Title: Girl in White Cotton (Burnt Sugar)
Author: Avni Doshi
I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.
Girl in White Cotton (or Burnt Sugar, if you prefer) is the story of Antara and her mother who has Alzheimer. They’ve always had a strained relationship, but now that her mother’s grasp on reality is slipping, Antara starts reliving her past, searching for that thread that would allow her to take care of her mother without reservations.
We follow her during her childhood in Pune, first in a guru’s community, then in a catholic boarding school, and after that during her years in Bombay, and a picture starts emerging from the memories: her mother who is both absent and judging, too proud but also mean and spiteful. And as we watch Antara in her daily life in the present, we start to wonder together with her – if she’s really so much different from her mother, after all.
A closer look
I don’t know exactly how to talk about this book.
Antara starts off as a sympathetic character at first. The book is not split into chapters, really, but something more similar to sections; they don’t even progress exactly in chronological order, but more in a thematic one.
We begin with her mother’s diagnosis, and the first hints that their relationship is not just cold, but something more.
We then switch off to talk about Antara’s husband, this nice guy who grew up in America. This section feels very intimate, and the scenes are extremely vivid. We follow their story from first meeting, to marriage, to present, and then we switch again.
There’s a whole section about how she became an artist, and talks about one of her most famous works; then another one about her father, how her mother left him and he made himself a new family, while trying to do the least possible to still feel like he’s present in their lives. She explores what didn’t work – in her opinion – in their marriage, and how her mother tried to be the kind of nice wife his father wanted, but in the end she just couldn’t, and instead went on to live in an ashram and more or less left her in the care of the community.
While exploring her mother’ story and her own past, we get glimpses into the present; her mother getting worse, Antara being pregnant, her husband getting more and more tired of India. Secrets that she kept hidden for years and years come to light, further deteriorating her relationship with her mother; a relationship that’s an unhealthy mix of hate and guilt, of love and resentment.
And then there’s some kind of symmetry setting in after Antara gives birth; I’m not qualified to talk about the depiction of post partum depression, but the way the baby changes the protagonist mirrors in part the change that overcame her own mother during her marriage.
There’s not really a lot of plot to this book; it’s mostly the protagonist reminiscing, or trying to live her present as best as she can despite the circumstances. But as she explores her memories, we come to see a side of her that was not evident from the beginning, and what at first looked like a sympathetic character slowly morphs into something more complex, a fragile creature, afraid of being lonely, and revealing herself for what she is. Antara tries to be the best version of herself she can be, what she thinks she should be, but she struggles. She desperately wants to prove that she’s different from her mother, and separate from her, and her own person; and the ending manages to deliver a punch I was not expecting. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.
I think the style of the book is what kept me reading through the end; even though it’s not my typical kind of story, I was enthralled by Antara’s narration, and how it felt extremely vivid and emotional at times, but also detached and cold at others. The beginning especially is where the protagonist’s voice really shines, and that’s what sold me on the rest of it, even if my attention kept undulating throughout.
This book would be perfect if you love those slice of life, seemingly directionless stories, focusing mostly about the internal workings of a character and her relationships instead of the outside world.
Ah, it’s also been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, if you’re into that kind of thing.