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A Gift That Speaks a Thousand Words: Reading Burnt Sugar with my Mother

By Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel

Avni Doshi’s Booker Prize-shortlisted novel Burnt Sugar is published as Girl in White Cotton in India. The book is critically acclaimed, shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2020, winning the Sushila Devi Award 2021, long listed for the Woman’s Prize for Fiction 2021, and made the New York Times 100 Noteable Books of 2021. Doshi, an American novelist of Indian heritage, writes about love, obsession and betrayal through the story of a mother and daughter. She takes us through the challenges and growth of a mother daughter relationship she calls a “poisoned love story”.

When I think of my own mother, I think of indigo blue cotton kurtas, the faint waft of fabric conditioner and the incense sticks that she would burn only for fleeting moments as she showered. As I ordered the book for her, fumbling in my bag for my Indian debit card, fleece wrapped self perched on a London to Oxford train, I had a loud thought: I don’t think I have ever seen my mother wear white.

At my father’s funeral, my mother wore a light pink floral kurta. A distant relative who had never met her before came into the room where my mother sat with her sisters. I squatted on the floor by the bed where my father had taken his last breath a few hours ago. I rocked back and forth. My mother was still quite composed, she wasn’t hysterical. I’ve never seen my mother hysterical. The relative looked around, a mouthful of condolences waiting to burst out, finally admitting her confusion, she asked – who is the widow?

My mother raised her hand like a schoolchild in a lesson she was well prepared for. Later that night we laughed about it, our first light moment after incessant months of caregiving.

I ordered my mother the book as I reached its mid-way mark. Along with the tracking details for the order, I sent her a cautionary text:

Don’t get offended, ok? We’re nothing like them.

‘Them’ in question being the mother-daughter duo in the book. Tara and Antara are dysfunctional in their vitriol. Caring for a hostile mother now afflicted with dementia, the book captures the frustrations and old wounds that are dug open in dynamics of caregiving, suffering and watching all that is familiar in the people we love be swallowed by sickness. The taut line in Tara and Antara’s relationship is her absent father, the husband that Tara abandons in her restlessness and pursuit of self at the feet of a spiritual Guru.

The men come and go, crisscrossing the lives of the mother and daughter and boxing them in opposition and fury. There is the abandoned father, the Guru, in whose reverence Antara finds herself replaced. And there’s Reza Pine, the eclectic Bombay artist who sleeps with both mother and daughter – and discards both- unbiased in his callousness.

The ending of the novel is acidic in many ways, leaving the taste of a too sour tangerine colouring your back tooth. The tableau that plays out with the senile Tara clinging to Antara’s daughter and husband, claiming them as her own, is a twisted show of intergenerational trauma. The knife that cuts is that in their love, these women are doomed to hurt each other. Their barbs and insecurity are a damning cycle.

The question is: is it their fault?

At one point in the novel, Tara tells her daughter:

You used to make me feel so bad…You would talk about your father all the time. You used to cry for him day and night, not eat, not drink. Papa, Papa, Papa. He was the only one you wanted. Even when you were born. You said Papa much before Ma. You waited for him to come from the office like a little dog.’

Antara states she does not remember doing anything of this sort. Tara concludes the conversation with painful brevity: ‘Yes… You used to make me feel like shit.’

In that vein, I cannot claim amnesia. I remember my angry childhood and frustrated teenage years with clarity, especially after hours upon hours of psychodynamic therapy. I loved my father and I was cruel to my mother.

My earliest memories are of my father returning home, carrying me to the glow-in-the-dark stars and moons stuck over the bedroom mirror and pointing things out.

This is the sun

This is the moon

These are the stars

And this? - he’d point to my reflection - this is my everything.

His affection was in grand gestures and metaphors. My association of love and theatrics is a skin that has been difficult to shed. To date, the tapestry over my bed in Oxford - a city he never saw - is that of a night sky.

In having a playwright for a father, I was engulfed by the showman’s glamour. Mom was just mom, cotton wearing, PTA meeting attending, always there, mom.

My mother is a lawyer. She has limited patience for peacock words and purple prose. Yet in retrospect, I can see my continued (yet unacknowledging) emotional reliance on her. In the months predating my father’s death and in the four weeks I stayed home after, my mother seemed to transform from a spectre consistent in its reliability to a fleshed-out individual. She had a life before my father, and before me, so she would now have one after us.

As I packed my bags to return to my life, we spoke of love, men and marriage.

“You will be lonely when you go back. Don’t fall into someone’s bed because of that,” she told me. This I could understand, mom being a mom.

And then she said something that knocked the wind out of my sails.

“And even if you do, don’t beat yourself up over it. Move on.”

Suddenly, Mom was not just mom, but a wise phenomenon, a force of nature, a rebel, despite the cotton kurtas and Jagjit Singh playlist.

Six weeks into my return to Oxford, I felt a disconcerting affection for a dry humour spouting, dramatic gesture making, emotionally aloof man. I played one of my mother’s favourite songs from morning school drop-offs as I made breakfast with my housemate.

Isqh junoon jab had se bad jaye

Tab Aashiq haste-haaste suli chadjaye

Kailash Kher crooned to a maddening love as I spread hazelnut and cocoa on a crepe. What does that mean? My francophone friend asked me to translate.

When love and passion exceed their bounds, I translated, the lover puts himself upon the sacrificial guillotine.

My friend furrowed her eyebrows, implying that doesn’t sound healthy. So I called my mother. I told her of the dry humour spouting, dramatic gesture making, emotionally aloof man. Men like that don’t make good partners.” The implication of men like that hung heavy on the satellite lines crossing the four thousand odd miles between us. We never spoke of it again.

Soon after, my mother sent me excerpts from the poetry she was reading at the moment.

I saw her bookshelf for the first time. I’d seen it before, of course, but never looked at all the things that live there. My mother reads thirteenth-century theology in translation and pours over texts on international arbitration. She loved a man who was difficult to love. She cared for a daughter whose tongue phrased barbs easier than gratitude. And I understand that now.

My therapist asked me recently: do you think you received unconditional love as a child?

I think back to Tara and Antara’s dynamic. Two women hating their love for each other, unfulfilled in chaos, the tenderness corrupted over misery’s flame. Burnt sugar.

And then I think back to the incense streaks on my childhood bathroom floor.

And I answer: yes.

I was loved - am loved - by a woman who didn’t need me to be more than the sun, moon and stars. And so I try to make amends in the only way I know, in words and books crossing oceans, hoping that my mother, martyr to the writers in her life, reads between the lines.


About the author

Azania Imtiaz Khatri-Patel is a Rhodes Scholar in Residence at the University of Oxford. She researches ghosts, haunted houses (literal and metaphoric) and falls in love with cities and words too often. She is currently pursuing a Master's in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and moonlights as a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction and long form journalism. Her Instagram is: @azania_patel

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