In an essay published in a fashion magazine in May 2017, Avni Doshi wrote of her grandmother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, “We are losing a bit of her every day. I tell my shrink that my heart is breaking but the truth is I feel it most in my stomach, in the watery unease of my gut.” Her Nani had held the family together with her “kindness and her meals” and the imminent loss of her memory also signalled to Doshi a watering down of the family’s shared past.
If it was love that she explored in that essay on her maternal grandmother, when her debut novel Girl in White Cotton (HarperCollins) arrived in November 2019, a book that had been in the making for seven years, Dubai-based Doshi would train her lens again on memory and its corrosion. Only this time, it would be a discomfiting fictional account of what it means for those caught in its bitter throes, especially if the relationship has been one of distrust and disenchantment. In one of last year’s most anticipated debuts, Doshi explored the fraught relationship between Tara and Antara, mother and daughter, that comes to a head when Tara begins to lose her memory, forcing Antara to turn caregiver for her. The inversion of roles initiates a piecing together of the years of neglect that Antara suffered through because of Tara’s radical life choices and her apathy towards her daughter. It’s a hard, unflinching look at familial bonds and how they damn us and unravel us. Doshi sets the tone with her opening sentence: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure” and carries it through to its rather unconventional ending.
It was the narrative voice that drove the story, says Doshi. The centrality of memory in the novel — not just its medical frailty but also what we choose to remember and what we forget — was more intuitive. “I just followed the story the narrator was telling, and memory turned out to be one of the central ideas. When I could hear the narrator’s voice in my head, I knew she was going to tell her story. I liked the way she sounded, that voice guided me,” says the writer, who grew up in New Jersey’s Fort Lee, and studied art history, with a focus on contemporary Indian art.
The company of women, not just her mother, but also her grandmother and other women in the family would calibrate her to the cadences of the feminine experience. Vacations meant trips to India, often to Pune, where her mother’s family lived. In her novel, where all other characters fade to the periphery, leaving Tara and Antara centerstage to grapple with their demons, the invisible constructs of patriarchy are in place and Doshi examines their impact on the lives of her protagonists with incisive sharpness. “It seemed natural to me to write about the inner lives of women — those are the stories I want to tell, those are the stories I know,” she says.
It would be art, though, that would bring her to India in her mid-twenties, where she lived for seven years, working as a curator with galleries such as Latitude 28 in Delhi and Art Musings in Mumbai. This was in 2012 and Doshi would embark upon her novel soon afterwards. “I always knew I wouldn’t work as a curator for very long — I wasn’t very good, not academic enough, too fanciful. When I started writing fiction, it immediately felt better to me, and since I loved reading, literature felt familiar. It was only after I won the Tibor Jones Prize for the first draft of this book in 2013, was introduced to an agent and the literary world, that I started to actually doubt myself. I was sure I didn’t know how to write, that this was all a mistake,” she says.
Now that the book is out of the way, Doshi says she’s taking her time to begin work on her next, spending time with her infant son, letting ideas simmer till the moment is ripe. “I guess there is no way to cope with the uncertainty of writing, and this is true for even the most seasoned writer; every book is different, has to be written in a way, and must be discovered,” she says.
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