Avni Doshi was already a few years into writing her Booker-shortlisted novel Burnt Sugar when her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
“It was a really big shock for me,” the Indian-American author, who now lives in Dubai, said. “I felt like all these things that had preoccupied me for years and years were sort of coming alive in my real life.”
Memory is a central theme in Doshi’s book. Her main character, Antara, tries to reconcile the fact that her mother is developing dementia, thus forgetting all the ways she has neglected and mistreated her.
Though it was difficult watching her grandmother suffer with Alzheimer's, there was also a "strange literary potential" in the disease, said Doshi, who gave a talk at the Jameel Arts Centre on Friday, the inaugural day of the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
“There are a lot of afflictions that when we suffer we can come out on the other side and write about them,” Doshi said. “Depression, for example. There’s a possibility that you can come out on the other side and tell your story. But with Alzheimer’s, there is no possibility of that. So their experience is always mediated through the experience of their caregivers, especially when they reach a kind of peak in their illness.”
Writing Burnt Sugar was Doshi's way of better understanding the nature of Alzheimer's. She said she had a desire to tell a story that not only showed the heroic aspect of the disease, but also the side that was full of terror, in particular for those who are entrusted with taking care of someone with Alzheimer's.
“It is really difficult to look after someone whose understanding of reality is kind of loose,” she said. “That daily experience can make your own feelings of reality slowly come unhinged. How that madness can almost be contagious in a sense.”
Alzheimer's was not the only condition that Doshi unpacks in Burnt Sugar. The novel's protagonist, Antara, experiences postpartum depression, something that Doshi said she had suffered from, too.
“It’s one of those things many women all over the world suffer in silence and feel shame about,” she said. She added that even during the darkest hours of the condition, it seemed jarringly normal.
“I would go to the bathroom every day and pray for death, but I thought that was normal,” she said. “So, for me, it’s important to talk about it and bring it to the surface.”
Doshni hopes that by sharing her own experiences, she inspires others who may be going through it themselves or know someone who has just given birth to ask questions. “Because it is possible that the person suffering is not completely aware of what they are suffering.”
The story behind the book's different titles
The author also gave some insight into why the book, which took seven years and eight drafts before it came out, was released under a different title in other parts of the world. In India, it is called Girl in White Cotton.
Doshi said she found “the title aspect of it harder probably than writing the book.”
"Girl in White Cotton was the original title of the first draft of the book. This was back in 2013," Doshi says. "The thing is, white cotton has a lot of different resonances that I think it doesn't have outside the subcontinent. In India, white cotton is the fabric of grief. Widows wear white cotton. Anybody in mourning wears white cotton. For me, it was an interesting title in the context of India because there was this tension between a young, innocent girl and a fabric that could refer to purity and on the other [hand] refer to something darker."
Doshi began wondering whether the title would work outside India as the book got closer to publication. Audiences in India, she said, would immediately pick up on the complexity of the meaning of white cotton. She wasn't sure whether the title would resonate in the same way in other parts of the world. So she opted to name the book Burnt Sugar for the worldwide market instead.
"You have a few seconds to grab a reader with the title," she said. "We picked Burnt Sugar because we felt like it contained that tension. It's sugar and, well, I don't want to give any spoilers away, but sugar is an important part of the novel. And the title Burnt Sugar for us had the feeling of some darkness, something looming, something that's boiling over."