Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar is a love story: a tale of obsession and betrayal. But not between lovers: between mother and daughter. Their unsettled relationship spans decades. Back in her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’—all with her young child in tow. Now she is beginning to forget things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night. Her grown-up daughter, Antara, is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.

Avni called from Dubai to discuss the novels origins, her choice to set the novel in Pune, as well as the deeper themes of the book. Why is there such a particular pain that comes with watching dementia take over a parent? How are a family’s memories constructed and reconstructed? What part did Gabriel García Márquez play in the creation of the novel?

Five Dials

Could you describe the origins of the book?

Avni Doshi

Some of women in my mother’s family have followed gurus. In fact, if you watch the documentary Wild Wild Country, you’ll see some of my mother’s aunts in the film.

I remember being about ten years old, and hearing the women in my mother’s family, talking about a cousin. They were saying that she was gone, that she lived in an ashram now with her guru. I knew even then that this was surprising. She was studying to be a doctor, dedicating her life to science and research. How could she be in an ashram? But somebody had convinced her to come and meet a guru who had traveled from the Himalayan mountains. And once she saw him, something happened—something transformed her. She left, never to return.

I didn’t visit her until I was in my late teens or early twenties. She was completely different, living outside of society. At the ashram, they grew their own food, built their own homes, and existed completely off the grid.

But I remember, as a child, being struck by the entire mythology that was built around her, the way people spoke about her. There was a kind of reverence, and an anxiety, that came with the mention of her name.

As a figure, she stayed in my mind.

Five Dials

What was she like when you saw her again?

Avni Doshi

After all that time, the first thing that struck me was that she looked much thinner. There was something ascetic about her, something withdrawn. She was dressed in all white.

White garments are common among renunciates in India. White is the color of grief, of mourning, of death. Hindus mourn in white, but at the same time it’s also a sign of someone who’s chosen a spiritual path. I think of white as a non-colour, a non-identity, that marks someone as apart from the normal plane of existence.

Five Dials

You first heard the story of this cousin in Pune. Could you describe the city?

Avni Doshi

Pune, where the novel is set, isn’t as big as Delhi and Mumbai. It’s full of students. Pune is also where the Osho Ashram is. That’s one of the things that put Pune on the map.

Pune is always considered quite an international place. There were always a lot of expats living there, spiritual seekers from all over the world. Especially when I visited as a child, I remember how international it felt.

And then there’s the club, The Poona Club, which plays a central role in the book. For me The Poona Club is interesting because clubs in general in India have a disturbing colonial past. But now in the contemporary moment, they exist as a benign, happy space, a little rundown and old-fashioned, where Indians have supplanted the British. You can still get service by ringing the bell on your table. And so the club to me is a space where the history isn’t acknowledged, but is unconsciously re-enacted every day.

Five Dials

In the novel, Antara and her mother enter an ashram. It’s not particularly peaceful. Through the child’s eyes, it’s more like a place of terror. Why did you want your characters to enter that setting?

Avni Doshi

I was interested in continuing with the theme of being inside and outside of society. And the ashram is completely outside of mainstream society. Everybody ascribes to it notions of free love and experimenting with consciousness. They do strange meditations that involve pretending to be animals. They practice ecstatic dancing. There’s the suggestion that every moment has the potential to turn into an orgy. There is an insecurity there, which was interesting to explore.

Once Antara and her mother are in the ashram, they have a community. But Antara is pushed to the side because her mother makes the decision to prioritize the relationship she has with the guru. For Antara, there’s a sense she doesn’t really belong.

Five Dials

She’s a survivor.

Avni Doshi

As I was writing it, I had to stop sometimes and think: is this something that Antara can take? I didn’t want it to read like a list of abuses. But I also wanted to be truthful about what neglecting a child means. When you’re leaving them either to their own devices or as a parent putting your child in the power of other adults, what does that mean? What can that look like?

Five Dials

When did the fragility of memory become an important theme for you to explore?

Avni Doshi

Memory was always interesting to me. I read a lot of Márquez when I was younger, and when I was working as a curator, one of the shows I curated hinged on the way memory and amnesia operates in his writing.

In earlier drafts of the novel, memory wasn’t as central theme. It became more pressing for me when my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago. That’s when I did a deep dive into Alzheimer’s research. I started looking at all the alternative research being done with functional medicine. That was fascinating. I became obsessed and it became an integral part of the novel.

Five Dials

A sense of obsession creeps in to the book. When her mother gets ill, Antara researches all of these different causes of Alzheimer’s. In many cases she’s smacked down by the medical establishment.

Avni Doshi

Exactly. And I experienced that. I’m interested in alternative forms of healing, and ancient forms of medicine, things that are outside the realm of the conventional.

I think that naturally crept into the character. There’s so much trust in medicine. Once you start looking outside of the mainstream paradigm, it ruffles a lot of feathers.

Five Dials

In the book you write that dementia is a particular loss—a long and drawn out loss where a little bit goes missing at a time. What is the effect of that sort of loss?

Avni Doshi

There’s some dissonance when you experience it. We have an expectation that loss comes all at once. You lose the person physically, mentally. There’s a void when a person has gone.

My experience with dementia is that because the mind is going piece by piece, you’re left with this body that looks perfectly healthy. It’s able to do all the things it always did. The person looks the same except they’re not there, and there’s something almost uncanny about the experience because you feel you’re in front of a wax figure: beautifully preserved, smiling, almost eternal, but vacant. In a sense, it’s a death without the loss of the body.

There’s something about this kind of loss that is difficult to digest. My mother finds it almost incomprehensible that her mother is sick. She can’t quite fathom it, and sometimes she turns around and tells me, ‘She’s doing it purposely.’

I have to remind her, ‘She’s not doing it purposely. She’s losing her memory.’

I don’t think it’s simply denial. The dissonance between what she’s seeing and what she’s experiencing in her interactions with my grandmother is too great. At times you almost feel it’s something out of a horror movie. You’re talking to this person who doesn’t know what you’re talking about, or doesn’t recognize you. It’s unsettling because we create memories together. We make memories collectively.

Five Dials

You write in the novel that memory is a work in progress always being reconstructed.

Avni Doshi

Exactly.An issue that doesn’t get talked about much in Alzheimer’s care is how much caretakers suffer, and what caretakers go through in the process of looking after loved ones who are losing their memories. They’re finding that it even affects the way the caretakers are able to remember and create their own memories.

Because we collectively engage in memory making, when one person is no longer participating, others begins to doubt their own recollections. It’s almost as though memory loss is contagious. As I was researching, I couldn’t help but return to One Hundred Years of Solitude where throughout the book you get a sense that a contagion of amnesia is taking over the village, generation by generation. It’s fantastical in the novel, but is remarkably like the experience of being with someone with Alzheimer’s.

Five Dials

The novel touches on the issue of sacrifice, specifically the sacrifice of caring for one’s own parents.

Avni Doshi

There’s a scene in the novel where Antara goes to the mall and buys a single bed, and the salesperson asks, ‘Is this for your child?’ And she answers, ‘No, actually it’s for my mother.’

The book undoes the romantic image of newlyweds preparing to welcome a child into the family. Instead, ailing, ageing parents are being brought to their children’s homes. There’s something almost dystopian about it.

Five Dials

In the case of the novel, the history between mother and daughter is troubled and unstable. It has to be confronted.

Avni Doshi

Definitely. There’s baggage that Tara brings with her when she enters her daughter’s house. And secrets that Antara has not shared with her husband—secrets that Antara is trying to forget.

Five Dials

Near the end of the book Antara says about her mother: ‘The more deranged she becomes, the greater her clarity of purpose.’ Could you explain that?

Avni Doshi

I was interested in the line between madness and clarity. To some degree, the more mad these characters become, the more insane their behaviors become, the closer we get to who they really are.

Under the polite veneer there’s a shared history of trauma. To some degree it’s never been acknowledged, never dealt with or discussed. And this leads to resentment. The closer the characters teeter on the edge— on that precipice of insanity—the more they are able to hone in on a purpose or a meaning or something that feels true. It isn’t as performative.

There’s a part early in the book where I write that maybe it’s performance that keeps people alive. Later I believe it becomes clear that actually the performance is deadening. These characters come alive when they stop performing, when they let their insanity and their trauma and their damage shows through.

Five Dials

You also touch on the way that there can be an inadvertent beauty in dementia, especially in one of the final scenes where Antara’s mother is holding her grandchild and thinking that it’s her daughter. A lot of people who deal with parents with dementia say that occasionally there are moments of almost absurd beauty. These moments arise from the illness. You couldn’t expect someone to behave this way normally. But here they are doing something very odd, very different. But moving, in a way.

Avni Doshi

I think about it as sublime: beauty moving into terror. In the scene you mentioned, there is something moving about the fact that Tara thinks the baby is her own. It is as though she has been transported, and in her illness there is a kind of redemption. But there’s also something very disturbing about it, something that takes everybody else in the scene out of their bodies for a time.

When one person is so clearly removed from the present, it throws the entire moment into question. The experience of time is fragmented, and we begin to see Antara’s subjectivity begin to fragment as well.

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