In Avni Doshi’s Booker-shortlisted “Burnt Sugar,” narrator Antara begins by making a strong admission: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” This sets the tone for the entire novel – a slow, non-linear unraveling of an embittered mother-daughter relationship.
Antara’s mother, Tara is forgetting. Her cognitive decline bothers Antara, since dementia threatens to steadily erase Antara’s childhood – a childhood marred by a salvo of cruelties – and a careless upbringing Antara desperately wants her mother to remember.
In an attempt to resurrect her mother’s memory, Antara begins leaving behind scraps of paper – fragmented reminders underlining each time Tara has failed as a parent. She also meticulously maintains a list that recalls instances of her mother’s absentmindedness.
The novel is set in Pune, India. In her youth, Tara flouted conventions, living a life governed by self-centeredness. “Ma always ran from anything that felt like oppression,” says Antara. “Marriage, diets, medical diagnoses.” Tara abandoned her oppressive marriage to join a cult. At the ashram, she willfully cast aside her toddler to gain the attention of the silver-haired cult-leader, Baba.
As a parent, Tara was unapologetically inattentive. Antara recalls how her mother “would disappear every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed.” The child was thus brought up by a string of caregivers: flitting between the guardianship of her maternal grandmother; Kali Mata (Baba’s former consort) at the ashram; Candle, the street dog; Vandana, the maid; and the tyrannical nun at the boarding school. All the while, Antara’s real guardian – her mother – was absent or ill-equipped to handle any responsibility.
For the laconic moments when Tara was present during Antara’s childhood, she continuously stressed on her daughter’s unremarkable physical appearance and rarely displayed any sign of affection. On the rare occasion when she was affectionate, Antara remarks that it was often “followed by something unpleasant.”
Tara’s nonattendance leaves a vacuum, a hunger, in Antara’s life, which she desperately tries to fill. She confesses, “Ma doesn’t know. I never told her that for a portion of my childhood I was always hungry and have been searching for some fullness ever since.” This feeds into her complex relationship with food. There are instances peppered across the pages which reflect Antara’s food obsession, reflecting her urge to satisfy “a bottomless hole of hunger”.
Antara is Tara’s foil. If Tara’s a rebel, Antara grapples to fit in society. Normalcy – accessed through social conformity – is something she desperately “craves.” She wishes to be visible, to belong. Antara bows to societal performativity: at parties, she does lines of coke with her friends, visits the club, and on the insistence of her future mother-in-law, she even marries the idol of a Hindu god, so that she’s no longer a Manglik. Unlike Tara who escapes her marriage, Antara is desperate to hold on to hers. Fearing that her husband Dilip might leave her one day, Antara resorts to having a baby – a biological insurance for her future.
“Burnt Sugar” is a complex and layered narrative. Doshi intelligently narrows the focus on patriarchy, handed down from one woman to another, disciplined into her through the transference of guilt. For instance, Antara’s grandmother believes a dupatta is a woman’s “honor”. Tara’s former mother-in-law wished that Tara waited by the door in the evenings for her husband’s return. At Antara’s wedding, Dilip’s mother insists on maintaining a charade that Antara’s father is dead, rather than revealing that her mother is a divorcée. When Antara is struggling to care for her newborn, her mother-in-law deliberately makes her feel incompetent. “[T]ales have been passed down from mothers to daughters since women had mouths and stories could be told,” says Antara. “They contain some moral message, some rites of passage. But they also transfer that feeling all mothers know before their time is done. Guilt.”
The theme of similarity and repetition pulsate through the pages. Superficially, it is depicted through Antara’s art: she draws an unknown face every day, repeating its features on page. At a deeper level, the pattern of iteration is shown through inheritance: behaviors mirrored between a mother and daughter. When Antara gives birth, she begins to behave like her own mother. There are moments when Antara calls her daughter a “rude little bitch” echoing Tara, who once called Antara a “fat little bitch.” As a response to the number of injustices done to her, Antara repeatedly hurts her mother in her own way. At one point, Tara caustically tells her, “You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.”
None of the characters in the book are likable, yet they have a gripping authenticity, making many of us consider our personal relationships. The book is bitingly real and will leave you unsettled long after you’ve read the last line.