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Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori

The Politics and Bitterness of Motherhood: a review of Booker Prize Nominated Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Burnt Sugar explores the role of motherhood and intergenerational neglect and trauma by melding the rise of Hindu nationalism with the personal to depict the ways in which individuals are conditioned into repeating mistakes of the past.

Oct 11, 2020

In one of my first advanced creative writing classes, we came to the topic of mothers or as a friend in class called them, “mommy issues”, which we then referred to as “maternal trauma”. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi, a cleverly written, cutting look into a daughter’s confrontation with her maternal trauma set in 21st century Pune, India, fit in like a puzzle piece with the literature I was engaged in, like Medea by Euripedes and Lullaby by Leila Slimani
Shifting between the past and present, the story is told in first person by the protagonist Antara. An artist and young mother, her name “really Un-Tara”, attempts to define herself as the antithesis to her own mother, Tara. Their relationship, marred by intertwined pasts, is introduced to us at a time when the mother-daughter power dynamic shifts. Tara, a woman whose presence loomed over her daughter, has to now be taken care of by Antara as her memory starts “leaking” due to Alzheimer’s disease. Antara juggles taking care of her mother while being newly wed to her Indian-American husband Dilip and, later in the book, managing motherhood.
Doshi herself, based in Dubai, became a mother to a son right after the final draft of the novel. In an interview with the Guardian, Doshi says she wrote the book as she was “baffled by the physicality of the experience of becoming a mother”. In addition to maternal trauma and memory, Doshi explores religion, art, fate, societal expectations and love to write a story that is both honest and horrifying in its exploration of womanhood. However, what really elevates Burnt Sugar is the nuanced highlighting of the distinct intergenerational loneliness and neglect of the women involved, while subtly weaving in India’s political climate. Doshi’s writing is clear and holds nothing back.The imagery is poetic yet concrete, sharply dissecting this frayed intergenerational relationship into its many strands, both political and personal.
The section titled “1986”, introducing the Ashram, is a part of the story where Doshi’s prose and storytelling really shines. Her imagery of the events in the Ashram, a focal point in both these women's lives, is introduced to us in a way that’s similar to magical realism. Antara remembers her younger self watching the Ashram’s disciples as “white pyramids” turn into standing “white columns” and soon into a “sea” that Tara is lost in as the “religious” frenzy is carried out by Baba, a seven-foot tall Godman.
Initially when researching the book, the mention of Godmen both intrigued and scared me. Godmen are among the darker sections of India’s multireligious reality. Powerful with their obsessed cult followings and records of sexual abuse against women, Godmen’s presence becomes more and more political with the rise of Hindu nationalism in India..
Doshi explores the impact of politics in the personal life of Tara. And even with Antara retelling the story, I was left pondering whether Tara was at fault for running to the Ashram with her young child. It is the loneliness and neglect from Antara’s father that haunted younger Tara, who initially dressed modern for her now ex-husband, and eventually led to her obsession with Baba as a way to escape the confines of traditional marriage. This continues even after Antara is born, apparent in one of the many striking lines of the novel proclaimed by our protagonist: “Even after I was born, she would disappear every day, dripping with milk, leaving me unfed.”
This loneliness and neglect shadows over Tara throughout her life. She left the Ashram when Baba dropped their love affair for a younger woman. She was then heartbroken when Reza, her next lover after Baba, abandoned her and Antara in the middle of the night. All these incidents fueled Tara’s drastic decisions that affected Antara, passing the trauma on throughout her childhood and teenage years. We see other versions of the same pain in other key female characters in the novel such as Nani, Kali Mata and Sister Maria Theresa.
Towards the end of the book, when Antara gets pregnant as a way to sustain her own marriage and becomes a mother to a daughter, Doshi’s astute storytelling shows us how trauma manifests outwards and rears its ugly head in the next generation. By this point, Antara’s sense of self is already disintegrating, a parallel to Tara’s Alzheimer’s, due to constant confrontation with her mother's strange actions and her husband’s discomfort with their relationship. Tara’s habits include attempts to burn Antara’s art project, a face from their past drawn multiple times showing the fragmentation of memory, and scathing critiques of Antara’s body as a warning “to not get too comfortable with myself.”
However, in her depiction of memories, Doshi makes us understand but not sympathize with Tara: in Tara’s neglect was an attempt to make sure Antara would not become her. Now, with Antara’s actions, which the writing insinuates is a result of postpartum depression, she slowly starts mimicking her own mother’s desperation for silence and comfort. Her fear and rising awareness of her struggle is highlighted here: “Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other. Maybe we would have been better off if I had never been designated as her undoing. How do I stop myself from making the same mistake? How do I protect this little girl from the same burden?”
The novel starts with a quote from Lidia Yuknavitch’s Chronology of Water: “Does the wound of the daughter turn into something else if left unattended?” Sugar, when burnt over the temperature meant to make it caramel, becomes bitter and inedible, much like what womanhood and motherhood became for Tara, and slowly, Antara too. Being a mother may be respected, but what of the human behind that role? Doshi’s novel stares back at the reader with the question in the quote as she unravels the story for us.
Aathma Dious is a contributing writer. Email her feedback at
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