Sometimes you'll be watching a movie or TV series that portrays the ideal family, one where problems are discussed and resolved, where mothers dispense hugs and wisdom to daughters in equal measure, and you think to yourself, "what a crock of sh*t". This is what I imagine Antara, the protagonist of Avni Doshi's Burnt Sugar would think. Age 36, she's resentful of the way she has been raised, despises her mother who has recently developed Alzheimer's, but can't cut the ties.
The story is set in Puna, India, and narrated by Antara who intersperses scenes of her current life with episodes she remembers from her upbringing. Tara, her mother, didn't conform to the life society expected her to lead. She left her husband and his overbearing mother to live in an ashram, the source of Antara's first memories.
Memory is a key theme of the novel. In one scene Antara tells her grandmother she remembers the time her mother added chilli to her food. "Your mother didn’t add the chilli to your khichdi. I added ginger to it because you had a very bad cold", says Nani. Later, Tara's doctor explains, "memory is a work in progress. It’s always being reconstructed". The daughter tries to mitigate the effects of her mother's dementia by trying to keep the memories alive, but whatever Antara relates is her own truth (although she admits to telling lies) and not Tara's.
As the story unfolds the daughter seems to morph into her mother and you sometimes wonder whose thoughts are being spoken. No matter how much Antara wants to be her own woman, live her own life, she cannot escape her mother: "I understood how deeply connected we were, and how her destruction would irrevocably lead to my own". In the end, you have a great deal of sympathy and admiration for the woman who has lived her own life. As for Antara, you can't help thinking that she'd be better off living in the present, rather than continually picking over the past.