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Akhil Sharma’s new novel Family Life, 12 years in the making, is an immigrant saga partially gone wrong
Family Life | Akhil Sharma | Hamish Hamilton | 240 pages | Rs 499
“Life can be dark, and dark things are opportunities,” says author Akhil Sharma from his home in New York City, over the phone. “Fiction allows us to range our empathy. In normal life we wouldn’t have time to listen to them, or they would reveal themselves to us and we’d turn away.” Indeed, Sharma’s endearing candour and unflinching wit flies in the face of perversion, making the bleakest of tales worthy, despite the kick. There’s that delightful early short story Cosmopolitan, anthologised in Best American Short Stories 1998 and made into a film starring Roshan Seth, wherein a lonely middle-aged Indian settled in New Jersey encounters his free-wheeling blonde neighbour.

Then came his debut novel An Obedient Father (2000), a skilled depiction of a corrupt Delhi school system official who sexually abuses his daughter and granddaughter— the sheer distastefulness of this theme, some say, kept Sharma from due recognition, though it won him the PEN/ Hemingway Award. At the time a 29-year-old New York City investment banker who had studied with Toni Morrison, worked unsuccessfully as a screenwriter and published fiction in The New Yorker, Sharma was lauded by many and dismissed by others as passing through.

It has taken him 14 years to publish his second book in an impatient publishing industry. But Sharma has not been forgotten by magazines who called him one of their ‘great white whales’ (Vice) and editors anticipating big prizes. Family Life, his much-awaited immigrant saga partially gone wrong, comes with raves from David Sedaris, Gary Shteyngart and even Edmund White, and is heralded as one of the books of the year.

This time, Sharma’s characters are not as ripe, but they are just as morally ambivalent and demanding of empathy. It’s a super sad survivor story with bubbles of mirth, ‘lol sob’ moments throughout. ‘“Who’s the sad baby?... Who’s the baby that cries all the time?”’ narrator Ajay Mishra teases his now septuagenarian father as he tickles him, both first seen by the reader after the fact. For, Ajay tells us his tale at forty, but begins it at eight. That year, the three minutes his brother Birju spends unconscious at the bottom of a swimming pool—leaving him brain damaged, unable to talk, walk or see—set off the novel’s steady spiral, driving their father to the bottle and Ajay to both succeed with new vigour and feel guilty about thriving as his brother languishes, irretrievably.

The life that results is gripping, despite its pretty depressing premise of familial entrapment. All of it is palpable, immediate, starting with the portrait of 1970s India before and during the Emergency, after which the Mishras leave for America: the deprivations of controlled economy restrictions that lead them to split their matches in half; the arrival of the fat chequebook-like tickets their father sends back for them when he loses faith in the government and emigrates; the idea of India as an image, tangible even in the shapes of clouds to its first generation of adult hopefuls.

Only the promise of science and the need to prove himself to an indifferent universe can tempt Ajay’s father away, once the ideal fails. But during the long, gruelling ordeal that follows— featuring a parade of charlatan miracle healers intended to cure Birju and a daily routine of painful caregiving that eats into the family’s equilibrium and gives this tale its hurt-suffused heart—Ajay’s initial feeling on his first Diwali away from India persists: ‘At that moment, I felt the life I was living in America was not important, that no matter how rich America was, how wonderful it was to have cartoons on TV, only life in India mattered.’

Sharma is to be featured on the cover of The New York Times Book Review the day after we speak on the phone, but he seems slightly impervious, perhaps still stunned by the effort of delivering part of his own life into fiction. “The aim is to write a book that is useful to the reader, with the rigors of being truthful. The truth is useful. You need to tell the truth that comforts you,” he says.

“Nothing I’ve written has ever satisfied me,” he continues. “Like when you love somebody and say ‘I love you’ and they can’t take it in.” Sharma’s process is unusual. “I don’t really revise. I rewrite until I get to a point, until I think this is doing what I want it to do, when it’s creating complications. I start with a blank document each time. You lose something and you get something else; only the essentials are left,” he explains. “I worked on this book for 12-and-a-half years, and out of those 7,000 pages came the book. During those 13 years, friends were publishing books, I was almost embarrassed and I also felt real envy.” That the book is now just over 200 pages is almost shocking.

Often, Sharma’s keenly recalled moments burst into pure hilarity; when young Ajay is negotiating terms of engagement with his shuddh desi girlfriend, for instance. “If you had a dog, what would you name it?” Minakshi, also an Indian immigrant, asks him. “Something Indian,” he replies, after some thought. Both agree that they can’t possibly call each other at home, or, of course have sex before marriage. Ajay even goes one further, solemnly saying, ‘I don’t want to kiss”. “Raising the standards of what was proper,” Ajay explains, “was a way of making myself more appealing, more trustworthy.”

“The humour [in Family Life] is less biting than in An Obedient Father,” says Sharma. “There, you have the comedy of the corrupt official practising karate to demonstrate his might. Those are people with power, so it’s darker, more like stone hitting stone. But here, the people are powerless, they can do dopey things.”

I’ve mentioned the judgement that hit his first book several times, and he responds at last. “In America and most places, a book is judged by its subject matter. It’s not about sympathy or moral concerns. I think what I found offensive was the idea that ‘These things don’t occur in India’, which is an obvious lie. Whoever was trying to say this was trying to cause harm.”

Unlike Jhumpa Lahiri, whose work is now a pillar of the immigrant fiction firmament, Sharma operates best outside of this construct. Family Life might emerge less perfect in the management of its high and low moments, yet it is more compelling than some of Lahiri’s more overly polished prose. However, while he is one of the most stylish of this generation of Indian or non-Indian writers, in this narrative, Sharma stops short of his usual reach, despite his tender acuity and light moral touch. Perhaps it is the solemn nature the immigrant narrative seems to deliver upon itself, that cloying mix of duty, deities and divinity.

Some of the resultant insights, piercing and in keeping with the confessional tone of a lot of Sharma’s prose, can turn predictable: ‘I sensed they watched me with suspicion the same way I watched them, that since they knew immigrants, they understood that I was untrustworthy, that immigrants are desperate and willing to do almost anything.’

But others are touching: ‘I had the sudden realisation that probably we would never go back to India, that probably we would live in America forever. The realisation disturbed me. I suddenly saw that one day I would be nothing like who I was right then. This was like sensing my own death.’ Ultimately, Family Life is about selfhood, bringing to mind Eugenides’ Middlesex for the horrible truth its story is propelled by—the gruesome aspects of Birju’s health care and the corroded familial relationships in the former; the incestuous secret of the narrator’s true gender identity amid his Greek immigrant family in the latter. Yet in Eugenides’ narrative, the Greek family’s assimilation into America is secondary to the narrator’s selfhood, and in Sharma’s novel, selfhood is subsumed by the larger narrative of the family.

Sharma gives us only one half of a story that never fully plays out. What happens to Ajay before he becomes the successful banker, a beautiful lawyer girlfriend beside him, sufficient distance between him and his parents to rib them?

“It’s a disturbing ending,” says Sharma. “This is what life is like; this kind of ending tells you a character has his own life.” Certainly it is a perfect ending in some ways. But what fun for the reader if the author had spent a hundred-odd additional pages tickling us, telling us all of this and more. For that opening is the moment I suspect readers might love most; the delicious after-the-fact.

Perhaps it’s the next book that might prove most exciting, now that this major event has been written through. At the moment, Sharma is working on a short story about Abraham Lincoln, and there are other stories, he tells me. I sense, as we chat, that he is thinking about what time it is in India; he still visits once a year. Set there, or here, or in the different era of a dead American president, these promise great satisfaction.

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