Avni Doshi
Avni Doshi Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai-based art historian Avni Doshi’s debut novel, ‘Burnt Sugar’, to be released in the UAE on July 30, has been longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

The book, published by Hamish Hamilton, is a witty and incisive exploration of human relationships viewed through the lens of the complex bond between a young artist, Antara, and her rebellious, free spirited mother.

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In her youth, the mother abandoned her loveless marriage and affluent family to join an ashram, spent some time as a beggar on the streets, and chased after a struggling artist — all with her hapless child in tow. But she has now been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Antara has to move past her troubled memories to take care of a person who did not care for her.

Doshi has delved deep into the undercurrents of love, anger, duty, betrayal and obsession in this conflicted relationship to craft a moving, disturbing, thought-provoking story about motherhood, family, identity, and the ties that bind people together.

She has played with the nature and notion of memory through nuanced references to deliberate and involuntary forgetting, obsessive remembering, the different realities people live in and the lies they tell themselves.

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Set in the Indian city of Pune, well-known for its Osho ashram, the novel also contemplates the allure, mystique and realities of the ‘ashram’ culture in India, and its place in the psyche of second-generation American Indians such as Doshi herself.

Doshi was born in New Jersey in 1982. She studied art history at Barnard College, New York and did her Master’s in London. Her focus on contemporary South Asian art led her to work in India for several years where she began writing this novel.

She won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 and a Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in 2014. The novel was published in India last year by Fourth Estate under the title, ‘Girl in White Cotton’ and was longlisted for the prestigious Tata Literature Live First Book Award.

Doshi spoke to Gulf News about the seven-year journey of writing her first novel. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be on the 2020 Booker longlist?

Being on the longlist for the Booker Prize 2020 is something I never even dreamed of. It all feels very surreal at the moment. My editor called to tell me the news before the announcement was made to the public and I walked around in a daze for a while. It’s really a dream to be on a list with these amazing authors. I’m excited to see so many women and debut writers being recognised.

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What inspired you to weave the story around the theme of memory?

My interest in memory as a theme probably grew out of my reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a teenager. Since then, I have revisited ‘100 Years of Solitude’ many times, and even curated an exhibition around the idea of collective amnesia in that novel.

As an art history student, I read Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’ and was just blown away by how everything was hinged on the construction of memory, and by the very notion of memory being constructed, contracted, and instrumentalised by institutions.

It seemed so generative, and it crossed into all the disciplines I was interested in — art history, philosophy, and literature. When I started writing this novel, I realised that the exploration of memory added something interesting to the form of the narrative.

It allowed me to play with registers of time, questions of unreliability, and lent itself to a kind of fragmentation, both in the character and the way the story is told.

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Your grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while you were writing the book. How did that influence the story?

I was devastated by my grandmother’s diagnosis and am still trying to come to terms with it. For months I obsessively read everything I could find about Alzheimer’s ranging from scientific articles about brain chemistry to fringe theories about metabolic dysregulation. All this research and confusion found its way into the book and Alzheimer’s became part of the story only in the final draft.

How did Alzheimer’s, which is such a pivotal part of the story right from the opening lines just appear in the final draft?

I wrote eight drafts over seven years and each one was completely different. The first draft was narrated from the point of view of a child living in an ashram, while others told the story from the perspective of the mother or the grandmother.

The ashram, which was the focal point of the original story gradually waned in importance, and the relationship between mother and daughter also changed. Only in the final draft did I arrive at this particular voice of the narrator as a young married woman and artist struggling with conflicting emotions and memories, leading me to a new opening that describes the essence of the complex and toxic relationship between mother and daughter.

Where do your vivid description and insights about the ashram experience come from?

Pune is my mother’s hometown and many of the women in her family belonged to the Osho Ashram there, so it is something I have been aware of since childhood. I have always had fantasies and fears about a place like that, and in my book, I wanted to explore the ashram of my imagination, so my description of the ashram is mostly invented.

Are you concerned that the novel might be viewed as autobiographical because the main character is an artist and the story includes many references to the art world?

There is a ridiculous and disturbingly pervasive idea that women can only write from lived experience and lack the imagination for true invention. But I am not concerned because Antara and I have almost nothing in common.

She grew up in India, comes from a broken home and had a traumatic childhood, while I grew up in the US and my parents have been married 40 years. Antara being an artist and her memory related art project was a fantasy for me where I could contemplate and elaborate on the work I might have been drawn to making, were I skilled enough to be an artist.

How does the character Dilip, Antara’s Indian-American husband, reflect your own experiences?

Dilip was a fun and interesting character to think through, because so much of his dilemma as an Indian American who has come to India, the country his parents left, was what I felt when I moved to Mumbai. His experiences are different from mine, but I used him as a way to ponder the questions that I needed to answer when I lived in India myself.

How does the UAE title, ‘Burnt Sugar’ relate to the story?

It works at various registers. It refers to sugar and its effect on Alzheimer’s patients, which is a part of the story. In an abstract sense it is an uncanny coming together of opposites — something that is sweet and bitter at the same time. Visually it evokes the image of a slow, sticky substance, a presence that is banal but looming.

What were the challenges of writing your first novel and what have you learnt from the experience?

Writing this book was much more difficult than I had ever imagined. Winning the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 for my first draft made me think that I was a natural talent and had found my calling. But I quickly realised that I knew nothing about writing fiction even though I have been an avid reader all my life.

Fortunately, the Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia gave me an amazing opportunity to learn about literature and craft. I realised how much I had to learn before my book would be ready to be sent out into the world and began the process of writing and rewriting eight drafts over seven years.

The experience really taught me humility. Writing is something to always come to with a beginner’s mind. There is so much I still learn every time I open a book by a writer I admire.

What are the joys of the process, and of being a published author?

The hardest but best part of the whole process is the actual writing. The most rewarding moments of this journey were the ones when I was alone with my book, turning it over in my mind, working through the problems.

Being a published author is wonderful, especially by Hamish Hamilton whose list I have always admired. There have been exciting moments like reading a first positive review, seeing the book in a store for the first time, speaking about it and doing readings at literary festivals, getting the chance to meet my literary heroes, and interacting with my readers.

The response from readers has been so varied. In India, most readers responded to the gravity of the book, whereas in London they enjoyed the dark humour. I am now eager to see the response in the UAE.