Introduction Burnt Sugar portrays a mother-daughter relationship that is ensnared in ambivalence and complicated by betrayal. Antara cannot forgive her mother for not protecting her as a child or loving her as she needed to be loved. This lack of forgiveness does not prevent Antara from attempting to care for her mother as she struggles with early-stage Alzheimer’s— nor does it prevent Antara from loving her, despite an ongoing rage that defines their connection. The novel shares Antara’s journey from childhood, as artist, wife, mother, and would-be caretaker. This is a serious story that evokes melancholy, anger, and a sense of wonder at the decisions some of the characters make. However, every now and then, a jolt of unexpected humor adds to the narrative’s rich emotional renderings.
Discussion Questions 1. I n what ways does Tara go against societal expectations of her as a daughter and wife? 2. D iscuss Tara and Antara’s differing memories from their time at the ashram. • Tara’s recollection of Antara’s response to her father: “You used to cry for him day and night, not eat, not drink. Papa, Papa, Papa. He was the only one you wanted. . . . You made me feel like shit.” • A ntara’s recollection of living in the ashram, longing for her mother, despite having Kali Mata as a surrogate, when Tara responds to the news that Antara had not been eating: “She throws me down on the bed, and my head feels the hard wood beneath the mattress. I cry out but Ma has climbed on top of me, is holding me, my arms and legs incapacitated, and the flailing I feel, the pain stops short and tolls back inside, turning over on itself. Her hand hits the side of my face, and like lightening, I see the streak before I hear the sound. . . . You better eat when you are told.” 3. How does Antara’s childhood longing for her mother manifest itself when she is an adult? 4. T he primary relationship in Burnt Sugar is that between Antara and Tara, but there are other parent-offspring relationships portrayed throughout the story. Discuss how they are different or the same. 5. What holds Dilip and Antara’s marriage together? 6. H ow is the institution of marriage presented?
7. Why does Tara have such hatred of Antara’s art? 8. H ow aware is Tara that she has early-stage Alzheimer’s? 9. “ Ma doesn’t come to the house often. She says the main hall disturbs her, especially the mirrors that cover each wall, reflecting everything in multiple directions.” There are other descriptions of the mirrors in Dilip and Antara’s home. Discuss their possible meanings. 10. What is Antara looking for in her relationship with Reza? 11. A fter the birth of her daughter, Anikka, Antara reflects on her relationship with her mother: “Maybe we would have been better off if I had never been diagnosed as her undoing. How do I stop from making the same mistake? How do I protect this little girl from the same burden? Maybe that’s impossible? Maybe this is all wishful thinking.” How is Antara different from her mother? 12. C onsidering Antara’s relationship with Purvi and the sexual tension that is part of it, what can be made of Antara’s statement, “Suddenly, I don’t like having Purvi here, don’t want her in the house. She reminds me of too many things we have done together. I don’t want her around my daughter.” 13. Are there universal themes in Burnt Sugar about mother-daughter relationships? If so, what are they? 14. A ctual burnt sugar is used in cooking to flavor various dishes, some savory and some sweet. What message about the story is relayed through the title? 15. How is Pune, India, portrayed? 16. H ow is the United States portrayed?
Additional Resources 1. Antara invokes artist On Kawara to explain her work. Find out more about the highly regarded conceptual artist here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxOynktWnMw
Guide written by Karen D. Taylor
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