Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi review – electrifyingly truthful

When does self-determination become selfishness? This intelligent Booker-shortlisted debut examines the legacy of a toxic mother

In the 1970s the British paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described a kind of parenting that need not be all-consuming and self-sacrificing, but which could instead be simply “good enough”. Rather than rushing to feed the child immediately, the “good enough” mother allows an infant to cry a little, teaching them about the reality of frustration and expectation. But what can you learn from a bad mother?

In Avni Doshi’s Booker-shortlisted novel, Tara chooses to pursue her own desires, even as they come at an appalling cost. A restless and discontented young woman in 1980s India, she becomes so enthralled by a guru at a local ashram that she neglects her baby and abandons her marriage. She is absent and unrepentant, thoughtless of her daughter Antara, who later dispassionately describes how she “would disappear every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed”.

Three decades on, when Tara develops dementia, the adult Antara takes her into her home. It’s Antara’s internal conflict that forms the novel’s central theme: how do you take care of a mother who once failed to take care of you? Antara examines the question with a self-inspection so unflinching that it makes you catch your breath. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” she admits coolly.

Set in the city of Pune in west India, the novel alternates between scenes of the past in which the young Antara suffers distress and neglect, and the present day in which the adult Antara is prosperous, middle-class and recently married to Dilip. They live in a modern apartment, do lines of coke at parties and lunch at a private members’ club. The young Antara, by contrast, is powerless when Tara leaves the family home to take up permanent residence at the ashram. She takes Antara with her and Doshi painfully details the child’s unattended thirst and hunger, the damp mattress in the courtyard on which she sleeps and the nightly shrieking of the guru’s frenzied followers.

Avni Doshi ... exploring the suffocations of motherhood.
Avni Doshi ... exploring the suffocations of motherhood. Photograph: 2020 Booker Prize/Sharon Haridas/PA

Doshi only vaguely names the enigmatic guru “Baba”, but the shadowy activities she describes at the ashram resemble those of the followers of the controversial Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (documented in the Netflix series Wild Wild Country). In the most skilled parts of the novel, she describes the bizarre behaviour of the worshippers – the foolishly laughing, clapping, bare-breasted devotees writhing on floors, the western “dabblers” who wear jeans under their kurtas, the tearful women who clutch at Baba’s feet. Writing from Antara’s perspective, Doshi allows us to see the scene both through the lens of her childish incomprehension and as a strange mysticism.

The ashram scenes are, by far, the most intriguing part of the novel, but Doshi, disappointingly, doesn’t allow us to linger here, refusing perhaps to indulge any readerly appetite for exoticism or prurience. What interests her is how, in these squalid circumstances, Tara finds liberation, and how hard it is for Antara to distinguish between her mother’s pursuit of self-determination and acts of selfishness.

When Baba dies, Tara lashes out, slapping the seven-year-old Antara and calling her “a fat little bitch”. Tara is monstrous, but the strength of Doshi’s book is that it resists showing only monstrosity. Her spare and unsentimental writing allows us a glimpse of something more: the suffocation of motherhood and frustrations so powerful she “would bang her body against the wall and scream silently to herself”.

When Antara later accuses her of only thinking of herself, Tara’s “expression moves towards injury but turns back”. She replies: “There’s nothing wrong with thinking about oneself.” Tara resists the abnegations of marriage and refuses the demands of motherhood. She refuses to apologise, too. This leaves Antara at an impasse. “Where do we go from here?” she wonders. But it is an impasse at which she will also find herself. Struggling with her own newborn, she admits, “I am tired of this baby.” She longs for it to to walk, eat, bathe, “have her own life, go off in the world”.

Dementia, though, is the novel’s real impasse and Doshi handles this thoughtfully. Although Tara’s illness recalibrates their relationship, it never permits Antara the restitution she needs. She notes how she has taken to referring to Tara in the past tense, because “I am grieving,” she observes, “but it’s too early to burn the body.” Dementia means that there is no reckoning, no settlement. Tara’s degenerated memory erases their shared history, both the small joys and the deep wounds, but Antara is still living it, processing it, unable to forgive.

Her mother acerbically tells her: “You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.” It’s true that the injustice of being failed by faulty parents is maddening. It’s irresolvable too, but there is, in the novel’s very fine closing scenes, a reluctant understanding. This is an intelligent debut, deserving of its Booker shortlisting. Burnt Sugar is sorrowful, sceptical and electrifyingly truthful about mothers and daughters.

• Burnt Sugar is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop,com. Deliver charges may apply.

Contributor

Shahidha Bari

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