Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi, just like cotton, flows through one’s hands. Released as Burnt Sugar in the United Kingdom, it is one of those rare novels which make you question its motive, the selection of words used to depict a scene or an emotion, the intentions behind acts and dialogues. It proceeds in such a way that by the time one is done reading, it feels like it’s time to read it again. There is so much to understand and so much to take away that one reading would never be enough. It is not surprising at all that this debut is shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.
The novel is about issues and relationships of everyday life. It deals with the mundane in the ways of the profane. On the face of it, it’s an ordinary tale of failed relationships. In fact, the story revels in its ordinariness. In it, there are a lot of characters who have complicated relationships with each other. However, as the story progresses, the reader realises that in its entirety, it is about Tara in the voice of her daughter Antara. Tara has always been a woman who has broken convention, be it in her life as a daughter, a wife, or a mother. She has risked the ‘normal’ upbringing of her daughter for the pursuits of her heart. Never having really gotten along with her parents, in-laws, or her child, she is now at the stage where old age has crept in and dependency cannot be avoided. Antara narrates her trail of difficulties which she faced as a caregiver at the expense of a person she never really cared for.
Antara talks about her mother’s hatred for herself. She delves into how her mother wanted her to be everything she wasn’t because she loathed herself so much. Even her name, which means intimacy, wasn’t chosen because Tara liked it, but because it was unlike Tara.
‘Antara was really Un-Tara – Antara would be unlike her mother. But in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.’
Written in first person, Doshi presents a very crude and crucial picture of motherhood. It seems as if all the martyred depictions of motherhood that women are made to consume, and one day embody, fall apart. The story takes us through Antara’s life with Tara, going back and forth; her years at the Ashram in Pune where her Tara was a disciple, her convent boarding school, her college (which she never finished), and her married life. Throughout her journey we see her consciously attempting to separate herself from her mother. And yet, she gets reduced to being Tara’s caretaker, the caretaker of a mother who could never take care of herself or her daughter.
Doshi presents a very South Asian representation of motherhood, where being experimental and adventurous after marriage and after birthing children, isn’t appreciated. It is the reason why this story hits so close to home. The entire episode of Antara’s pregnancy is a journal towards becoming a mother. It gives a glimpse into the apprehensions a mother might have — doubts, insecurities and fears — about how dreams might never turn into reality after her child is born. Such limitations might not be as perceptible elsewhere. I couldn’t help but draw a contrast between the mothers in Girl in White Cotton and Hideous Kinky, a novel by Esther Freud, in which the mother is celebrated for being carefree.
The last chapter of Doshi’s book is a lost puzzle in some ways. Tara’s intentions become unclear to the reader — is she pretending to be someone she is not? Is she pretending to forget? Does she want to eliminate the traces of her daughter like she’s always done? No one knows. The only thing obvious here is to empathise with Antara.
Girl in White Cotton is also about mobility; it shows how men move and are mobile while women stay. It raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about who gets to move and who doesn’t. What does mobility mean and how is it exercised? More than that, it is about how flexible romance is. It makes one wonder as to how much freedom one has in a codependent relationship. It also raises questions alluding to ethics but does not answer them. If that is a statement on Doshi’s idea of ethics, then she has wonderfully proven her point. All in all, it is not a story you might have never heard before; one of its elemental subplots resembles Orhan Pamuk’s The Red Haired Woman. But the uniqueness and the beauty of this novel lies particularly in its how.
Ananya is a postgraduate student studying English Literature at St. Stephen’s College and a researcher with Zubaan.
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