Remembering and Forgetting: Narrative and Art in the context of Memory and Trauma – Angel Maria Varghese

In a Q&A session with the Booker Prize, Avni Doshi talked about the centrality of art in the narrative as such;

“On the level of story, art plays a central role in how the characters develop in Burnt Sugar. The major conflicts between characters are framed by the artistic production of the narrator. On a structural level, I think my study of art history has shaped the narrative in formal ways by using aesthetic strategies like fragmentation and grids.” 

Antara, the protagonist is an artist. Her art is a site of her everyday agitation between her and her mother, Tara. It becomes the premise for inter-generational struggle and aggression while also acting as a medium of healing on an individual level for Antara. Tara is heard saying:

“This is her habit from childhood, you know. She draws on everything. She can’t leave anything as it is. This was one of the biggest complaints about her when she went to boarding school. I think it is really the reason they threw her out. What did the nun say? Your daughter defaces everything she gets her hands on.” (119) and “What kind of strange art do you make? The same face, day in and day out. What kind of person does such a stupid thing?” (119).

The struggle finally makes way for cruelty as Tara burns all of Antara’s art:

“She wanted to destroy my drawings, and she did – years of life studies, preparatory sketches, some more than ten years old, have vanished overnight. All the images that were a record of moments in my life, memories, but also my becoming, the making of me that is separate from her.” (122, 123). 

Art then, for Antara is redemptive, a practice that helps her to come into herself. Doshi understands that art is an integral part of human functioning and that it helps humans make sense of the world around them. 

Much like art, narrative also plays an important role in the way Tara’s and Antara’s stories unfold. Stef Craps defines “literary realist texts” as narratives that are “neither disrupted by trauma nor forced to circumnavigate it. Rather, in such realistic texts, the trauma narrative passes through the landscape of pain, describing the difficult sights along the way.”(Craps, 2014, as cited by Pederson, 107, 2018). Such an approach acknowledges that people respond differently to suffering, depending on the circumstances of a given location and time, as well as cultural norms, values, and beliefs, but steers clear of the well-known fallacy that trauma has a general pathologising effect. To add to that, Isabel Fraile Murlanch, in Seeing it Twice (Trauma in Contemporary Literature: Narrative and Representation, 2018), observed that people negotiate their lives following a catastrophic event in one of the following ways:

“(i) there are those who never recover: they become suicides, or are institutionalised; (ii) there are those who survive, but in damaged and dysfunctional ways of greater or lesser severity and (iii) a few will emerge strengthened, more compassionate and humane, triumphant” (Murlanch, 2014). 

Doshi’s main characters—Tara (mother) and Antara (daughter)— belong to the first two categories. Tara is slowly losing herself (with memory loss exacerbating the experience), and Antara is fighting to endure the horrors of her past even when Tara’s presence in her life is making things harder. Considering its realist nature, it only makes sense that neither of them belongs to the ‘few’ who “will emerge strengthened, more compassionate, humane, and triumphant.” 

The novel opens with the voice of unsettling honesty, precisely a ‘narrative that passes straight through the landscape of pain’ that carries a grudging resentment of a grown daughter for a mother who has started forgetting the hurt she caused her:

“I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure. I suffered at her hands as a child, and any pain she subsequently endured appeared to me to be a kind of redemption— a rebalancing of the universe, where the rational order of cause and effect aligned. […] My mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember the things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt. I used to bring up instances of her cruelty casually, over tea, and watch her face curve into a frown. Now, she mostly can’t recall what I’m talking about; her eyes are distant with perpetual cheer” (1). 

The opening confession of Antara’s narrative voice sharply draws attention to a raw, intimate space and experience of animosity between the mother-daughter duo. It foreshadows the overwrought nature of their relationship. The abuse Antara experienced as a child at the hands of her abusive mother is something she seems to remember clearly, and it has evolved into a memory that suggests a traumatic link to past events that is influenced by, and in turn, dramatically impacts, how she lives in the present.

Another such instance is where Antara remembers and recounts the cruel physical punishments vividly that she had to go through at the boarding school at the hands of the headmistress, Sister Maria Theresa: 

“A yank on my braid sent my head back” (154), “Sister Maria Theresa bent her head to look at the picture and without warning, stabbed the pencil into the back of my palm” (154), “She dug her nails into my skin, each time some newly discovered patch(155), “If I or my work was slovenly, a ruler was applied to my knuckles or the back of my calves” (155).

Again, in her teenage years, Antara recounts with photographic precision the physical confrontation that she had with her mother following Baba’s (guru) death Tara had returned from the final rites —

 “ ‘ I realised that it’s no small thing’, she said. ‘To be the lover of a great man.’

I told her that to me it looked small, cheap even, and was definitely nothing to brag about.

She grabbed me by the arms and shook me before slapping my face. 

‘You’re a fat, little bitch. Have some sympathy! I became a widow today!’

The word whore came out of my mouth but it was mingled with a scream as I rushed into her body, knocking her over onto the floor. I sat on her chest and wrapped my hands around her throat, squeezing until the veins appeared under her eyes. When I let go, she coughed and gasped for breath” (176).

The novel’s final chapter contains possibly the most potent scene and feels like a clean slice through the heart. Doshi not only lets Anatara’s narrative pass ‘straight through the landscape of pain’; instead, she also seals the suffering so that neither Antara nor the reader can flee from its impact of it: Tara reaches for Anikka (Antara’s baby) and mistakes it to be baby Antara —

“Antara is our baby,” Ma says. She looks up at Dilip and smiles. ‘My husband and my baby’ (270). “… everyone plays along with this charade. It’s because she is sick. They let her do what she wants” (272). 

This is followed by an awareness of equal parts terrifying and equal parts destructive—

“Unless she is not sick at all. Is she trying to write a story without me? Is she trying to erase me? Even as I think this, I feel myself evaporating. The doctor never found anything. No plaque, no formations. And yet, my mother was forgetting” (272). 

Therefore, Girl in White Cotton is a relatively ‘straightforward realist text that nonetheless testifies effectively to individual trauma’ by deriving its haunting power not from broken traumatised speech but from the acknowledgement of the existence of this trauma and ongoing suffering. 

In the end, Doshi’s text is an intermingling of the loss of memory of trauma (for Tara)  that leads to degradation and disintegration of personal life in contrast to an entire world of memory (for Antara) leads to pain and aggression. It is a testament to human processes of remembering and forgetting while achieving it in both artistic and narrative form without incorporating lexical or syntactic obscurity to represent it. 

  1. Craps, Stef. (2014). Beyond Eurocentrism: Trauma Theory in the Global Age.
  2. Doshi, Avni (2019). The Girl in White Cotton. Fourth Estate-Harper Collins Publishers
  3. Murlanch, Isabel Fraile (2014). Seeing it Twice: Trauma and Resilience in the Narrative of Jeanette Turner Hospital.  In Nadal M. & Calvo Mónica.(Eds.) Trauma in contemporary literature: narrative and representation. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.