In the tradition of Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and, more recently, Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, Avni Doshi’s debut novel eviscerates hostile mother-daughter relationships. Books in this vein feature imperfect mothers and their aggrieved daughters, who find themselves at a loss after being charged with the task of looking after their ageing and ailing parent.

These daughters oscillate between their conflicted feelings, the acrimony of a toxic experience at odds with the enduring sense of duty. With the very first line of Burnt Sugar — “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure” — Doshi sets the spiky tone of this distinctive debut, which is currently in the running for the Booker Prize 2020.

Thirty-something Antara is an artist in Pune, India, and she is faced with the dilemma of taking care of her mother, Tara, whose memory is slowly being corroded by dementia. While Antara tries to find her feet as an artist and as a new wife, she now also has to worry about caring for a mother who never cared for her.

Antara’s litany of grievances against her mother is justifiably long: as a young woman in the 1980s, Tara left her husband and took her baby daughter along with her to live in an ashram, where days would go by during which the little girl would not even see her mother. Tara was prone to violent mood swings during her time there, which involved mindlessly beating or swearing at her daughter, interspersed with sporadic instances of coddling.

Tara’s stay in the ashram is followed by a brief stint as a beggar on the streets with Antara who, by then, “wasn’t young enough to evoke sympathy”, and Antara now begins to meticulously journal her list of grudges, “which could be read chronologically, but also by the severity of the transgression.”

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize, a debut novel presents a venomous portrayal of a toxic mother-daughter relationship

Several decades later, owing to her mother’s deteriorating condition caused by dementia, Antara has to reluctantly move Tara into her own home to live with her and her husband, Dilip. Understandably, he has a few reservations, the first of which is how can Antara cohabit with a mother she can barely stand?

In her portrayal of a person succumbing to the ravages of dementia and the effect it has on the people around, Doshi sensitively articulates the pain of mourning a person who is still there, albeit only as a shadow of their former self, and Antara realises that this “is a long and drawn-out loss, where a little bit goes missing at a time.” She is equally aware of her mother’s bafflement over her dementia, since Tara is cognisant of her own collapse.

Doshi’s elegant turn of phrase carves poetry out of the plainest facts. “The hippocampus is the memory bank and, in this disease, the vaults are being emptied.” She is also inclined to taking abrupt detours in her narrative, displaying her knack for finding mordant humour in the bleakest of situations. When Antara tries to tell Nani, her maternal grandmother, about Tara’s debilitating memory issues, Nani dismisses them by saying that the reason for Tara’s memory loss is that she is unmarried. But then, noting her daughter’s swollen knuckles, Nani wonders, “how will we pry the jewellery off her hands when she dies?”

The otherwise pitch perfect narrative has a few jarring elements, the frequent occurrence of philosophical insights from Tara’s doctor being one of them. For instance, at one point he tells Antara that living with her mother might not be the best thing for her, since the two women have always shared some version of their objective reality. It’s a vague and unclear statement that does not really explain anything. Another time, he makes an oblique remark about the past and present, when Antara informs him of the worsening of her mother’s symptoms. The other discordant component is the characterisation of Antara’s husband. In a novel brimming with depictions of intense, simmering emotions shared between the mother-daughter duo, the emotionally stunted Dilip sticks out like a sore thumb. One wonders why Antara, headstrong and introspective otherwise, takes no issue with that.

There was a breakdown somewhere about what we were to one another, as though one of us were not holding up her part of the bargain, her side of the bridge. Maybe the problem is that we are standing on the same side, looking out into the emptiness. Maybe we were hungry for the same things, the sum of us only doubled that feeling. And maybe this is it, the hole in the heart of it, a deformity from which we can never recover.If our conversations were itineraries, they would show us always returning to this vacant cul-de-sac, one we cannot escape from. — Excerpt from the book

The narrative delves unflinchingly into the psychological and emotional toll that comes with being thrust into the daunting role of caregiver. Similarly, the harrowing experience of postpartum depression, that Antara eventually experiences after she gives birth to her daughter, is portrayed with startling candour. While the majority of the book is about Antara nursing resentments from her childhood, eventually her combative approach extends to her husband as well, when she becomes a mother. She scathingly observes how, while she and her infant daughter are bruised and battered, the smug husband is “the only one who has remained unscathed through all of this.”

Antara’s ambivalent feelings towards her mother shift after having a child of her own. She wonders if they would have had a better relationship had Tara not viewed her as a competitor or enemy, and worries about how to avoid making the same mistake with her own daughter. But underneath all the emotional scabs and the grudges that Antara harbours towards her mother, is an acute fear of losing her anchor. Antara does not want Tara to die because she is afraid that, when the event takes place, Antara will just float away, unmoored by the chaos of life.

It is this keen understanding of a daughter’s conflicted, vacillating emotions towards an increasingly helpless mother that imbues Burnt Sugar with its authenticity, while the irascible humour and jagged, piercing prose make this debut stand out as a novel worth the time.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications

Burnt Sugar
By Avni Doshi
Hamish Hamilton, UK
ISBN: 978-0241441510
240 pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 25th, 2020