NPR Best Book of 2020 and shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. Author Avni Doshi tells a story, at once shocking and empathetic, about love and betrayal between a mother and a daughter in Burnt Sugar. While writing this book, Doshi revealed that her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Read the excerpt below.
Seven sticks of incense burn by the door. I cough and my mother pops her head out of the kitchen. I can smell that she is frying peanuts with cumin seeds in oil. I slip my feet out of my sneakers, which have stretched at the mouth because they’re never unlaced. The floor is cold and smells like lemongrass milk. Light pours in through the east-facing window in the kitchen, and Ma is a silhouette. She dumps a bowl of bloated tapioca balls into the pot and covers it to steam.
‘Have you had breakfast?’ she asks, and I say I haven’t even though I have.
I set the table like we used to, with glasses for water and buttermilk, and no spoon for Ma because she likes to eat with her hands. She brings out chillies, red and powdered, green and chopped. The pot is placed directly on the table, and when she lifts the lid, the cloud that conceals the meal inside evaporates.
I help myself to a large spoonful. The tapioca balls bounce on my plate, leaving a glistening trail behind them.
My mouth fills with a first bite. ‘Something is missing.’
‘Salt. Potato. Lemon.’
She takes a bite and sits back in her chair, chewing slowly. I wait for her anger, but she gets up and goes into the kitchen. I hear the suction of the refrigerator door separating and meeting, the clanging of utensils. She comes out with a small tray and places it on the table. There is lemon juice and a shaker of salt.
‘What about the potato?’
‘Sabudana khichdi doesn’t have potato.’
‘You always make it with potato.’
She pauses. ‘No potato this time.’
I push the food on my plate around and look at her.
‘Don’t keep looking at me like that.’
‘You’re not taking this seriously.’
She throws her head back and laughs, and I can see creamy tapioca clinging to the dark fillings at the back of her mouth. ‘Taking what seriously?’
‘Why did you tell Dilip I’m a liar?’
‘I never said that.’
It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time. I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts, while she grows foggier with each passing day.
She takes another bite. ‘They say when the memory starts to go, other faculties become more powerful.’
‘What kind of faculties?’
‘There are women who can see past lives, who can talk to angels. Some women become clairvoyant.’
‘You’re mad.’ Reaching into my satchel, I pull out my sketchbook. I turn to the last page and add today’s date to a list that contains some forty entries. Next to the date, I write the word ‘potato’.
Ma squints at the book and shakes her head. ‘How does your husband tolerate you?’
‘You’re not even married, how would you know?’
Her mouth is open as I speak, and for a moment I think she is mouthing my words as I say them. Have we said these exact sentences to each other before? I wait for a reply but the moments pulse by. My armpits are damp and I feel something inside of me rearing up.
She smiles. Her teeth look sharp in the sunlight, and I wonder if she enjoys these moments, has grown to expect them. My heart is beating faster and my breath is shallow. I welcome this too.
She taps my hand and points to the notebook. ‘You should worry about your own madness instead of mine.’
I look down at the list, at the careful lines that form each column, before shutting the book soundlessly. On my plate, the tapioca begins to harden. The temperature between us cools. Within minutes, we forget that harsh words have been exchanged.
We mix a few drops of lemon juice in cups of hot water and go out on to the balcony. Ma has hung a dozen hand-washed bras along a clothing line. Some have been patched and mended.
‘You need new ones.’ I finger the murky lace of one battered specimen.
‘Why? Who’s looking at them?’
Below us, in the building grounds, a baby is crying in her ayah’s arms. The woman rocks her maniacally while talking to the watchman. The cries are like that of an animal in pain. We sit silently, waiting for the baby to tire, for her vocal cords to give way, but the screams continue without intermission. The ayah keeps rocking, panting, in panic, perhaps hoping her employers in the building above don’t hear.
‘I don’t understand why you won’t buy new bras,’ I say. I wasn’t planning on returning to this, but somehow I have. The baby is still crying. I wonder what the child could possibly want, and why it seems like the only thing that matters.
‘I have to be an example.’
‘An example for what?’
‘For you. You don’t have to care what others say all the time. Not everything is a show for the world. Sometimes we do things just because we want to.’
If our conversations were itineraries, they would show us always returning to this vacant cul-de-sac, one we cannot escape from.
I start by taking the bait: ‘What have I done that I don’t want to do?
She feigns benevolent dismissal: ‘Anyway, let’s not get into all of that.’
The refusal to let things go: ‘Then why did you bring it up?’
More dismissal and rejection: ‘Leave it, it doesn’t matter.’
The outright anger: ‘It matters to me.’
The rest unfolds predictably. She asks why I am always after her, behind her, chasing after her like a rabid dog with my fangs out. Don’t I have anything better to do, she asks, than bully my own mother?
I do not hesitate for a moment when I tell her she only knows how to think about herself. Her expression moves towards injury but turns back, and she says, ‘There’s nothing wrong with thinking about oneself.’
I halt at the usual impasse. Where do we go from here?
I want to tell her all the things that are wrong with it, but can never find the words. I want to ask her what’s so terrible about doing what other people want, with making another person happy. Ma always ran from anything that felt like oppression. Marriage, diets, medical diagnoses. And while she did that, she lost what she refers to as excess fat. She has no interest in being lean of body – but she doesn’t need repressed know-nothings around her, she says. The feeling has become mutual. Certain contemporaries at the Club refuse to acknowledge Ma. The elder relatives, who might have had a soft spot for the child they remembered, are infirm or dead. Yes, Ma has people around her, people who love her, but to me they seem few. To me, we have always been alone.
There are repercussions for living the life she’s chosen. I wonder if the loss is worth it, and if she believes it’s worth it. I wonder what she feels after I leave to go back to Dilip and she looks around her house. Maybe this isn’t her choice at all, but another path she has mapped over and over, one she cannot unlearn. I want to ask her if, in all the years she has run away, any part of her screams come after me? Does she want to be caught, brought back and convinced that she is important, that she is necessary?
But these questions dissolve when I see her leaning back in her chair, eyes closed, humming to the soundtrack of the crying baby and sipping her sour water.
Excerpt from the new book BURNT SUGAR by Avni Doshi published by The Overlook Press © 2021
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