The words in Avni Doshi’s “Burnt Sugar” hit you like a bullet. Doshi doesn’t mind that they come with a burden. “It’s easy to unravel when no one is watching,” she writes within ten pages of the novel. It is, I find myself thinking. In fact, it would be so easy to unravel right now.
Born in New Jersey to Indian immigrants, Doshi was an art critic and curator before turning to fiction. “Burnt Sugar,” Doshi’s debut novel, has been selected for the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist. The story revolves around an aging mother, Tara, and her middle-aged daughter, Antara, who live in Pune, India. Antara is a struggling artist who can barely take care of herself, but finds herself caring for her mother instead. Each chapter reveals another layer in a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship that is grounded in hate but forced to evolve into something resembling love. The narrative is set in Pune, India, and Doshi’s ties to the country are deeply embedded into the plot — “Burnt Sugar” was published in India as “Girl in White Cotton.”
“Burnt Sugar” is a richly layered story that shows us how tangled and performative our lives can be. Despite juggling the responsibilities of being an artist, a wife and a daughter, Antara’s life is filled with expectations that are never fulfilled. “I wonder if, when I’m old and frail and can see the shape of my end in front of me, I will still be waiting for the future to roll in,” she says. Antara’s relationships frame how she views herself — strong and capable some mornings, ashamed and guilt-ridden on others. I think we all feel this same environment-driven fluctuation in our personalities, though most days I’m too scared to admit it.
The pillar of “Burnt Sugar,” and the core of Antara’s turmoil, is her relationship with her mother. “She named me Antara, intimacy, not because she loved the name but because she hated herself,” Antara says. Tara escaped to an ashram — spiritual healing retreats in India that are known to occasionally evolve into religious cults — and left ashram leaders to take care of her daughter. 30 years later, Antara is caring for a mother who didn’t do the same for her. “Being together or apart was independent from wanting and happiness,” Antara says. Yet, like many blood ties, Tara and Antara feel a pull toward each other despite a desperate need for escape.
Doshi compels us to believe that this wild mother-daughter relationship isn’t as unusual as we think. Ultimately, our closest blood-relationships form many of our early experiences, and these make us who we are today. Antara was humiliated, body-shamed and ridiculed by her mother as she grew up. “It was a warning not to get too comfortable with myself,” she says. Years later, Antara feels this same discontent when she herself becomes a mother. “I stare at the girl’s little face because I don’t know where to look,” she says in the minutes after giving birth to her daughter. The relationships in “Burnt Sugar” hit too close for comfort, but their truths are addictive.
“Burnt Sugar” builds on these character relationships to expose the ugliness of the human condition. Doshi writes of our biases and flaws as if they were key ingredients in our makeup. The most notable examples relate to the Western world’s perception of India. “The British built some lovely buildings,” Antara’s mother-in-law exclaims on a visit to India from America. Any novice in Indian history knows how dark this statement is in light of India’s occupation by the British. But I think of the tourist crowds surging around the Victoria Memorial this last Christmas, when I went to visit my grandparents in Kolkata (the ex-capital of British India), and realize how true this rings today. Antara fields similar sentiments from her husband, Dilip, who grew up in America. “I asked him not to idealize the polite veneer of his childhood because everyone knows what Americans are really capable of,” Antara says.
Doshi uses culture shock as a way to expose aggressions that we are all guilty of committing in viewing another culture. But India is still embraced in the novel and provides a vibrant background for the plot. Doshi writes of India in a colloquial way that makes it hard to fully understand the novel if you’re not familiar with the culture, similar to Meghna Majumdar’s “A Burning” released earlier this summer. Digestive biscuits, balconies of apartments stacked on top of each other, crevices that allow you to see into your neighbors homes, breaking rotis with one hand instead of two. These cultural details make beautiful sense to me as the daughter of Indian immigrants, but they probably won’t ring as clear for others. Thankfully, that doesn’t make “Burnt Sugar” any less enjoyable.
Regardless of your cultural background, “Burnt Sugar” will pulse with an addictive and thrilling energy. Every sentence is a treasure to read and brings you one step closer to yourself, even though you didn’t ask for it. This unsettling yet beautiful novel is a strong contender to win the Booker Prize in November — relish it before it stuns the world.
Daily Arts Writer Trina Pal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.