Adolescent pain, angst, guilt, and sorrow know little escape in Akhil Sharma’s tender account of his protagonist’s boyhood in Family Life. I confess that I’m always on edge when the word “family” is part of a novel’s title, and my edginess continued throughout Sharma’s story of Ajay Mishra, eight years old at the beginning of the narrative and considerably older and wiser at the end. Fairly early, Ajay warns us, “As far back as I can remember my parents have bothered each other.” That’s a pretty audacious remark for any writer to make if he expects that the book will not be jettisoned by an impatient reader expecting something a little more uplifting. Yet Sharma also understands how to hook his reader with the sparsest of language, perhaps emulating his protagonist’s love of Hemingway and Hemingway’s style. In short, the horrendous events related in Family Life are understated by the author’s elegant prose.
Seeking a better life in the United States, Ajay’s father leaves his wife and two sons behind until he gets established as an accountant in America. Then, a year later in 1978, three tickets arrive for their flights to the United States. Birju, who is four years older than his brother, quickly excels in his studies and gains admission to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. Presumably, the family is on the cusp of greater things. The talented young man becomes an instant celebrity within the Indian community, envied by numerous other families who hope their own sons will also achieve Birju’s successes. He begins dating a Korean girl. And then tragedy destroys those expectations. One afternoon when he dives into a swimming pool, he’s knocked out and remains under water so long that he is rendered brain dead.
His mother refuses to admit that he won’t come out of his coma, his father a little less certain of his son’s prospects. And Ajay suddenly finds himself praying to God—constantly. All of them live at the hospital for months, attending to him, reading to him, touching him in the hopes that things will change. But they do not, and the father quickly takes to drink. Even the fairly large insurance settlement makes little difference in their lives, because after he’s released from the hospital, after he’s been in a nursing home, the three of them make the decision to bring Birju home where they can watch over him constantly. But that move largely becomes their prison, and for Ajay it means that his childhood is taken away from him since all family activities are centered on making Birju comfortable. On one of the few occasions when Ajay speaks about the tragedy directly, he says, “Daddy, I am so sad.” “You’re sad,” my father said angrily. “I want to hang myself every day.”
Numerous quacks (all Indians) force themselves on the family, convinced that they can cure Birju. Ajay observes these futile activities, becoming increasingly morose. What he needs more than anything is a friend, but he’s so isolated because of his brother’s situation that when he attempts to reach out to other students at school, he doesn’t know how to act. Gaining sympathy doesn’t work, so next he tries to shock them with details of Birju’s daily care—catheters, tubes for feeding in his stomach, and so on. But they’re so grossed out by the details that that approach also backfires. “At school,” he observes, “the guilt and sadness were like wearing clothes still damp from the wash.” To make things even worse, the smattering of Indian students at his school are constantly humiliated by racial smears.
When Ajay is sixteen, his father faces his alcoholism and checks himself into rehab. But that also has its consequences because even though he remains sober, the fickle Indian community regards him as a drunk and further isolates the family. Ajay’s own isolation is alleviated by a crush he has on a girl who is part of the community. Mostly—as has been true throughout the story—Ajay continues to feel that no matter what he does his Indian heritage demarcates his difference. He will never be assimilated, become a part of American culture. As he says of himself and the other Indian students at the high school that is almost totally white, “We were all a little shy about the lives we lived at home. At home we didn’t eat the food that white kids ate. At home our mothers and sometimes our fathers dressed in odd clothes. Our holidays were not the same as white people’s. Our parents worshipped gods who rode on mice. To attack someone based on his or her family brought up so much of our own shame that we didn’t have the heart to be mean.”
Though a novel (his second, following An Obedient Father, in 2000), Family Life captures the raw, unflinching truth of autobiography. The book’s dedication hints at that same reality: dedicated to his wife, “my poor brother,” and “my brave and faithful parents.” The book took years to write, probably because it was pulled from the author’s gut.
Akhil Sharma: Family Life
Norton, 219 pp., $23.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.