Currently based in Dubai, Avni Doshi was born in New Jersey to immigrants from India. She worked as an art curator and critic, specialising in contemporary art from South Asia, before venturing into writing. Her debut novel, Girl in White Cotton, was published in India in 2019, and later published in the United Kingdom as Burnt Sugar. The novel is now in the running for the 2020 Booker prize. Doshi speaks to Eos over email about the dynamics of parent-child relationships as they play out when one is thrust unwillingly into the role of caring for the other Your book addresses the pain of holding on to memory — the childhood trauma Antara remembers and punishes her mother for — and also the equal, if not greater, pain of seeing the person integral to that memory lose their own ability to remember. What made you explore these themes?
I’ve explored memory as a theme for a while now, since I began working in the art world in India a decade ago. When I began writing the novel, I was thinking about the aesthetics of memory, or what those aesthetics might be, and I circled around the image of the palimpsest.
Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and a beautiful exhibition on the archive curated by the late Okwui Enwezor at the International Centre of Photography in Manhattan — all of it fed into my thinking around how we remember.
In terms of the tension between an archival impulse and amnesia, I’m fascinated by the ambivalence around wanting to hold on and needing to let go, particularly because memory is intrinsic to what makes us human.
The experience of parenting your parents as they grow old can be unsettling and fraught. Are there greater expectations to care for one’s parents in South Asian societies?
I think now, in the United States at least, you might hear about South Asians placing their elderly relatives in homes for assisted living, but in India it’s not common. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. There’s a cultural expectation in South Asia that you will look after your relatives through illness, until death, even though the way of life in big cities across the Subcontinent looks identical to the US and Europe. I wonder if there will be a dramatic change as people move away from living in joint families, or perhaps choose not to marry, and begin to question the practicality of holding on to traditions.
Your protagonist distinctively narrates the alien and disconcerting experience of living in an ashram, which is supposed to be a spiritual retreat. What personal experience informed your knowledge on the subject?
My experiences have been both direct and indirect. I have visited the Osho ashram in Pune very briefly, and I have stayed at another one in Uttaranchal. Many of the women in my mother’s family (her aunts and some cousins) have belonged to the ashram in Pune at one point or another. Sometimes I would hear stories of their experiences. But I wasn’t interested in what the ashram would be like for an adult woman who was choosing to be there. The novel follows the experience of a little girl, who is forced against her will to live in an unfamiliar place. I was writing from a place of fear, where the world suddenly seems monstrous — which is something we all have a sense of as children.
Did becoming a mother after submitting your final draft change your perspective on Tara? In other words, would you have written Tara differently now?
No, I don’t think so, because Tara is only seen from the perspective of her own daughter, Antara, who narrates most of the story as a child-free woman. But I’m still finding my feet here. I’m beginning to think that perhaps becoming a mother can be a portal to healing one’s own childhood wounds. Of course, it can also be a return to that trauma as well. Motherhood is bewildering.
There is a dearth of contemporary literature exploring South Asian familial dynamics, which are uniquely different from their Western counterparts because of the close-knit family system, cultural values and traditions. Any friction between South Asian parents and children manifests itself in the form of passive aggressive behaviours, rather than honest dissent or confrontation since that could be misconstrued as disrespecting elders. Does that make matters worse?
Is this beginning to shift? I hope it is. I’ve seen what you are referring to, and it only leads to varying degrees of pain and estrangement. I’m incredibly lucky; I have an honest relationship with my parents. I have never felt I needed to lie or pander; I suppose that is a tribute to their open-mindedness. I wonder what I would have been if I had not been allowed my intellectual freedom — I certainly would not have had the courage to rebel (I’m not particularly brave).
You write about a character, Reza, whose father was his hero, “a man Reza could not remember but always memorialised.” Don’t you think that is often the case in South Asian parent-child dynamics where intimacy is rare and unconditional reverence is expected?
Yes! This is such an interesting point. I wonder how many people really know their parents or allow their parents to know them. I had a conversation about this with my husband recently; he was saying that his parents really know very little about him although they speak to and see each other every day.
Do you think Tara viewed Antara as her competitor, as she saw it, or was she her only ride-or-die companion through the vagaries of life? Later on, when Antara sees her newborn daughter, she feels herself twinned. Do you feel mothers and daughters are destined to be forever co-dependent?
I’m not really sure what the answer to this question is. On one hand, I would like to be hopeful and imagine that having a child is an opportunity to heal and make oneself anew. But is that really possible? How do we escape our childhoods, and those formative years of trauma and conditioning? And if we do manage to overcome certain issues, aren’t we still going to mess up our kids in our own specific ways? We all have our blind spots. I have two children now and I can already see how completely different they are, how they will need very different kinds of mothering. Am I capable of being two different mothers?
Is having a debut which quickly garnered critical acclaim, and got the much-coveted Booker nomination, reassuring or daunting for a new writer? Are you worried that your second novel, which I hear you are working on, will go through excessive scrutiny now?
Scrutiny is paralysing for me. I think the best way to handle any praise is to take the time to celebrate and be excited, and then move on and not let it get in the way of writing, or living.
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 25th, 2020