Akhil Sharma: ‘I am an Immigrant’

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Akhil Sharma takes his readers into the core of human experience

A Life of Adventure and Delight | Akhil Sharma | Hamish Hamilton | Rs 599

An Obedient Father (2000), Family Life (2014), A Life of Adventure and Delight (2017), the very titles of Akhil Sharma’s books hint at the kind of author he is—precise and fuss free. If the goal, as James Baldwin, told us in 1984, is to ‘write a sentence as clean as a bone’, then 45-year-old Sharma has achieved that, not merely in his titles but also in his content. This is no mean accomplishment. Baldwin explained: ‘The hardest thing in the world is simplicity. And the most fearful thing, too. It becomes more difficult because you have to strip yourself of all your disguises, some of which you didn’t know you had.’

Family Life—which won the 2016 International Dublin literary award (the €1,00,000 prize money makes it the richest award for a single novel)—was a mostly autobiographical work in which Sharma stripped away all disguises and dowsed us in his home. The slim work recreated the move of a family from Delhi to New York in the early 80s. The 14-year-old elder son, Birju, who is intelligent, hardworking and holds the dreams of his parents, has an accident in a swimming pool, which leaves him brain-damaged for life. Family Life is told in the voice of the younger brother Ajay who must deal with his brother’s terminal condition, his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s blind hope. Based on Sharma’s experiences, Family Life has been deservedly feted as the ‘highest form of achievement in literature’ for plunging readers into the ‘core of human experience’. It is the kind of novel that shatters your heart but also sets it back in place.

Admirers of Family Life can cheer for the fact that Ajay and Birju make an appearance in his most recent book, a collection of short stories, A Life of Adventure and Delight (Hamish Hamilton; Rs 599). The story Surrounded by Sleep is about a young Ajay trying hard to make sense of his brother who lies open-eyed and unmoving on a bed, with a tube that travels into his abdomen. Ajay speaks to God as an ally, as reality sinks in that his brother is never going to get better. God looks like Clark Kent to Ajay. ‘Originally, God had appeared to Ajay as Krishna, but Ajay had felt foolish discussing brain damage with a blue God who held a flute and wore a dhoti,’ writes Sharma. This was the original story that birthed the novel more than a decade ago.

Sharma—who took 13 years over the novel, culling it from thousands of pages down to 200-plus—has likened the experience of writing it to a ‘nightmare’ and ‘chewing gravel’. A Life of Adventure and Delight has comparatively been a more pleasurable affair. “Stories you can abandon without the same damage to your psyche. And so, there isn’t that sense of having been held hostage,” he says. “In that sense, it was easier. Many of the stories get abandoned. They don’t get revised in the same way [as a novel]. For every one story [that is published], there are six stories that I try.”

People love the hardworking-immigrant- who-makes-good narrative. It allows them to feel that they live in a benign, meritocratic world

Speaking from his home in New York, Sharma is all attention and courtesy. He is the kind of author who uses amiability rather than arrogance as a badge of honour. His pauses are long and deliberate, not because he is diffident, but because he seems to savour an economy of expression. He confesses that he never reads his reviews or interviews as he fears that will “make him crazy”. He is now an assistant professor in the creative writing MFA programme at Rutgers University, Newark, where he imparts lessons that he has learned the hard way in his writing career. He has three simple pieces of advice for his students: 1) Put down a draft, it is easier to revise than to put it down for the first time; 2) Abandon stories quickly; 3) It takes a long time to become any good. Don’t get frustrated, and forgive yourself a lot.

The eight stories in the collection map Sharma’s writing trajectory, spanning his earliest story written as a teenager to one written recently. He wrote If You Sing Like That for Me as a 19-year-old, and took three years to complete it. The only short story in a woman’s voice, it tells of the abruptness of love in an arranged marriage. A young bride uprooted from her parental home adjusts to strictures created by her husband and his family. She says, ‘I was not even certain I wanted to marry, though at times I thought marriage would make me less lonely. What I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different.’ Sharma grew up in a world of gender binaries, where “boys were not expected to have many feelings”, whereas women were allowed to have emotions. As a teenager, he found it easier to access a world of difference and otherness via the voice of a woman.

We oftentimes underplay how difficult it is to be a woman in India. I love India. But it is very cruel towards women. For me, what matters is always the relationship between men and women

Whether it is the story of a young bride or an alcoholic mother (in You are Happy?), Sharma is interested in the condition of women in the country. He says, “We oftentimes underplay how difficult it is to be a woman in India. Mostly, we just go and live our lives. It is not easy being a woman in India. I love India. But it is very cruel towards women. If you are a man and you live in the world, you automatically know and care about women. For me, what matters is always the relationship between men and women. That has always felt very important for me.”

Three of the stories in this collection are based in Delhi. Even though Sharma left Delhi for the US when he was eight, the city lingers in his mind’s eye, complete with smells and sounds. In Family Life, Sharma writes about the challenges of growing up as a brown kid in the America of the early 80s, where his school had 20 Indians among 500 or so students. Ajay, the young protagonist, is lonely beyond measure. The isolation clings to him like ‘wearing clothes still damp from the wash’. Reading and writing become his solace. Inspired by Ernest Hemingway, Ajay writes a short story which is loosely based on his brother Birju coughing. The narrator says, ‘Writing the story changed me. I began to feel as if I were walking through my life collecting things that could be used later… Seeing things as material for writing protected me.’

In Sharma’s writing and speech, this ‘seeing’ becomes evident. When Sharma pictures Delhi, he thinks of the city of the early 80s, when an autorickshaw could take him from Model Town to Connaught Place in 15 minutes. His parents have family homes in Model Town and Malka Ganj and these are the places he returns to for holidays. He remembers a Delhi where stars sparkled in the sky and when earthworms would slither after the rains on the wet earth. When we discuss the story We Didn’t Like Him, set in Malka Ganj in north Delhi, he says, “I remember we used to have a hand pump there. I remember when they began to have cars, they moved the pump. I know that to get into the houses, the entrance is raised a bit. There is a gutter along the houses, so every house has a plank near the door through which they can push their scooter in. I know that in the morning all the water that runs in the gutter is soapy because people are taking their baths. So the smell is different in the morning. I remember the smell of the paranthas being cooked.”

Speaking to Sharma, you feel like you know that one lane in old Delhi just as intimately. He has always used stories as a way to make sense of a life that seems altogether incomprehensible and to make people see him more clearly. In a June 2017 The New Yorker article, The Hardworking Immigrant Who Made Good, he writes about interviewing at investment banks after graduating from Harvard Law School. When he realised his resume outed his lack of experience, he decided to lie. He told the interview panel that throughout high school and much of college, he had worked night shifts at 7-Elevens and gas stations. This was a strategic story. He explains in the article, ‘The reason I chose this particular lie was that people love the hardworking-immigrant-who-makes- good narrative. It allows them to feel that they live in a benign, meritocratic world, and to believe, in a back-channel way, that they are deserving of their success.’ As a young graduate unsure of his place in the world and grasping for a foothold in Wall Street, these stories made him believe in himself in a way that his resume never could.

Has he always been a storyteller, I ask. He says as a child, he lived a lot in his imagination, as he was “very lonely and shy”. Telling stories became a way to understand what certain things meant. He explains, “When I say, ‘My brother is brain damaged,’ I don’t know what the hell that means. I have to say it aloud, and hope other people will tell me what it means…We are all storytellers. We don’t know how to understand our lives, so we say these things. And we like to hear other people tell their stories so we can understand our own lives, our own stories.”

Is Sharma an ‘Indian writer’, an ‘American writer’ or an ‘immigrant writer’? In the arts, these categories ought not to exist, as they merely reveal the happenstance of location. But the times today demand an appropriation of these titles. Sharma says, “For us in America, Trump is such a huge monster. To a large extent, I’d say I am not an immigrant writer. I am a writer. But the reality and context now with Trump is that we have to claim the idea of being an immigrant. We have to say, ‘I am an immigrant. I speak better English than you do’.”