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I’ve never felt pride and shame mingle so closely, says writer Avni Doshi

Urvashi Bahuguna | Updated on September 27, 2019 Published on September 27, 2019

Reject and reclaim: An artwork made by Avni Doshi, using her old manuscripts and her husband’s golf balls, which she describes as a personal calendar of sorts   -  IMAGE COURTESY: AVNI DOSHI

Avni Doshi, author of Girl in White Cotton, describes the writing — and rejection — of more than seven drafts that culminated in her début novel

Avni Doshi’s Girl In White Cotton is a clear-eyed début that examines a young woman’s relationship with her ailing mother. Antara’s life as an adult is upended when she becomes her mother’s caregiver. As she attempts to look after a woman who often neglected her needs as a child, her carefully managed life, including her marriage and artistic endeavours, begins to unravel. Dubai-based Doshi speaks to BLinkabout the making of the novel.

The novel is set in Pune. Could you tell us about your relationship to that city?

My mother is from Pune and I visited the city a lot when I was growing up in the US, and then again in my 20s when I lived in Mumbai for a while. My time in Pune was always slow, lazy. We meandered around Koregaon Park, with its tree-lined streets, hung out at ABC Farms, went to the cinema, or to Poona Club. I remember our days would be spent eating or planning meals, drinking hot cups of tea on my grandmother’s terrace, or napping in the time in between.

There are a lot of women in my mother’s family — sisters, cousins, aunts. My memories of Pune centre on the time we spent together. The men were always in the periphery. For me, it’s an idyllic city where I spent my time daydreaming and resting — which is perfect for creative production.

I read that the novel has been through upwards of seven drafts. Was there any perceptible movement from one draft to the other, a heightening sense of getting closer to what you wanted to say?

Girl in White Cotton; by Avni Doshi; HarperCollins; fiction; ₹599

 

Each draft was vastly different than the one before. Everything would change — the point of view, the tense, the setting. I tried plotting this novel and found it didn’t work. If I tried to know what was going to happen before the characters did, the story was dead by the time they arrived. Writing can feel stale so easily — it’s a delicate balance to keep the sentences alive and breathing. I think I knew that this was the final draft when I started writing and the narrator’s voice appeared on the page. Once I could hear her, I knew she was the one to carry this through.

One of the novel’s central preoccupations is memory. What is a work you’ve encountered that has influenced how you think about memory?

The first time I read A Hundred Years of Solitude, I was struck by its treatment of time and memory. This is there in the first sentence, which reads: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice...” Marquez seemed to encapsulate an entire life, from its earliest memories to its ending, in a single sentence, all while playing with multiple registers of time. This quality exists throughout the book — history is repeating itself, and the characters are in a constant battle against amnesia. Marquez makes memory into something tactile that is slipping through our fingers. I first read the novel in college, but it stayed with me for a long time. I even curated an exhibition around the way memory is explored in that novel.

Was there research involved in creating the ashram in the novel? How did you go about piecing together that space?

I didn’t do much research at all, and, in a way, the factual details were less important than trying to imagine what a place like this would have been for a child. I tried to think of what she would notice, and what her immediate sensory experiences might have been. As an adult, the narrator collects information about the ashram, but her findings are the kind one might find in a newspaper. By that point, she has learnt a kind of detachment. I wanted to keep that tension — between the girl’s total immersion and the woman’s disengagement.

Without spoiling the end for readers, I am interested in knowing how, as a writer, you chose the moment at which to close the novel.

I knew that with a novel like this, where there is a sense of ambiguity running throughout, it was important to maintain that even at the end. I knew I was done when the ending felt overwritten and over-explained, and then I had to pull back.

Would you tell us about your project of making art from your old manuscripts?

I have stacks and stacks of old manuscripts, my pile of failures — but they are all errors that have led me to the final work. It’s impossible to throw them away. I’m drawn to the deep ambivalence I feel towards the old manuscripts, to the years that have gone into them, the different people I was when I wrote them.

I’ve never felt pride and shame mingle so closely. It’s a peculiar sensation — one of nausea and suspension. My husband told me he felt the same way when he thought of all his years playing golf — always striving, but always beginning again. I decided I wanted to make something that would remind us daily of our precious failures — wrapping his golf balls in my old manuscripts. I had a grid fabricated to hold them. It’s a calendar of sorts, a personal measure of time.

(I have other things I am making, but they are still unfinished.)

Urvashi Bahuguna is a writer based in New Delhi

Published on September 27, 2019
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