On Reading Care in ‘Girl in White Cotton’

Sonakshi Srivastava explores the narrativisation of a caregiver’s well-being in Tishani Doshi’s Girl in White Cotton (2020)

Longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, Tishani Doshi’s Girl in White Cotton or Burnt Sugar (as published in the UK) treads the fine threads of ‘shifting memories, altering identities and the subjective nature of truth’ and also makes material the unexpressed concerns and cares of an estranged mother-daughter relationship.

The daughter Antara finds herself ushered into a new role – that of mothering Tara, her mother, who shows early signs of cognitive decline. This role reversal inaugurates a crisis in the personal lives of the estranged duo and leads us to inspect the implications of a pertinent psycho-social issue: care-giving as well as care-receiving.

The tangled web of life

In ‘Contractarianism and the Ethic of Care in Indian Fiction’ (2013), Ira Raja details the inherent ideas of intergenerational contracts and rights that dictate the relationship between Indian parents and their children. Raja suggests that the intergenerational contract is an unspoken filial arrangement where it is naturally assumed that the sons – and by extension, their wives – will take care of ageing parents. In the absence of sons, this responsibility falls upon the daughter(s) of the house. The mechanics that drive the contract can be located in the familial rubrics of duty (‘Dharma’) and of retributive justice (‘Karma’), where the former offers a strict notion of adherence to societal rules and expectations and the fear of the latter prevents one from seeking alternative ways of care. While both these ideas may not entirely be restrictive, as Raja shows, the definite fallacy of the intergenerational contract is that it assumes a smooth relationship between parents and children.

I suggest that Doshi’s novel is an intervention in re-thinking this intergenerational contract. The novel provides insight into the exhausting world of informal care-giving. For instance, Antara embodies the exhausting world of informal care-giving, revealing her anxieties from the very beginning. ‘I wish India allowed for assisted suicide like the Netherlands,’ she says. ‘Not just for the dignity of the patient, but for everyone involved.’ Antara compares her situation to that of a helpless child who “does not know what is real or what can be counted on.’ Antara finds herself at an emotional crossroad as her mother Tara buys herself a pack of blades in case ‘circumstances deteriorated further.’ A certain shame engulfs her, and her act of buying blades makes evident her subtle refusal to hand herself into the care of her daughter. She asks Antara to stop ‘insisting’ that she is ill, that she is forgetting things.

Since Antara is her mother’s only child, with an absent father, her role as a care-giver is loaded with expectations. In her first meeting with a doctor, it is the doctor who verbalizes the intergenerational contract by asking if Tara lives with ‘someone, a husband or a son.’ It is not that the idea of Tara being the care-giver is extraordinary for the doctor but the novelty of it does not strike him first.

In Hindu families, daughters (once married) have no bearings or obligations to her parents. As Ira (2013, 80) writes: the ‘married daughter has no reciprocal obligations to her own parents: in fact, reliance upon a married daughter may even be considered “shameful and demeaning”. Particularly in the patrilineal North, the quasi-religious belief that a daughter is ‘paraya dhan’ (literally, wealth that belongs to someone else and must, therefore, be returned via marriage) entails parents’ non-reliance on daughters for support in old age.’ Despite a paradigmatic shift in this outlook, the burden on the daughter increases manifold since she is responsible not only for the well-being of her new home but also for her old home. The daughter, then, comes to occupy a liminal status and this becomes true for Antara where she is not only solely responsible for her mother’s well-being but also for Dilip’s (her husband) health and by some extension of familial logic, his mother.

This expectation is evident when the doctor casts an accusatory glance at Antara when Dilip’s blood work samples indicate some mineral and vitamin deficiencies. The doctor looks at her for ‘an explanation’ as if she bears direct responsibility for his ill health. The text is peppered with such gendered expectations. For example, Dilip subtly lets Antara know that he ‘has a family, too’, and then her mother-in-law blatantly voices her concerns about Tara straining the couple’s relationship if she were to move in with them.

While Antara’s husband, and the mother-in-law’s concerns, seek to drive a schism between her new and existing responsibilities (i.e caring for her own biological mother and caring for her husband and his family), it is convenient for her own father to extract himself from shouldering any responsibilities towards his estranged daughter – and, by extension his wife by claiming that none of it was his ‘idea’.

The burden of caring is thus shouldered by Antara.

What is to be done?

In ‘Caregiving for Elderly Parents: A Study From the Indian Perspective’, Rajib Lochan Dhar writes that caregiving can be synonymous with ‘labour of love’ (2012, 248): a metaphor that is capable of masking the emotional and mental struggles that accompany care-giving. There are moments of anger and resentment (however brief), which indicate that care-giving is not entirely a smooth act. Doshi’s novel provides glimpses into this messy world of caregiving. The daughter’s resentment is made evident from the beginning and informs the entire narrative: ‘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.’

For Antara, the act of caring cannot ameliorate the wounds of her past – a significant theme foregrounded in the novel. What happens to the wound of a daughter if left unattended? Does it fester? Does it stink? Antara realises that ‘a few caring gestures’ cannot ‘ease a sickness’ that predates the wounded and the inflictor. In her moments of extreme rage and resentment, she goes as far as to ruminate over manslaughter and murder. She is surprised that she is thinking such thoughts, and realises that despite it, she loves her mother to death, that she would not be where she is ‘without her.’ These glimpses into Antara’s mentalscape offer a necessary launchpad to navigate through the complexity of emotions that colour relationships between a parent and their caregiving child.

While the novel does not provide any definite answers as to how one should approach such entangled relations, it does, however, initiate an important conversation around the mental well-being of the caregiver.

The two meetings between Antara and the doctor highlight the importance of a healthy caregiving relationship. For example, the doctor tells her that she can talk to a therapist when caregiving gets too overwhelming. He assures her by letting her know that ‘caregivers in this role can suffer as much as the patients. It can be very stressful.’ In another of their conversations, he tells her that being away from her mother would prove to be beneficial in the long run since ‘the distance’ between the two might aid in mending the fragile relationship.

When things get too much to bear, Antara contacts a life coach based in the UK who tells her that ‘caregivers need care too.’ Although this interjection provokes laughter in Antara, it does raise an urgent tone seeking care for the caregivers’ own well-being.

Towards the end of the novel, Doshi asks the readers to ruminate over intention and reception, act and performance. She questions whether it is possible for the ‘true essence’ of feelings to ever show through acts: ‘If the act is internalized – would it be an act any more? Can a performance of pleasure, even love, turn into a true experience if one becomes fluent enough in it? When does performance become reality?’ Antara has no definite answer to these questions – but in the wider rubrics of the conversation around caregiving, these questions appear important. How much of an act is caregiving? How much of it is a true experience? Through the novel, Doshi allows us to examine more closely the trials and tribulations in the life of a caregiver, to examine the messiness of life where the relationship between the parent and child are not necessarily cordial, paving ways to think of more ethical approaches to caregiving under such circumstances as well as the mental well-being of caregivers.

About the author

Sonakshi Srivastava is a final year MPhil scholar at Indraprastha University, India. She is currently working on affect, speculative fictions, and forms. She was previously an Oceanvale Scholar at Kirori Mal College. She is also a Translation Fellow at SouthAsia Speaks. She re-tweets at @SonakshiS11.

References

Doshi, Avni. (2020). Girl in White Cotton. India: HarperCollins.

Lochan Dhar, Rajib. (2012). Caregiving for Elderly Parents: A Study From the Indian Perspective. Home Health Care Management and Practice 24(5): 242-254.

Raja, Ira. (2013). Contractarianism and the Ethic of Care in Indian Fiction. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 36(1): 79-91.

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