Author Q&A:
Avni Doshi

Burnt Sugar
(Hamish Hamilton, £14.99) 

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In her youth Tara abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar and spent years chasing after an artist, all with her young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her. A story of love and betrayal between mother and daughter, it’s the debut novel of the Dubai-based author. 

Tell us about the title and evolution of this novel.
The novel was written over seven years. I wrote many drafts of the book, and each one was very different than the one before. If I think back over every iteration of the story, I feel I have written seven different novels. At the beginning, the novel was centred around an ashram in an unnamed town. The narrator was a nameless little girl. I was afraid, I think, of naming things, of grounding the story in reality. I worried that people would think the story was about my family if I wrote anything that could be called familiar. In the end, the novel benefitted from specificity, from the particular details of place and time and smell. Through writing this novel, I came face to face with my inner censor, and I’ve learned to work around her.

Given your background in visual art does your writing often arrive first as images?
I often do have an image in my mind before I begin writing, but this isn’t always the case. With this novel, it was often a smell or sound that triggered a memory. At other times it was a character’s voice. But I think writing from an image is a great way to begin something. Image and text defy each other in so many ways, and I found in recent years with my art historical writing that the least interesting thing I could do would be write about an image. The most enlivening writing comes in the building up of a work, a kind of fantasy that makes assumptions about an image and pushes past what is there – or even the opposite, going to the bones of what you see. There are strategies that can be generative for fiction as well.

You are connected to both India and the US and live in the UAE. What is the significance of the plot of your first novel landing in India?
I grew up in the US, but was living in India in my twenties, which is when I began writing the novel. Throughout my childhood I travelled to India every winter and spent time with my mother’s family in Pune. I dreamed about what it would be like to live there. When I was with my Indian relatives, I would change my accent, desperate to fit in. As I started writing the book, I came to Pune for periods to spend time with my grandmother and revisited the Pune of my memories, which was fragmented and yet rich. There’s something about the quality of childhood memories where they can miss large expanses of context, and yet contain so much detail and emotion. In this way, India as an imaginal world held more power for me than the place I grew up in.

Is the Baba of the novel based on a real guru?
Growing up, I had many questions about the way ashrams operate that always felt mysterious to me. When I was seven years old, my mother’s cousin left her family and friends and went to live in the Himalayan mountains with a guru. It was a surprise to everyone because she had never been spiritually inclined. More than a decade later, I decided that I would travel to the ashram where she lived with her guru. I didn’t recognise her at first, and was immediately told that I couldn’t touch her. She wasn’t my relative anymore – she was the mother of the ashram now. Though I was thrown by the rules and regulations of the place, my stay at the ashram was pleasant. Yet there were so many questions I had that remained unanswered. Were they lovers? Was that allowed or acknowledged? I tried to ask a few people these questions but my curiosity was met with blank stares or even disgust. I was fascinated by the way information was divulged or withheld, and by the unspoken agreement to not ask questions.

Antara’s mother Tara suffers from Alzheimer’s. Does this produce only an extreme version of the fallibility of memory?
Alzheimer’s is of course different than the normal faltering of memory, but I think its poetic and metaphoric possibilities place it on a spectrum. Memory is not only co-authored, but it’s deeply subjective. It is easy to second-guess your recollections, particularly when another person protests enough about your memory of an incident. We often don’t remember the details of an exchange, but only the feelings that were produced. And if you hear another version of a particular history enough, it will supplant your own memory, and quite literally take up residence in your mind.

My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s some years ago, and my mother would often say she felt she was going mad being with her. Caretakers report that they also question their own hold on reality. That’s why support groups for caretakers are essential.

You are currently heavily pregnant with your second child and had had your first when you completed the book. Do you think Burnt Sugar would be radically different had you written it after becoming a mother?
I re-read the novel after my son was born because I was curious to see if I had gotten anything terribly wrong, especially about the narrator’s post-partum period, but I was happy to see that it still rang true. It is hard to know what this novel would have been like if I had had my children before completing it. Maybe nothing would have changed, and I still would have written from the perspective of the wounded daughter. Maybe I would have considered the character of the mother from a totally different vantage point. Or maybe I would have abandoned the book and moved on to something else – I feel as a new mother, certain scenes are a little harder to read, particularly those that involve the abuse and neglect of a child. I am sure they would be harder to write as well.

Another major theme of the novel is betrayal. Whose betrayal is greater – Tara’s or Antara’s?
That’s an interesting and difficult question. When I think about how to answer it, my mind goes to the original version of the fairy tale of Snow White. The stepmother harms Snow White again and again, and she, an innocent youth, is unable to maintain control of her life or protect herself against her cruel parent. After she lives with the dark shadowy figures of the seven thieves, and finally finds her prince, she invites her stepmother to her wedding and presents her with a gift.

The gift is a pair of iron shoes that do not stop dancing – and the stepmother dances herself to death. By the end of the story, the young woman has found her aggression. And she wants her revenge.

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