Review

A portrait of warped motherhood

Becoming a mother in the process of writing her novel has shifted Avni Doshi’s perspective on motherhood.
Becoming a mother in the process of writing her novel has shifted Avni Doshi’s perspective on motherhood. PHOTOS: SHARON HARIDAS, HAMISH HAMILTON

"I would be lying if I said that my mother's misery has never given me pleasure."

This is the first of many barbs of truth unleashed in Avni Doshi's debut, a lacerating look at a toxic mother-daughter relationship.

Antara's mother, Tara, is losing her memory. She forgets to pay the electricity bill, the name of the road she lives on, what century it is.

She claims to have bought razors and threatens to use them if things "deterioriate". She rips up Antara's artworks, douses them in alcohol and sets them on fire.

Antara feels her mother neglected her during the reckless years that included a spiritual interlude at an ashram as the guru's lover, a stint begging on the streets and an affair with a photographer, Reza Pine.

Tara's dementia seems to her a final elusion of responsibility. Antara - of Tara yet un-Tara - has spent years honing her resentment like a blade, but now she cannot make her mother feel guilty about things she claims not to remember.

Doshi holds nothing back in this portrait of warped motherhood, of two women entrenched in despising one another, yet so inextricable that they sometimes slip into, even usurp each other's places.

She excels in her control of the novel's sensory aspects: assailing the reader with a miasma of details, like in Antara's childish memory of the ashram as a spit, sweat and sex-soaked nightmare.

Elsewhere, she draws back with cool economy, loading compact phrases with layers, as in her descriptions of Dilip, Antara's affluent America-bred husband, as a man who "breaks his rotis with two hands" and prizes his wife's odourlessness in pungent Pune.

Tara is a talented cook and food fills the narrative, beginning with the evocative title, something sweet that has been pushed too far.

Doshi picks out tastes and scents that stick in the mind, like the pickled Kashmiri garlic that Tara's mother-in-law eats daily, filling their house with "the particular smell of digested allium".

  • FICTION

  • BURNT SUGAR

    By Avni Doshi

    Hamish Hamilton/ Paperback/ 231 pages/ $32.10/ Available at bit.ly/BurntSugar_AD

    Rating: 4 Stars

Both Tara and Antara try constantly to escape: Tara, the farcical strictures of her marriage and society, but also the hurt she has caused others; Antara, her body - first puberty "opening (her) up from the inside" in uncontrollable ways, then motherhood, as she has her own daughter and is dismantled by the ensuing depression.

"Maybe this is the point of a pregnancy, of motherhood itself," she thinks. "A child to undo the woman who bears it, to pull her safely apart."

Above all, they try to escape each other and fail, bringing the novel to its febrile climax. Motherhood means not being able to choose who you love. But it is love, however much it hurts.

If you like this, read: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (Vintage, 2018, $18.95, available at bit.ly/ EverythingUnder_DJ), another Booker-shortlisted debut about a fraught mother-daughter relationship. In this Oedipal retelling, Gretel is confronted with the dementia-stricken mother who abandoned her 16 years ago after raising her on a canal houseboat.


When a mother-daughter relationship turns toxic

Writing about postpartum depression did not prepare Avni Doshi, 37, for actually experiencing it.

"I didn't know I had postpartum depression," says the mother of a son, two, and a newborn daughter.

"Even though people had spoken to me about it, I wasn't able to recognise the various symptoms in myself. I just thought I was tired or a little stressed out. I couldn't really see the depth of the despair I had fallen into."

Doshi was born in New Jersey to parents from India and previously worked as an art curator in Mumbai. She began her debut novel Burnt Sugar eight years ago, moving in the meantime to Dubai, her husband's home town.

She never thought it would get published, let alone make the Booker shortlist. When her editor called with the news, she was convinced she was hallucinating. She sat there in quiet disbelief until she received an e-mail confirmation.

In Burnt Sugar, set in Pune, India, the narrator Antara experiences postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter.

Antara, an artist, is also struggling to care for her mother Tara, who has dementia. Antara feels her mother neglected her as a child, running away from her marriage to an ashram.

The relationship between mother and daughter in the novel is so toxic that it upset Doshi's mother before she had even read it.

"People must have told her that it's quite intense and difficult," she says over Skype from Dubai. "So she said, 'You've exposed me, you don't have a right to do that, how can you write about things that are private?'

"Then she read the book and realised it was nothing like us, so that calmed her down a little bit."

Doshi has a "relatively good" relationship with her mother, whom she says is "very proper" and not in the least like the rebellious Tara.

Still, much of her novel is drawn from reality. Many relatives from her mother's side belonged to the Osho ashram in Pune, founded by the controversial guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Doshi's grandmother in Pune was diagnosed five years ago with Alzheimer's disease. Doshi became obsessed with researching the condition. She read scientific journals, listened to podcasts and talked to doctors about it.

"I thought, I'm going to cure my grandmother," she says. "I have no background in science, so obviously that wasn't a possibility."

Just as Antara uses her artwork to comprehend her mother's condition, so Doshi used her novel to try to understand what was happening to her grandmother.

Becoming a mother in the process of writing her novel has shifted her perspective on motherhood, she says.

"I think now that I'm a mother, I realise how important it is to be able to decide that you don't want to be a mother. The more I understand about motherhood, the more I realise it's not the best choice for everyone.

"I can understand how having, for generations, that kind of pressure where motherhood is a decision that's made for you automatically, can be extremely difficult and damaging for families."

Olivia Ho

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2020, with the headline 'A portrait of warped motherhood'. Print Edition | Subscribe