Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020 and I can completely understand why. In a year that left us all asking what is left to bring us joy when our entire existence was reduced to ‘bubbles’, death tolls and PPE, Doshi gifted us a novel that challenged everything we once took for granted about compassion and empathy. If you were already teetering on the edge of a mild Covid induced existential crisis allow Burnt Sugar to nudge you that little closer to the precipice.
‘[her mother Tara] wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother.’
‘I would be lying if I said that my Mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.’ is not a line found in the memoirs of a convicted serial killer or the last words typed by some crazed incel on a chat room. It is in fact the first line of this effortlessly fascinating book. And get used to it because our protagonist Antara keeps that same energy over the whole 225 pages.
For the most part, Burnt Sugar takes place in the city of Pune (a four hour drive from Mumbai) and tells the story of Antara who in her 30s has found herself caring for her Mother Tara who’s health is declining at an alarming rate due to Alzheimer’s disease.
You might argue that judging by the aforementioned opening line of the book ‘caring‘ is perhaps a stretch to describe what Antara is doing. But I think you’d be wrong. Antara (who explains that she is named as such because ‘[her mother Tara] wanted her child’s life to be as different from hers as it could be. Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother.’) cares a huge amount for her mother. She allows her Mother to move in with her and her quiet but kind husband Dilip, she attends doctor’s appointments, she makes valiant efforts to change her Mother’s diet attempting to undo the deterioration. In many ways she acts like many of us would under these circumstances only she is brutally, painfully and uncomfortably honest about how it feels to care for a woman you resent who just so happens to be your Mother. A woman prone to violent outburst and callous comments and disappearing acts – and this was before the disease took hold.
We say to ourselves; perhaps Antara is bad egg that we can disassociate ourselves with because she ‘loved killing slugs as a child’ and she fights with a woman who’s brain health is declining day by day. Or maybe she is a deeply hurt woman who is tired of as she puts it ‘learned social niceties’ and is less eager to conform than the rest of us.
It is clear that there are looming cultural expectations placed upon Antara to rise up as the matriarch in her small family network. An aspect of the book that I can’t comment on with confidence as a black woman but if there are any similarities between Indian culture and Caribbean culture in this regard then the pressure is real.
You will no doubt come to your own conclusion about what lead to this relationship that throws all preconceived notions of maternal instinct out of the window and into the abyss when you’re presented with all the evidence. And said evidence is… juicy to say the least… scandalous actually. Does it make you a bad person to empathise with Antara or worse still if see elements of yourself in her? Or does it mean you are actually being honest with yourself?
Today I would like to award Burnt Sugar 5 bookworms out of 5.