A curious mother and daughter tale: A review of Avni Doshi’s Booker Prize-shortlisted “Burnt Sugar” — Olukorede S. Yishau
She believes that sex smells like fish and ice cream, but her first time is for a packet of imported Big Red gum. She has it with a boy who would chew a piece and blow cinnamon breath on her face. He sixteen, she thirteen. They do it close to his flat, on the landing between floors.
Welcome to the strange world of Tara, a mother, and Antara, her daughter who is the narrator of Avni Doshi’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, Burnt Sugar. Antara is an artist who makes art work from tungsten bulbs, batteries, cords, pens, stamps, coins, dead insects and moths fossilised in wax—a profession her mother never supports, just like most things she does.
At the time of Antara’s sex with this boy with pimples on his forehead, the narrator’s relationship with her mother is already soured, and her mother is already out of her father’s house as well as the temple of a ‘deity’ who was her lover.
Antara and her contrarian mother give us a love story, a story about betrayal between a mother and a daughter. Tara is a different kind of mother, not the type who comforts, not the type who encourages, not the type who makes things better. Tara hardly has anything good to say about Antara. The things she says about her are stuff like: “I cannot believe that any child of mine could have such bad handwriting.” She abandons her arranged marriage to join an ashram, embarks on a stint as a beggar to spite her affluent parents, and spends years with a dishevelled, homeless photographer. Antara is always in tow as her mother goes on this journey.
At the beginning of this novel set in Pune, India, Tara has started suffering a health condition, which makes her forget things and acts funny. The doctor delivers the bad news to the daughter: “You’ll never know if the memory is real or imagined. Your mother is no longer reliable.” Her health challenge is unable to cement their relationship. Both struggle with being kind to each other. Tara forgets how to pay the electricity bill and misplaces her car in the car park below her flat, forgets the name of the road she has lived on for two decades and seeks to speak with friends who are long dead. But she never forgets to tell the stories that humiliate her daughter.
Aside from Tara, people also paint Antara in a bad light. When she is a child, an adult tells her: “You’re nobody. Your own mother barely looks at you.” When she is grown, a friend’s husband threatens to put a cigar out on her face. Her own husband, Dilip, tells her, “You aren’t an authority.”
Tara’s misery gives Antara pleasure because of what she suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain her mother subsequently endures appears to her to be a kind of a rebalancing of the universe, where cause and effect align.
Antara struggles to make her remember the things from the past. She brings up instances of her cruelty and watches her face curve into a frown but she can’t recall what she is talking about and her eyes are distant. Their relationship is so sour that the sympathy her mother elicits in others gives rise to something acrid in her.
Her mother’s condition begins with wandering around the house at night leaving her maid calling Antara to say: “Your mother is looking for plastic liners.’
When Antara’s mother’s first lover dies, it presents the two of them with another opportunity to duel. It starts when her mother says: ‘I realised that it’s no small thing to be the lover of a great man.’ Antara replies that ‘to me it looks small, cheap even, and is definitely nothing to brag about’.
Her mother grabs her by the arms and shakes her before slapping her face and saying: ‘You’re a fat little bitch. Have some sympathy! I became a widow today!’
Antara rushes into her mother, knocks her over on to the floor, sits on her chest, wraps her hands around her throat, squeezes until the veins appear under her eyes and looks down at her face and says: ‘Fat little bitch.’
With time, her mother falls in love with another man named Reza. He soon moves into their flat. One morning, Antara finds him sharing the bed with her mother. Their neighbours soon find out about her mother’s new lover and whisper about it at the club many in the town belong to. Her mother scolds her for telling her secret ‘How could you do this?’ Her lover seems less bothered. Reza, a photographer, is a crazy kind of lover, the type who will dip his hands into her mother’s breasts and squeeze them while the daughter watches.
Her grouse about her mother even makes her refer to her in the past tense even though she is still alive. So hurt is she that she wishes India allows assisted suicide like the Netherlands.
Aside Antara’s relationship with her mother, the novel also examines how a girl’s body changes. As Antara grows, she begins to feel someone else is living in her body, taking up temporary residence and making herself at home. She feels this stranger is opening her up from the inside, causing stretch marks and discoloured skin. She also feels bad about hair appearing in greater quantities in places where she does not want it. She is also troubled by the fact that she feels like she is eating for a multitude. She is equally at a loss as to why men look at her in ways she hadn’t noticed before. She wonders if they see the other woman living in her body, too.
Doshi delivers a searing tale about family, about love and its obligations, about memory and its nature. This novel shows Doshi as a talented writer, an artist, master of style and a fantastic storyteller.
—Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In the Name of Our Father and Vaults of Secrets