BEYOND THE IMMIGRANT NOVEL M2 THE MAGAZINE
Eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju are playing cricket in the streets of Delhi, waiting for the plane tickets that will take them and their mother across half the world into America where their father will
America to the Mishras is everything they could have
imagined or chosen to see in movies. The excitement
and anticipation starts building up very quickly, especially at school.
‘Americans clean themselves with paper, not water,’
says a classmate of Ajay, the narrator of the novel
‘In America, they say ‘yeah’ not yes,’ the boy adds.
Ajay does not waste a moment. ‘That’s nothing,’ he
asserts. ‘On an airplane, the stewardess has to give you
whatever you ask for. I’m going to ask for a baby tiger.’
The Mishras are impressed and awestruck. When
automatic glass doors open before them, they are not
sure they can go through. Could they have been mis-
taken for somebody important?
Life is thrilling until Birju hits his head diving into a
swimming pool and is severely brain-damaged and
suddenly the future is fraught with fear, tension, mistrust and family friction.
Ajay finds himself on his own, and often the recipient of his mother’s curses while she turns to desperate
and pointless measures to cure her son, and his father
becomes an alcoholic. Ajay prays to a god imagining
him to be Superman. But will there be a miracle?
Akhil Sharma’s second novel in about 13
years, Family Life, is a beguiling treasure of poignant
and suspenseful stories and an energetic narration
filled with tension and hope. Read the first chapter
and see if you can put the book down.
One of the best reviewed novels in recent months, it
made the cover story of the New York Times Book
Sharma, who came to America with his immigrant parents from New Delhi when he was 8 in 1979, and grew up
in immigrant pockets in New York and New Jersey, has
based much of the book on the upheavals in his family following a swimming pool accident that left his older brother Anup brain dead for nearly 30 years.
‘When tragedy occurs, even non-immigrants and non-
pious people find themselves turning to their most atavis-
tic selves,’ Sharma wrote in an essay for The New York
Times’ Sunday Review. ‘My parents took Anup out of the
hospital and brought him to our house. For the next 28
years, until he died, they tried to fix him through faith
healing. Strange men — not priests or gurus, but engi-
neers, accountants, candy shop owners — would come to
the house and perform bizarre rituals, claiming that god
had visited them in a dream and told them of a magical
cure that would fix Anup.’
You will find some of these scenes in the novel, too.
Hailed as a ‘supreme storyteller’ (Philadelphia Inquirer)
for his ‘cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived’ fic-
tion (New York Times), Sharma is possessed of a narrative
voice ‘as hypnotic as those found in the pages of
Dostoyevsky’ ( The Nation).
The Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai is
among many writers who have admired Family Life.
‘Sharma is a rare master at charting the frailties and
failures, the cruelties and rages,’ she wrote in a blurb. ‘The
altering moods and contradictions, whims and perversi-ties of a tragic cast of characters. But this most unsentimental writer leaves the reader, finally and surprisingly,
moved,’ Desai noted.
A former banker and now a literature professor at
Rutgers University, Sharma has studied at Princeton,
Stanford and Harvard.
His first novel An Obedient Father is being reissued by
his new publisher W W Norton. It centers on a corrupt
official in New Delhi who lives with his widowed daughter
and his little granddaughter. He may seem to be a bumbling, and sad person, but Kanak Ram is also a man eaten
up by a secret. The novel was a winner of the
PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times
Notable Book of the Year.
Given the glowing reviews, he has every reason to feel
happy but he also remembers, like he did in a New
Yorker blog, that the book took over 12 years to write and
rewrite. And he has wondered if it was the right investment of his time.
‘I once met a man who told me how, soon after he started dating a woman, she became sick,’ he wrote in the blog.
‘He found himself going to hospitals with her and helping
her in a way that his affection for her would not have justified. Eventually, she died. He told me, “I am glad that
someone was with her, but I don’t think I should have
been that person.” I sort of feel the same way about the
time I spent writing Family Life. I think the book is
strong. I think it does things with style that I have never
seen before. If someone gave me a copy and I began reading it, I would have a hard time putting it down… I just
wish 12-and-a-half years of my life hadn’t gone into creating it.’
India Abroad met Akhil Sharma, a slightly built man
‘While I resist being called an immigrant
novelist, I am proud of being Indian’
‘An immigrant novel sometimes means Americans think what is relevant for immigrants
is not relevant to them; I think a good book is relevant to everyone’ — Akhil Sharma, the author
of Family Life, in a fascinating conversation with Arthur J Pais
COURTES Y: FACEBOOK/ASIAN AMERICAN WRI TERS’ WORKSHOP