The Booker shortlist this time features Indian-origin author Avni Doshi for her debut novel Burnt Sugar, published in India as Girl in White Cotton. If a debut book has made it to the Booker shortlist, the obvious assumption is it is worth reading. For Indian readers, there is the added fact of Doshi’s desi origins, and the novel being set in Pune.
But art is long and time is fleeting, and before deciding to spend money and minutes on Girl in White Cotton, you would probably like a low-down on the book.
Doshi’s novel is arresting and startling – the Booker website describes it as “a love story and a story about betrayal… sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit.”
The book will make you distinctly uncomfortable as you progress, but you won’t be able to keep it down. It’s a short book, the prose rich in its economy.In the themes it takes up and the relationships it chooses to explore, it is an important book.
Here are three reasons you should not miss out on Girl in White Cotton.
Not always holy motherhood
The novel is focused entirely on the relationship between Antara, the narrator, and Tara, her mother. Antara is an artist. Tara, who all her life has been a fickle, flighty rebel without clear causes, is losing her memory due to medical reasons, and Antara now must take care of her – a task she chooses for herself, but which she finds herself unequal to for various reasons: no one has ever taken care of her so she has no models to follow; with her mother, one never knows how much is actual degeneration of brain and how much plain perversity; and most importantly, Antara doesn’t always want to care for her mother or keep her comfortable.
The book makes an important point about motherhood – like all loves, it can be toxic as well as nurturing. While art in India often explores romantic love in all its beautiful and ugly facets, motherhood is reduced to the uni-dimensional ‘caring, sacrificing’ trope. This book sounds like a whiplash against the cloying platitudes of a mother’s love we are used to, and worth reading for that one reason alone, it makes you sit up and take notice of a lot that is generally brushed away – not every woman thinks of motherhood as a blessing, glorifying a mother’s role is often just the rest of society shunning responsibility for a child, and no, mother does not know best, nor should she be expected to.
Patriarchy ruins motherhood, like all else
The men in Doshi’s novel are peripheral – their absence is more of a character than the men themselves. Yet, they control and cause what the women do. While the book is essentially an exploration of mother-and-daughterhood, there are telling pointers of how Tara’s, and later Anatara’s, actions are influenced by the demands of a patriarchal society.
Tara rebels against being a good daughter supposed to prettify herself for the marriage market, she rebels against a being a good daughter-in-law whose presence is supposed to prettify her marital home. She is made a mother not because she wanted to, but because that was the next logical progression for a wife. Saddled with a child she doesn’t know what to do with, Tara tries to go on with her life on her own terms, with catastrophic consequences for herself and her daughter. The men she falls for have the freedom to stay untethered, to sail in and out of the mother-daughter’s lives, a liberty forever denied to Tara.
Antara, literally named un-Tara by her mother, is used to abandonment by men. A generation after her mother, she can still get security, a fixed home, the normativity she so craved in childhood only through a husband. Antara chooses to have a child not because she wanted one, but so she can be tethered more strongly to her husband, plunging into post-partum depression and a complicated relationship with her daughter right from her birth.
Is forgetting a loss or a release?
Memory is another important theme of the novel – what do we choose to remember, how much do we forget, how much of our present is shaped by how we remember our past. Tara, after sharing with her daughter a lifetime of scarring memories, is now forgetting things. Is this her final act of rebellion – if she forgets her past, she will be free of it? Antara is making dogged efforts at making her mother stay tethered to reality – till that starts impacting the reality she has painstakingly created for herself.
Anatara’s art project is her drawing the face of a man – the same man – every day for a year, and the faces look very different from each other. Is human memory fallible, or the effort to remember the past exactly as it was futile? (Interestingly, Doshi wrote eight drafts of this novel, and they are now hanging in her home as a “record of those years of failing”). When the reader knows the identity of her subject, it leads to more questions – were Antara’s changing drawings a way to reassert some control on the subject, and thus her own past?
In a nation confronting its past in a whole new way, these are questions all of us should engage with – can changing what we remember about our past fashion us a new present? How sustainable, and how healthy, will such a present be?
Doshi’s book leaves us with no easy answers, but a lot of important questions, which, as the Booker website says, is what the “best novels” do – “prepare our societies for valuable conversations”.
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