s episode in the ashram? A diversion, something to occupy her mind instead of losing it? Antara’s teenage behavior is certainly a mirror of Tara’s teen years. Are her struggles to escape her mother turning her into that very woman?

Antara is undeniably a victim. Everything that happened in her childhood, directly or indirectly because of her mother, shaped her into the woman who is telling her story today. But is that an excuse for some of her later actions? I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t side with her either. However, Doshi’s masterful narrative is so compelling that you just can’t get enough of both women’s voices.

Some of the author’s thoughts about this mother-daughter relationship will stay with you long after you close the last page and stare at the wall, deep in thought:

If our conversations were itineraries, they would show us always returning to this vacant cul-de-sac, one we cannot escape from.

There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling. And maybe this is it, the hole in the heart of it, a deformity from which we can never recover.

How will I be able to look after her when the woman I know is no longer residing in her body? When she no longer has a complete consciousness of who she 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 had the distinct feeling that she was pleased to tell me these things, to know that I would suffer as she had ‒ and her consolation came from seeing that the hurt would continue and I would not be spared.

Maybe our mothers always create a lack in us, and our children continue to fulfill the prophecy.

However, like many other great books, it also portrays society and a woman’s role in it. Doshi shows us that education and modern times haven’t changed some things about marriage and a woman’s place in it.

But if he does leave me and I have to go back to my mother’s house, how will I support myself?

I wish I had done so many things. Instead, I did all the things I am doing now. Sitting in the house. Staring at the walls.

Avni Doshi provides an insightful portrait of refined people who have left India but return to laugh while filming children having a shit on the street since their slums don’t have anything resembling a bathroom; enlightened leaders in ashrams who have only sex and money on their minds, and a little rape on the side, please, while making fun of all the people who actually believe in their preaching; civilized people who pride themselves with being the first to provide their daughters with education and then torturing said daughters if they choose the convent instead of the university… Like every great book, Burnt Sugar can’t be reduced to only one topic, but the mother-daughter relationship and women issues are dominant. The style is reduced, which prevents any sentimentality and pathos. Also, there are plenty of body secretions and that is pretty disgusting, but somehow fitting, as if Doshi wanted to say that she doesn’t give a damn and life is full of shit anyway. But don’t worry: Gloom isn’t the prevailing tone and Doshi won’t leave you feeling bad.

Literary awards: Booker Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2020)

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