- The novel is a story of love and betrayal, but between a mother and daughter.
U.S.-born and Dubai-based author Avni Doshi’s debut novel, “Burnt Sugar,” is among 13 books chosen for the Booker Prize longlist, announced on June 28. She is the only South Asian author on this year’s list, chosen from 162 novels published in the UK or Ireland between Oct.1, 2019 and Sept. 30, 2020. The Booker Prize for Fiction is open to writers of any nationality, writing in English.
Booker says “Burnt Sugar” is a love story and it is a story about betrayal, not between lovers but between mother and daughter. “Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Doshi tests the limits of what we can know for certain about those we are closest to, and by extension, about ourselves.” It revolves around Antara and her mother Tara, and how the daughter copes with the reality of her mother’s memory loss. While the two have had a difficult relationship, Antara now has no idea how to care for her mother.
The book was released last year in India as “The Girl in White Cotton.” Published by Penguin Random House, “Burnt Sugar” will be released on July 30. Doshi told The National that it took seven years and eight drafts before the novel saw the light of day. “Getting the book out into the world ended up being a longer and more complicated process than I imagined,” she told the National. “The journey has been long and difficult to say the least.”
The book is based in Pune, and takes inspiration from a lot of women in Doshi’s family who belonged to the Osho ashram, founded by controversial Indian mystic Rajneesh. “This captured my imagination from a very young age,” she told the National.
However, the book is not autobiographical. She told the National that neither Antara or Tara are anything like her or her mother. “I suppose all mother-daughter stories are love stories in a sense,” she said. “We mirror our mothers, rebel against them, emulate them while trying to unconsciously destroy them. I’m really inspired by psychoanalysis and the way the mother complex is constellated in all of us to some degree — it’s an integral part of our histories, both personal and collective.”
Doshi was born in New Jersey to Indian parents in 1982. She told the National that she found it “difficult to reconcile” to her Indian background with her life in America. “My childhood was quite normal by any standard, but I remember feeling that I was different than my peers.” She told the paper that her mother put her in a Jewish nursery school near their home. “I remember speaking a mix of English and Gujarati as a child, and I was often unintelligible to the teachers. That feeling continued through school — where I felt some aspect of me remained unexpressed in my childhood.”
Despite that, she told the National that she remained connected to her culture “through regular visits to India, spent with my mother’s family in Pune.” She continued to spend time in India as a teenager, doing charity work at the Mother Teresa mission in Kolkata.
She told the National that she moved to India from the UK to work in the art world. She then left India “when I found I couldn’t stay any longer — something shifted in me, and I began to long for the place that I had grown up in.” She moved back to the U.S., met her future husband, and moved to the UAE after marriage in 2014.
Doshi has a BA in Art History from Barnard College in New York and a Masters in History of Art from the University College London. She was awarded the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize in 2013 at the Appejay Kolkata Literary Festival for the manuscript of “Girl in White Cotton.” In 2019, the novel was long-listed for the Tata First Book Prize.
The book has received praise from prominent authors including Elizabeth Gilbert, Olivia Sudjic, Sharlene Teo and Fatima Bhutto. Gilbert, the bestselling author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” called Doshi “a writer of surgical precision and sharp intelligence.” She said the novel “of mother-and-daughter resentments and the deep, intimate cuts of ancient family history gleams like a blade — both dangerous and beautiful.”
Similarly, Sudjic, author of “Exposure and Sympathy” said “Burnt Sugar” is “acerbic, full of wit and cool intelligence, but also brilliantly poetic and passionate – every sentence is a coiled spring and each psychological portrait burns itself into the mind. I couldn’t put it down.” Teo of “Ponti” fame called the book “a compulsively readable examination of toxic relationships and the ties that bind us,” while Bhutto, author of “The Runaways,” said the book is “taut and unsettling, a dark, ferocious novel.”