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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Heard narrator’s voice in my head: Avni Doshi on writing Booker nominated novel

According to Doshi, her narrator's voice guided her through nearly 300 pages to put together the book that was seven years in the making and is in the Booker Prize shortlist of six.

By: PTI | New Delhi | Updated: October 1, 2020 4:22:06 pm
Girl in White Cotton, Avni Doshi, book on relationships, indian express newsAvni Doshi's Girl in White Cotton has been shortlisted for the Booker. (Photo: Rohit Jain Paras)

At the centre of Avni Doshi’s debut novel Girl in White Cotton is a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship, but it wasn’t a theme the author had in mind before she set out to write. According to her, her narrator’s voice guided her through nearly 300 pages to put together the book that was seven years in the making and is in the Booker Prize shortlist of six.

“I didn’t set out to write about a particular kind of relationship. Rather, I heard the voice of the narrator in my head and as I began to write the novel, the characters emerged, and their relationships to one another grew from there,” Doshi told PTI over email from Dubai, where she currently lives.

The book primarily revolves around the narrative of a woman (Antara) trying to take care of her mother, Tara, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Equal parts uncomfortable and relevant, even more so in current times, the US-born Doshi mirrors the worst fears, insecurities and uncertainties of a generation living through a pandemic. The book part of the shortlist that has previously featured Indian writers like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and V S Naipaul — came out in India last year as Girl in White Cotton and was released in the UK in July this year as Burnt Sugar.

“It feels wonderful, a dream come true, 2020 has been difficult for debut novels. I am grateful that the book is reaching so many readers,” the 38-year-old writer said, adding that one had to be “insane” to spend over half a decade on a single project.

The Booker Prize jury has described Doshi’s book as an “utterly compelling read that examines a complex and unusual mother-daughter relationship with honest, unflinching realism sometimes emotionally wrenching but also cathartic, written with poignancy and memorability.”

Through its central mother-daughter duo of Tara and Antara, it talks about the reality of being trapped in difficult situations when life throws curve-balls, but also the helplessness of being caught in a labyrinth created by one’s own choices, and how all of this gets a tad more challenging if you are a woman.

Having always been the one to follow her heart, Tara falls in line with the conventional life plan laid out by the world for a woman she gets married and has a child, but eventually gives in to her true self and runs away to an ashram with her daughter who is too young to make a choice for herself.

What follows is a heartbreaking and confusing life for both. The daughter despises her mother for her choices and struggles to battle her own anxieties for the rest of her life, even after she herself becomes mother to a baby girl.

“Tara probably should have never gotten married and never become a mother. I imagine many women can relate to that kind of regret. Society pushes us in certain directions, and often years later we realise our lives are unrecognisable,” Doshi said.The suffocation of billions of people across the world as they remain cooped up in their homes due to the pandemic is likely to find resonance in both Tara and Antara’s claustrophobia, making the book a true reflection of immediate times.

“There is a certain claustrophobia I tried to capture in the novel, one that is experienced in the various domestic spaces, and I think that is something many people faced over the lockdown,” the author said. Doshi makes the book even more identifiable by investing large portions of her prose on the most innocuous objects of daily life, things that one, intentionally or unintentionally fixates on like a medicine bottle on a shelf, missing potatoes in a dish, or a damp patch on a wall.

“Often such situations reveal more about the individual than about the singular object in question,” she said. “To me, that is the reality of everyday life. Those are the things we notice when we inhabit various spaces. The novel is quite spare in terms of descriptions, so usually if I go into writing about a particular object, it is there for a reason, mostly to evoke a feeling or reveal something about the character,” Doshi said.

The other authors in the shortlist are Diane Cook for The New Wilderness, Tsitsi Dangarembga for This Mournable Body, Maaza Mengiste for The Shadow King, Douglas Stuart for Shuggie Bain and Brandon Taylor for Real Life. The Booker Prize for Fiction, which is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English and published in the UK or Ireland, will be announced on November 19 and carries a cash prize of GBP 50,000.

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