Avni Doshi’s debut novel Burnt Sugar – longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize immediately prior to UK publication and subsequently making the shortlist – is a compelling exploration of the ties that bind a mother and her daughter, and of an irreconcilable longing for self-expression in both of them that signifies betrayal. As a young woman, Tara abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram in Pune with toddler daughter Antara in tow. Now, years later, after a couple of fruitless affairs and a brief spell as a homeless beggar, she is losing her grip on memory – casting a reluctant Antara in the role of carer when she’d rather pursue a career as an artist.

Antara’s opening words put the reader on instant alert: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” – Is she for real? Is she masking something? How did she reach this state of mind? – At what point in the writing process did you settle on that first line, and how does it set the tone for what’s to follow?

I always thought the importance of the first sentence was overstated, but when I began writing the final draft of Burnt Sugar, the first sentence came to me like a revelation – in it, I could ascertain the voice of the narrator, and to some extent, a map of how the narrative would unfold. The sentence created a sense of intimacy, of persuasion, while exposing something repugnant about Antara. I wanted to create ambivalence from the start by alluding to how we can be drawn to something distasteful.

I wrote and rewrote many drafts of this novel. It took time for me to explore various characters, to write into them, and discover what shape the story was going to take. The process was as much about dismantling as it was about building – I had to let go of all the initial decisions I had made about what the novel would look like.

Later, she writes: “She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself. She wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.” What is it about this complex mother-daughter dynamic that you particularly wanted to explore in this novel? And was it always going to be told from Antara’s point of view?

I wrote the first draft from the perspective of an unnamed child living in an ashram with her mother. Subsequent drafts were in third person, or from the perspective of the mother. With each draft, the characters became clearer, and took on nuance. The relationship between mother and daughter also evolved.

The drama of childhood continues to reverberate throughout the life of an individual – but what happens when those dynamics aren’t projected outwards into other relationships, but continue to fester and implode between mother and daughter? I was interested in how that relationship is destroyed and reimagined. What does obsession look like between a daughter and her mother? Can Antara metabolise the trauma of her childhood? These were some of the questions I wanted to explore.

I was interested in the subtle structures of patriarchy. Its power and pervasiveness only become apparent once the walls begin to move in, or the ceiling caves.”

Tara’s doctor suggests, “memory is a work in progress. It’s always being reconstructed.” You also show that memory is not a solo activity – when Tara’s memory fades, Antara’s confidence and understanding falter. How did shared memory, and Alzheimer’s and its aftermath, become major themes in the book?

Memory only became the core of the story after my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This was about three years ago. Or maybe more. It’s difficult for me to remember when Alzheimer’s crept into the story because I was so consumed with it in my real life. Once we had a diagnosis, I decided I would learn about the disease in as much detail as I could. In a way, I tried to make sense of it the way Antara does in the story – she uses images, I used the novel itself. I did a deep dive into the way mainstream medicine understands the disease and its symptoms, but I also looked into fringe treatments, therapies from other modalities. I was fascinated to learn that functional medicine framed Alzheimer’s as a kind of metabolic dysregulation – insulin resistance, or diabetes type 3, as some doctors were positing.

Tara is in many ways an admirably independent woman who strikes out on her own path, but her spontaneity proves destructive to herself and her daughter. She has a tendency to leap from one unhappy relationship to another; and Antara seems doomed to follow a similar path. In what ways have opportunities for women in India improved over the last couple of generations, in what remains a very patriarchal society?

I think the experiences of women in India vary greatly depending on socioeconomic realities, familial structures, and even caste – which is a chokehold for so many. In Burnt Sugar, I was more interested in the subtle structures of patriarchy. I think of it as the architectural framework of the characters’ lives, which can easily go unnoticed for years, even decades – its power and pervasiveness only become apparent once the walls begin to move in, or the ceiling caves. Antara and Tara are trapped within this structure.

Pune is a bustling, noisy, sprawling place containing pockets of retreat like the Poona Club and the Osho Ashram. Why did you choose the city for Tara and Antara’s home?

My mother is from Pune, and many of the women in her extended family were followers of Osho at one time or another. I visited the ashram in my late teens or early 20s and thought it was a fascinating place. I never spent enough time in Pune to know every road, but in my memories images and places and smells are layered together in a particular way that I wanted to explore in my writing. Being totally accurate didn’t matter – I wanted to evoke a feeling of the place that had evolved for me over the years.

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in college and I remember being enthralled and terrified by it.”

The Hindu goddess Kali is both a monster and a mother figure, representing untamed nature and female empowerment. In what ways does the name suit – and not suit – Kali Mata, a.k.a. Eve, who appears quite sinister at first sight, but proves to be a true mother figure to Antara?

I conceived of Kali Mata/Eve as a kind of archetypal female figure – which I think is apparent from her name(s). As Eve, she lived a certain kind of life, perhaps an innocent or ignorant one, but was transformed by the great loss she experienced. The loss brings her face to face with her shadow, and she is subsequently transformed. Her life on the other side would be unrecognisable to those she had left behind or buried.

Antara’s signature art project involves redrawing the same face daily, imperfectly copying the previous day’s drawing. For her, it’s about exploring – and celebrating – human fallibility: “I was only thinking about how impossible it is for the human hand and eye to maintain any sort of objectivity. But isn’t that how it always is? Intention and reception almost never find each other.”  Is the realisation there is no single truth or valid interpretation a step on the path to enlightenment?

I never thought it was a celebration of human fallibility, perhaps more of an exploration of failure. Antara, as I understand her, is formed (or deformed) by her own lack, and I think she is interested in attending to that lack in whatever way she can. In Antara, it takes the form of an obsession.

I think the realisation that no single truth exists doesn’t land within Antara’s psyche as a kind of enlightenment – I imagine that she would read this more pessimistically, as an inability to connect, or a kind of madness in which no one can understand her.

Another art show in Mumbai references loss of memory of the narrator in One Hundred Years of Solitude, of what Márquez calls “the name and notion of things” and the futility, in Antara’s words, of “covering his world in a mantle of language, protecting himself from the danger of the blank slate.” How did memory and amnesia in Márquez inform your approach to this novel?

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude in college and I remember being enthralled and terrified by it. Imagine that your memory is degenerating so fast that you will soon actually lose the letters by which you are maintaining your hold on reality! It stayed with me, and in 2012, I curated an exhibition at a gallery in Mumbai where I sent artists that particular passage and asked them to produce an original work in response. The show didn’t turn out quite as I had imagined, but so much of that book remained in my mind as I began to write my novel the following year.

Antara’s American-raised NRI husband Dilip is well-meaning but disappointingly bland. When he declares himself a vegetarian, she observes that “Racism, sexism and animal cruelty come from the same source, in his estimation, and he speaks about them interchangeably.” Are liberal folks in the West generally too glib and self-satisfied about their beliefs, and thereby poorly adapted to genuine adversity?

I think it’s probably a combination of living in a bubble of privilege and having a lack of self-awareness that makes Dilip what he is. In a sense, I based Dilip on myself, or a version of myself – someone who is always a bit of an outsider, never at home anywhere, but awkwardly, and offensively, trying to make their home everywhere.

You were born and raised in New Jersey. What do you recall of your expectations and discoveries on your earliest visits to India? And how easily did you settle when you lived and worked there as an art writer and curator?

I loved India growing up, and romanticised it in ways that were downright obnoxious. I would argue with Indians when they complained about their lives in India, and insist that it must be the best place in the world. Living in India set me straight – I found it impossible to feel settled at all. But that discomfort was an incredibly creative space for me to write in.

You said in a recent interview, “I’m interested in the sort of books where nothing much seems to happen and yet you’re left breathless by the end.” The main events in Burnt Sugar often bubble below the surface, and you certainly leave the reader breathless. What are some of the books have had a similar effect on you as a reader?

Anything by Jenny Offill or Sheila Heti. Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Rachel Cusk’s trilogy. Recently I’ve read novels by Natalia Ginzburg and Fleur Jaeggy which left me breathless.

Finding the narrator’s voice gave shape to the novel. I had to make mistakes and experiment with the form before I could see what I was doing.”

An early draft of the novel was awarded the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize and a Charles Pick Fellowship back in 2013/4. How did the novel take shape over the following years, and what were the breakthrough moments?

The first breakthrough came after I won the prize and realised I would have to edit what I had written. Not only that – but I’d actually have to throw out large chunks of the book and rewrite them. I had no clue that writing is nothing without rewriting and editing. It was a rude awakening. I wrote several drafts over the years and they were all terrible. I thought about putting this novel in a drawer and moving on to something else. I don’t know what made me return to it again and again.

The real breakthroughs came about during the writing of the last draft. Finding the narrator’s voice gave shape to the novel. I realised that all the drafts I had written in between had been a kind of practice, preparing me for the final one. I had to make mistakes and experiment with the form before I could see what I was doing.

What first took you to Dubai? How much longer do you expect to be based there, and has it felt more alienating and weird to be there during the coronavirus lockdown?

I moved to Dubai after marrying my husband. It’s a wonderfully strange city to begin with, and that feeling continued throughout lockdown. I’m not sure how long we will be here – there’s never a feeling of certainty. It could be a few months, it could be forever.

You became a mum soon after writing Burnt Sugar, and now have a second child. How has motherhood played out so far against your prior expectations – and against how it is portrayed in the novel? And are you still finding time to write?

To become a parent is, I think, to understand in no uncertain terms that you are doomed to fail acutely and painfully. After my first baby, I suffered from anxiety for several months, which is not what I expected. I had a stress-free pregnancy and expected the post-partum period to be the same.

Now, with a second baby, everything seems easier. Maybe I just know what I’m doing. Maybe my brain already experienced that painful rewiring the first time around – and now I can just glide into it? The truth is I have no idea, it’s really too early to say.

With two children under two, there isn’t much time to think at the moment, let alone to write, but I’m hoping to find my way back to it soon.

What are you writing next?

A novel – that’s all I know at the moment.


Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey in 1982 and is currently based in Dubai. She has a BA in Art History from Barnard College in New York and a Masters in History of Art from University College London. She won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. Burnt Sugar, published in India as Girl in White Cotton, is out now in paperback, eBook and audio download from Hamish Hamilton/Penguin.
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Author portrait © Sharon Haridas

Mark Reynolds is a freelance editor and writer, and a founding editor of Bookanista.