In Avni Doshi’s novel Girl in White Cotton, one of the blinding desires of the narrator, Antara, is to move away from her past. She leaves her home when she can, gets married to a man largely because he presents her with the prospect of a new beginning. Then there is her mother, Tara, who is forgetting everything. Unlike Antara, this is not willed but a medical condition. Yet, they both are carrying shards of the past, tucked away somewhere, which, ever so often, pierce into their present.
Doshi, through them, weaves a disturbing tale of memory and forgetfulness, questioning the relevance and the authenticity of both. The world created by her feels extremely personal but she maintains it was not inspired by her own life, but, she adds, “[W]hen you write anything that traces the internal landscape of a character so closely, you begin to feel like you are embodying parts of her.”
In an interview with indianexpress.com, the author spoke about the significance of the past, the inability of some relationships to remedy themselves and mostly shed light on how memory is not stagnant but dynamic, one that is perpetually rewritten.
How do you perceive memory? Do you think life is constituted of memories or it is the sum total of memories that give form to life?
I think about memory as something dynamic that is constantly being reauthored by the people who remember it. What we remember is punctuated by who we are and what is important to us. This is the reason that we recollect experiences so differently from others. We like to imagine that we are rational individuals who make decisions based on factual evidence, but I think often we have an idea of who we are and who we think others are, and we remember selectively based on the narrative, we have created in our minds.
In your book, the mother and the daughter share a fraught relationship. The mother is soon diagnosed with dementia but you do not use the blank slate, that a condition such as this offers, to rearrange and perhaps even re-tidy their relationships. Did you do this for the sake of the story or do you really feel that bad memories refuse to be overwritten?
In this case, Tara is the one who is suffering from dementia and is moving towards a kind of blank slate, but Antara is not, and is bearing the burden of those memories alone. I think about relationships as more complex than the memories of a single person. For Antara, this trauma began in childhood and continues to exist like a distinct character in the book – becoming an independent adult doesn’t allow that to just go away. Behaviours, values and self-worth are shaped by these early life experiences, and they persist even if circumstances change.
How do you look back at the past, considering how it remains an overbearing presence in the lives of your characters in your novel? Do you see it as something one makes peace or negotiates with?
I myself find that the past is very much alive with me, and is a part of who I am. There are matters I find I can resolve or let go of, but there is also so much that is hidden and subtle. What about the memories and traumas that we don’t have access to, the ones that reside in the unconscious? I thought a lot about Jungian psychology when I was writing this book, and Jung emphasised the part of the mind that has been sectioned off, and the memories we cannot consciously recollect but which exist in our unconscious drives and desires. There is this shadow in all of us. So, I think that even if we try to consciously make peace with the past, it might not be enough – the insult may go deeper than we imagine.
Antara, the narrator of your novel, keeps looking back while telling her story, almost using the past as a crutch to make sense of the present. And yet we know nothing of her. Information, sometimes casually, dropped by her continue to serve as revelation till the very end. Was choosing someone like her as the narrator deliberate?
She was a very deliberate choice, and she is the only one who could have told this story. The decision to tell a story in the first person has its limitations, which are interesting to work within. I think these constraints, paradoxically, allowed me a greater amount of freedom in telling the story and excavating the character. On one hand, the reader can only know what Antara will tell them, but on the other hand, by mediating the other characters through Antara, I was able to offer a specific kind of insight into her as a character.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am working on writing short fiction – short stories – which I’m not very good at, but I’m trying to improve myself.
Who are the authors you grew up reading?
I read anything I got my hands on. I think I learned about sex through romance novels. I loved reading classics when I was young, particularly authors like Henry James and Edith Wharton. And I read amazing books in school by Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, James Baldwin and others. I remember the first time I read Lolita – I was fourteen. I started reading contemporary literature later, in my twenties.
What are the themes you feel most drawn to as a writer?
Motherhood continues to preoccupy me. I think a lot about the gendering of domestic spaces, how we inhabit our homes, the mundane rituals that make up the daily lives of normal people. Marriage and family life. I’m interested in the sort of books where nothing much seems to happen and yet you’re left breathless by the end.