Note: This book was published as Girl in White Cotton in India and under the title of Burnt Sugar in the UK.
Caregiving in the best of circumstances is a fraught business. One that is made more so when it involves a relationship that is itself threadbare, ragged from too much wanting and not having, rent by sharp words that grow sharper with memory. Cinema and literature have found a meaty subject in Alzheimer’s and related disorders of the aging mind, using it as a means of excavating our deepest impulses, good and bad. There is the bittersweetness of a Still Alice (Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel and its 2014 film adaptation) and the darkness of Turn of the Mind (Alice LaPlante’s 2011 thriller), and a variety of other treatments. It seems that mental illness and the fading self are metaphors of our time, mirroring in some ways the gradual slippage of our control (if we ever had it) over the world as it careens into a climactic endgame.
Avni Doshi’s debut novel Girl in White Cotton is an intimate account of daughterhood and motherhood, run through with the scars of neglect and abandon/ment yet held together by something that is not quite love but an addictive emotion that doesn’t have a name.
Antara, the novel’s narrator and central character, is really Un-Tara, the daughter of Tara, seeking to be everything her mother is not, and to not be everything her mother has been. Her first words to the reader set the tone for the anger that pervades the book: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” But it is not misery her mother experiences; it is forgetting. And it is in witnessing this forgetting, and in picking up the pieces of the everyday that must be survived, that Antara, despite her resolve to maintain emotional distance, ends up feeling not pleasure but resentment.
Doshi’s novel plays out in the central Indian city of Pune, set in part inside an ashram run by a baba who bears a close resemblance to Osho. Tara’s brief capitulation to conformity ends with Antara’s birth, when she walks out of her marriage to join the ashram, Antara in tow. It’s the beginning of a tumultuous journey that includes begging on the streets and an affair with a penniless artist, with Antara always hanging on at the fringes, forgotten, bewildered, unsettled, and resentful.
For the adult Antara, these feelings find a home in her art, which takes the form of a cyclical study of a single face and rendered into anonymity by repetitive redrawing, losing a bit of the original with each iteration. “Who is he?” asks her husband Dilip. “Nobody,” says Antara, willing forgetfulness with every stroke that takes the image further away from its source—that her mother, in a moment of clarity, recognizes.
As Antara tells her story, she does not seek our sympathy. She demands an unflinching gaze, one that recognizes that “decency is something we enact in public,” because, “with someone to witness and rate our actions, and if there is no fear of blame, what would the point of it be?” Just as Tara refused to play the dutiful wife and mother, Antara too finds herself recoiling from those roles, discovering that she is not that “un”Tara after all.
In summary, it’s a compelling book, but in the reading, there are parts that drag with too much explanation, too much labored introspection. The imaginative interpretations of brain degeneration seem forced, and leave one feeling a bit confused about their place in the story—as insights into the decaying mind or fevered one of the narrator? Still, Antara’s meanderings do make us stop and think and look into our own minds. Have we not all wondered, for instance, “Can a performance of pleasure, even love, turn into a true experience if one becomes fluent enough in it? When does performance become reality?”