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The rabbit hole of memory

  • A finely tuned debut novel about the treacheries of remembrance and forgetting
  • Set in Poona, the story deals with a young woman’s struggle to grapple with her mother’s suspected dementia

Salvador Dali’s painting ‘The Persistence Of Time’ (1931).
Salvador Dali’s painting ‘The Persistence Of Time’ (1931). (Photo: Alamy)

Avni Doshi’s debut novel, Girl In White Cotton, is woven around a well-worn theme:a daughter grappling with her ageing mother’s mortality. The dynamics of their relationship—as you may expect—are defined by complicated bonds of affection. Antara, the narrator, has grown up in Pune, in circumstances that were unsavoury, even traumatic, for her middle-class family. She left the city to attend an art college in Mumbai but dropped out soon after. As the book opens, Antara is back in Pune, married to an Indian-born American citizen called Dilip, who is employed in the city, and has just found out that her mother, Tara, may have early onset Alzheimer’s.

Author Avni Doshi
Author Avni Doshi (Photo: Sharon Haridas)

A novel about the persistence of memory and its slippages, when told in the first person, is ripe for the introduction of an unreliable narrator. Doshi exploits this opportunity sensitively. Antara, as the reader gets to know her, reveals herself to be no less vulnerable, anguished, conflicted and guilt-ridden thanshe accuses her mother of being. Soon enough, Antara’s daily struggles begin to mirror Tara’s. For not only does Antara have to remind her mother of the past that is slowly receding from her consciousness, but she also has to ensure that she—Antara herself—is able to remember everything that has transpired in their lives correctly.

Born to Tara following a turbulent affair and a youthful marriage, Antara was hurled into the deep end as a child. When she was a toddler, her mother left her father and went off with her to a local ashram, to live there as the follower of a spiritual leader. Referred to as Baba in the book, his character seems closely modelled on Osho. Antara grew up witnessing wild orgies, mass frenzy and violent rituals. Were it not for a kind-hearted American devotee called Kali Mata, she might never have known maternal tenderness or care.

Girl In White Cotton: By Avni Doshi, HarperCollins India, 288 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Girl In White Cotton: By Avni Doshi, HarperCollins India, 288 pages, 599.

Tara, who embraced her role of a new bride to Baba, had little time for Antara. When she did turn her attention to her daughter, it was to smother her with love, or beat her without mercy. Predictably, Tara’s pride of place as Baba’s bride slipped after some years. Humiliated, she left the ashram with Antara, but with no one and nowhere in the world to turn to. Rejected by her husband, in-laws and even her own parents, Tara is reduced to begging on the premises of the posh Poona Club for a while, until Antara’s father and grandparents rescue them.

Having survived this unenviable start in life, the adult Antara does not try to conceal her perverse delight in her mother’s fate. “I would be lying if I say my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure," she confesses at the outset. “I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption." Yet, keeping her part of the deal—of having to recall the events of the past faithfully—fills her with dread, a fear of betrayal, and pushes her into an abyss of self-doubt. From the lines of Doshi’s finely controlled prose, Antara’s anxieties come viscerally alive with their jagged edges.

Is Tara’s version of the past necessarily incorrect simply because of her suspected dementia? Or is Antara also culpable of fabricating a reality to suit her interests and to co-opt the reader’s sympathy? Does Tara really suffer from memory loss, or is it just a convenient ruse to edit out the past, as well as the present, to suit her selfish agenda? Doshi’s plot is taut with suspense and riddled with questions to which we never fully know the answers. The moral compass of her tale keeps shifting in a see-saw motion between mother and daughter, refusing to align itself with either of their stories.

Earlier this year, Tishani Doshi gave us another luminous novel about the treacheries of children and parents in Small Days And Nights. Grace Marisola, the narrator of the book, is gutted to discover, after the death of her mother, that her estranged parents had kept her in the dark about the fact that she has an older sister called Lucia. Afflicted with Down syndrome, Lucia has spent most of her life in a “home" for differently abled people. As Grace tries to forge a new life with her sister, fragments of their past begin to tumble out of the darkness of oblivion, illuminating the people who were closest to her in a new, and often frighteningly unfamiliar, light.

In Girl In White Cotton, Antara experiences a similar awakening as she begins to care for her mother. Suddenly, characters from her damaged childhood—her father, Kali Mata, Reza Pine, the man both she and her mother had loved—resurface from the folds of amnesia like ghosts. Seemingly trivial gestures and throwaway remarks assume new meanings across the gulf of decades. For Antara, the only immunity from these threats is afforded by her absorption in her work, into which she distils her most privately cherished secret.

Although she has not finished a formal degree, Antara finds her anchor in drawing. But her relationship with the medium is not so much that of a creator’s as that of an archivist’s. Her long-term project is to make one sketch of a man’s face every day. Based on a found photograph of a stranger—as she tells anyone who asks her—Antara draws the likeness of the face on a piece of paper each day. Then she pulls out the sketch the day after and proceeds to make another copy, based on the previous day’s drawing. She repeats this pattern, day after day, week after week, months on end, feeding an interest that is close to an obsession.

And so Antara’s devotion to repetition and remembrance becomes a counterpoint to Tara’s rapidly declining memory. “I fill papers, drawers, entire rooms with records, notes, thoughts," she says, “while she grows foggier with each passing day." Antara’s art of memorializing and Tara’s steady loss of memory complement each other, like innate laws of nature. Yet, as Avni Doshi’s disturbing conclusion shows, the archivist isn’t necessarily superior to someone whose every last bit of memory is being wiped clean. Sometimes it is expedient, and more empowering, to forget than to remember.

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