'It's in the shadows... the thing you don't want to admit about yourself'

UAE-based novelist Avni Doshi on examining the internal worlds of wounded women


Anamika Chatterjee

Published: Thu 28 May 2020, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 28 May 2020, 11:58 PM

A parent who can do no wrong. A child who must be loved at all costs. Human relationships, as we are taught to understand them, can be templated. What is often PhotoShopped from those 'happy memories' is the casual cruelty that we often inflict on each other. In Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar, a mother is losing her memory. As Tara descends into a void, it is left up to her daughter Antara to keep the memories of their uneasy relationship alive. The novel, earlier titled Girl in White Cotton, received critical vote of confidence when it released late last year in India. As it is poised for a UK release as Burnt Sugar, the UAE-based writer talks about observing and exploring the internal worlds of wounded women.
How did the story and the characters come to you?
I began writing this book more than seven years ago when I was living in India, and certain memories and stories I had heard when I was a child kept returning to my mind. The process of writing fiction is deeply mysterious, we actually don't know exactly where ideas come from most of the time, but I remembered that a cousin from my mother's family had decided one day to leave her old life and all her earthly possessions, and follow a guru to his ashram in the Himalayas. It felt almost like a fairytale, detached from my everyday reality, and that is where the first draft of the novel began. When I started writing, the voice was that of a young child, talking about her mother. It became clear that the child would be recounting the story in her young and naïve voice.
Over the past seven years, I wrote eight drafts of the novel. Each one was very different than the one before, expanding or contracting the story, experimenting with points of views and different registers of time. I knew I had come to the final draft when I started writing and a sharp, clear voice emerged on the page. I was certain this was the voice, the character and the perspective that would carry me through the novel. I sometimes wonder if I could have written this book without all the many drafts and years in between. It has morphed into something totally different than what it began as. Over the years, different threads and themes have found their way into the book, and others have been lost.

Burnt Sugar revolves around a fractured mother-daughter relationship. In our societies, children as well as parents are often expected to rise above the dysfunctionality of the relationships to understand each other better. Would you say the novel is an indictment of societal expectations? 
I think you're right, we are expected to maintain some veneer of civility at all times, particularly when we are out in society, but how long can that be kept up and at what cost? I'm interested in the silences and pauses in polite conversation. What isn't being said? I suppose I was thinking about what damage looks like as it plays out between mother and daughter. Sometimes there are relationships that we cannot fix. I definitely did not conceive of this kind of relationship between my characters when I first started writing. It was only more recently, when I got out of my own way and zeroed in on what I was afraid to look at too closely, that the trauma began to emerge. It is always interesting to see what you are avoiding - that's usually where the essence of the story lies. It's in the shadows, the thing you don't want to admit about yourself. Maybe that was why it took me so many years and drafts to get this right - I was probably writing what I thought the story should be, what would look pretty and please people. But that will always feel contrived, lacking in depth and truth. I suppose the older drafts were novels about what I imagined a novel should look like, rather than something with its own internal logic and integrity.
Loss of memory is also loss of being. What did it take for you to understand and draw a mental landscape for Tara?
The Alzheimer's piece was a later addition to the novel, though memory was always important. I only began researching the disease in earnest after my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with it, maybe about four years ago. I'm passionate about functional medicine and alternative forms of healing, and I remember staying up all night, sometimes for days at a time, putting together tidbits of information from obscure journals and scientific studies, spending hours trying to understand the details of how enzyme inhibitors or reactive oxygen species or metabolic dysregulation might affect brain health. The research grows more and more robust but I remember at the time I tried to discuss these findings with my mother and her sisters, and either got blank stares or angry rebukes. In a way, it might have been a frustration with my own circumstances that led me to explore Alzheimer's disease in a very particular way through Tara. I did a deep dive into the experience of Alzheimer's patients. What do their journals look like? What memories are the first to go, and which are the last? How do the senses and motor memory play a part in remembering? I also looked at what it means to be a caretaker, particularly of someone who is suffering from dementia. Because our memories are coauthored and remembered collectively, constantly being in the company of someone whose memory contradicts your own can be a deeply disturbing experience. Caretakers often wonder if they are also losing their minds.
There is a deep-seated fear in Antara about people deserting her, to a certain extent, she even seems to view her mother's condition as that. What explains these fears in Antara?
Antara has deep abandonment issues because of her upbringing. When I was writing her character and trying to get into her anxieties, it became clear that her experiences with both her parents, and even to some degree, her grandparents, have left her feeling like the ground beneath her feet is not quite solid, that it may give out at any time. I think as an adult, Antara wants to get better, she has the intention to heal, and perhaps move on from the difficulties of her past, but she can't seem to escape them and in fact continues to reenact them. She is also conditioned in a way, a product of the well-trodden neural pathways in her mind. I think above all, Antara wants someone who can concur with her story, who can act as a witness to her life, and her mother is unable and perhaps also unwilling to do that. Antara's reality is constantly in question. It's almost as though she wants permission to exist as she is.
You became a mother yourself in the process of the novel coming out. Did your own understanding of the characters shift with that experience?
I finished the novel before I gave birth, and I wondered if the parts about motherhood would seem true to me when I read it afterwards. I'm happy to say they did.
I fell into a dark hole for a few months after giving birth, which is very common, and I felt how difficult the postpartum period can be. I suppose I felt more compassion for my characters than before, and had a deeper understanding of how becoming a mother can feel like a death and rebirth, physically and psychically.
I also realized the degree to which we can never know our parents, how they are ultimately mysterious to us. We see them as gods when we are young - very large, a little scary, the objects of our devotion - and then we grow up to often take them for granted. But we will never really know them, what they were as children, what they are passionate about. And they in turn only show us a certain side of themselves. I see that so clearly with my son - I'm a particular version of myself with him. Should we trust the story a child tells us about their parent? Becoming a mother made me consider this question anew.
You wrote the first draft when you were in India. And wrote the 8th draft in the UAE. How did the change in physical landscape impact the writing, and the process of it? 
In some ways, I think I had to be away from India when I finished the book. The novel is set in Pune, and spending time there while I was discovering the story and its complexities was wonderful. There were so many details, riotous colors and textures, smells and sounds that I had packed into the earlier drafts - I wanted to describe everything around me. Writing the final draft here in the UAE allowed me to think more objectively about the impressions I had collected. There was a lot of paring down that took place. I was more selective, more thoughtful about what should go in - I only wanted to include description that served a purpose, that was evocative in a way that felt essential to character and setting. I think the contrast between immersion and distance definitely played an important role in the final product.
As a writer, which aspect of the UAE influences/inspires you the most? Will it be a setting in your forthcoming works?
I would love to write a novel set in the UAE - I am really hoping that my next one will be. It's such a strange place for an outsider, so different than anywhere I've lived. Society is stratified in a very particular way. Somehow, to me, it feels diverse but not cosmopolitan - in fact sometimes I feel like I'm in a small town. There is something sterile about the city, something that feels inorganic, and I'm very curious about the way in which these qualities would enter my writing.

What led you to change the title of the novel from Girl in White Cotton to Burnt Sugar?
This was actually a decision I came to after speaking at length with Hamish Hamilton, my UK publishers. We discussed it, and they were of the opinion that in terms of the market in the UK, Girl in White Cotton would not set the particular tone they wanted to evoke for their reader. I was a little hesitant at first, but then saw that it was not uncommon to see title changes for different audiences. We then worked together to come up with Burnt Sugar, which will be the title of the novel in the rest of the world outside of South Asia.
It's a hard read, which, in turn, means it could not have been an easy novel to write either. As a first-time novelist, what was the greatest challenge in this exploration of women's internal world?
It was difficult to write, but then I think writing is difficult work. There were many challenges along the way. Seven years is a very long time, and I must have quit and restarted at least a dozen times. Remaining motivated, tricking yourself into self-belief - this was particularly tough at the end, when I was in Dubai and far away from the writing community and publishing world I was familiar with. I had to trust my own judgment.
But writing about the internal worlds of women - this is something that gave me the greatest pleasure, a subject that I think will consume me for the rest of my life. I find women endlessly fascinating, their particular passions, anxieties and neuroses - and also the relationships between women, subject to patriarchal codes and values yet simultaneously disruptive. I felt this book made the men who read it nervous. I hope my writing can always do that.

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