Review: Girl in White Cotton by Avni Doshi
Avni Doshi’s novel is a treatise on human fallibility and the unreliability of memoryUpdated: Feb 14, 2020 19:47 IST
Girl in White Cotton, Avni Doshi’s acclaimed debut novel, is a hypnotic meditation on memory. It’s like bearing witness to a woman’s confessions in therapy while she talks about her life, her mother, and the trauma of their shared past.
Antara is an artist whose art is “about collecting data, information, finding irregularities. My art is about looking at where patterns cease to exist.” Her mother Tara is forgetting things: everyday details and painful experiences. Tara had walked out of her loveless marriage and into an ashram where she lived as the paramour of a Baba. At the ashram, Antara was ignored and abused by her mother until the Baba took another lover. Mother-daughter then had to (literally) beg the real world to let them in. And so Antara’s formative years, we discover, were spent trying to accumulate markers of normativity. She hides herself to appear normal. Her life looks like the opposite of her mother’s. She lives in Pune with her NRI husband and quietly practices her art. She has passable relationships with her grandmother, her father, and his new family, her affected mother-in-law. She has friends. She has contempt for her mother. “I began to recognize the chaos inside my mother, to see how unlike her I was. Yes, I dripped on occasion too, but I was always able to seal myself up again,” she tells us.
Her narrative, the way Antara tells us the story, is a treatise on the unreliability of memory itself. Why do we remember some things and not others? What does omission do to our stories and how does it change the stories of other people? How does withholding help us protect our vulnerabilities? And how much do we ultimately reveal when we hide? Antara has learnt how to hide her inglorious past, which is perhaps why it is especially important to her that Tara remembers. Their shared trauma tethers Antara to Tara.
Antara was named to be Un-Tara, not after Tara but as her antithesis. It was a self-loathing woman’s first attempts at love: to ensure her daughter turned out different “but in the process of separating us, we were pitted against each other.” This — the resolute dissimilarity of replicas — becomes the theme Antara explores in her art. Her most celebrated project is a series of images: the face of a man drawn over and over again. She copied it from a photograph she lost the next day. So every day, she copies the drawing from the previous day and dates it. At her opening, the first and last copy were hung next to each other. “They could have been the images of two different men, two different faces, done by the hands of different artists.” It is a commentary on human fallibility, which is also the theme of this novel.
As her mother’s nemesis and caretaker, Antara researches obsessively to pause or even reverse the decay of her mother’s mind. In that process, she comes to realise that it is perhaps better, safer even, to condemn her mother to madness. Antara fortifies Tara with sugar and other perfectly ordinary loving things that fuel the inflammation of her brain and body. “If it actually does kill her, then I am innocent because my aim has never been to end her life, just to have control over what she says and does.” This sounds sinister but makes you wonder really how different it is from, say, parents who overfeed their children to compensate for a lack of love, or partners who encourage alcohol to numb difficult conversations.
Read more: Review: Prelude to a Riot by Annie Zaidi
Doshi, who is an art historian by training, is a prose stylist. The sentences and the subject evoke deep and dark emotions. From the beginning, she articulates the unsayable: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” the book opens. This, of course, is the unreliable narrator coming clean to hide her own neurosis. It’s the story of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, with an exceptionally disturbing dynamic. Antara tells us about her own choices, bruises that are her own and cruelty that she inflicted; she becomes a mother to protect herself and we watch her responding to the trauma of motherhood. All of these disquieting details — in this concise novel — are pleasantly relayed.
Girl in White Cotton is remarkable in the connection Doshi forges between her damaged characters and readers. Their feelings and resentments — even in alien situations — are uncannily identifiable. It’s like she has plunged into the depths of the soul, the mysterious places probed by psychotherapists, to show us what we are made of.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi