Book: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 229 pages
Price: Rs 499
Young Ajay Mishra, whose family carries with it a wound that will not heal, reads Ernest Hemingway and finds in that astringent language a way out: “I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story…At the idea of writing sentences that contained our suffering, I experienced both triumph…and a sort of detachment, like I was watching my own life.” Akhil Sharma took 12 years, and a long struggle with drafts and re-drafts, to write his second novel, Family Life, based largely on the events of his own life — as if he was scrubbing the sentences of any trace of mawkishness, disinfecting them of any excess of emotion, till he arrived at a novel that allows the grief to glint back at the reader, cold and metallic and spare.
Brothers Ajay and Birju follow their father to America in the late 1970s, giving up a frugal Delhi life, where even the cotton inside pill bottles would be reused to make wicks, to Queens, where hot water flows copiously from the tap and television shows run through the day. Their father, who in Delhi seems as if he “had been assigned to us by the government” (“This was because he appeared to serve no purpose…All he did was sit in his chair in the living room, drink tea, and read the paper”) now seems mysterious, a man with plans for his sons, who bribes his children to read books to prepare them to be proud claimants of the American dream. Birju makes friends quickly, finds a Korean girlfriend and is admitted to an elite school for science. But, one day, he dives into a swimming pool, hits his head, and is brain-damaged for life. (The author’s brother’s promising future too had ended similarly at the bottom of a swimming pool).
The novel tells the story of how this tragedy maims the Mishra family, as they skitter from hospital to nursing home, rearranging their lives around Birju, now lying unaware and uncommunicative on a bed. Ajay’s father becomes an alcoholic. His mother soldiers on, welcoming any huckster peddling a cure to their home. You look at this broken family through the eyes of Ajay, who staggers through this blur of grief, with slowly dawning comprehension: “I walked and gasped and as I did I could feel my unhappiness walking beside me, waiting for my breath to return so that it could climb back inside me”. He copes by way of conversations with a Clark Kent-like god and by telling fantastic stories about his brother to his friend. If the bleakness does not overpower the novel, it is because it is anchored in Ajay’s self-absorbed, adolescent consciousness, in his guilt about not caring enough for his brother, and his bewildered awareness of a family in free fall. Ironically, as Ajay moves out of this force-field of suffering, via a college degree, the novel loses its hold on you.
As anyone who has waited in a hospital with fast-fading hopes would know, grief and illness can disfigure time, freezing one into a continuum of loss, in which there is only endless repetition, not the impetus towards a resolution. To create a moving, and a fast-moving narrative out of such material is Sharma’s achievement, though the novel’s lack of plot weighs it down towards the end. Family Life is also a sardonic portrait of the Indian-American community, and its dogged worship of success — the antithesis of the nostalgia-tinted immigrant fiction by Asians. But more importantly, this is a novel that makes you look loss in the eye, and asks you not to look away.