Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Akhil Sharma’s “We Didn’t Like Him” was originally published in the June 3, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

photo

Betsy

I liked Akhil Sharma’s “We Didn’t Like Him,” whose setting is the land of death and what we do to relieve its loss. The story felt so appropriate to the day, given that I was reading it on Memorial Day, a time in my own family which had often been marked by visits to the cemetery bearing flowers. Just to think of the cemetery, though, one is confronted with confusion: so much lost, so much undone. Sharma’s story floats on these facts — what scarcities life provides us with to deal with the deprivations death enforces. Sharma’s flat tone allows him to tell both about the scarcities that death ensures, and also about the kind of sudden reversal into life and newness that we all crave.

Could this story happen? Sharma persuades me, with his deceptively flat account, that it could, and in the telling, there’s a richness of the unfamiliar (the story takes place in a city in northern India) that allows us to access the deep sadness beneath. In his interview with Deborah Treisman, Sharma remarks that in the course of writing the story, he had his own epiphany, and I really enjoyed hearing about that. He tells about how the story began with his own annoyance at a religious functionary at his own brother’s funeral, but how writing the story ended with him thinking, “We are all foolish. We all do dopey things.” Isn’t that true. The question Sharma sets up for the reader is whether or not we get that, that everybody does selfish things, clings to useless grudges and hatreds. What could shake you out of that? What could bring you to your senses?

In short, the story revolves around its title, around the casual, entitled dislike the narrator has always felt for Manshu, a kind of third cousin who even as a grown man is defined by the nonsense he got up to as a child. What was it the narrator never liked? Manshu had an annoying way of barging into your life from the very beginning: taking over and ruining the little kids’ street games, taking over and coloring, somehow, the role of pundit in the local temple, the way he so self-importantly could visit all the women in the neighborhood to pray with them, the way he took it upon himself to marry out of caste, the way he tried to make money off his temple job.

In an off moment, part way through the story, the narrator admits what it is that really bothers him about Manshu. It is that he is an orphan, his father dying when he was five and his mother about ten years later. The narrator remembers being about 13 and having to make the ritual visit to Manshu upon his being orphaned, upon the occasion of the second parent’s death.

I got scared. I wanted to leave so badly I did not care if I hurt Manshu’s feelings.

So, in fact, the story follows a braided line: the “hatred” he nurses for Manshu, the way he counts up, almost treasures, all the foolish things that Manshu does combines with his own uses for that hatred — that the grudge helps him deep-six his own fear of his own parents’ inevitable death, his own fear of having to make his own way.

Manshu is annoying, and it’s easy to get caught up in the narrator’s self-righteousness. Later, there are more deaths. Oh, the nonsense we get up to in the face of other people’s losses. Somehow, right in the middle of Manshu’s most grievous loss, the narrator entitles himself to a last act of very profound carelessness toward Manshu. And yet, Sharma manages a small, sudden, welcome, workable, redemptive explosion out of all this recurring selfishness. Manshu is suddenly honest, and the narrator is suddenly kind. Were it possible for such honesty to work such transformations in the broader world today.

Death confronts us with confusion: so much lost, so much undone. This story provides a small reprieve.

Sharma’s flat tone allows him to touch upon the deepest of emotions without putting us off. I look forward to reading more from Akhil Sharma.

Trevor

When I finished the story, I had a similar reaction to Betsy’s. I appreciated how well Sharma navigated these difficult waters in a first-person narrative, taking us from the narrator’s childhood to that “redemptive explosion” after the narrator and Manshu have lost so much.

The narrator is a tricky fellow. He presents himself as fairly reasonable and deferential, humble and sensitive. He appears wise and repentent as he’s aged, understanding his cruelty as a child of eight or nine who didn’t think Manshu, who had lost his father, had a right to speak to the narrator’s father.

And yet this sense of wisdom still blinds the narrator. Over the years, as the two have grown up and gone on to start their professions (the narrator as a lawyer, Manshu as a pandit for the temple), the narrator’s wisdom and forgiveness have given him a sense of superiority. As an adult, Manshu cannot shed the wretched child he was.

So much was changing in my life and so little in his that I began to see Manshu as simpleminded.

I found it interesting that the narrator’s views were set on a foundation laid by the narrator’s father, and the narrator admits to this off-handedly. And yet, so well does the narrator present his reasonableness, his sense of weary care for his simpleminded relative, that we readers may actually justify his greatest offense. But what an offense! Unfeeling in every way, the narrator takes his self-appointed role too far, and the result is a rich story that examines self-perception as it accumulates losses throughout the years.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Mookse and the Gripes on Patreon!
By |2013-05-29T13:33:59-04:00May 27th, 2013|Categories: Akhil Sharma, New Yorker Fiction|11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. natasha b. (@digressionist) May 29, 2013 at 7:35 pm

    It felt too much like a summary of feeling rather than the feeling itself to me. But I can see in another context really liking his work.

  2. avataram (@avataram) May 29, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    I am an Indian who grew up in Delhi in North India. The story does not seem believable for me for a few reasons.

    The story is set in a city in North India (sounds like Delhi, as the kids played Stick-Stick or Gulli Danda) and it sounds like the 70s or 80s when the Caste system in North India was still very strong.

    The narrator, Manshu and his family are all Brahmins. That is the same reason Manshu can be a temple priest. Early in the story Manshu goes to Vaishnodevi and marries a girl from a different caste. That itself is grounds for dismissal from his job as a priest at that time. With some difficulty, one can believe that the narrator’s father saved his job because he was on the temple committee.

    When the wife dies, her cremation, and scattering her ashes in the river all sound like she had a Brahmin funeral. This is extremely unlikely. One’s caste does not change after marriage. While it is possible that the narrator may have done all he could for the funeral of a cousin’s wife, it is very unlikely that he would have done anything in this case as she was from a lower caste – definitely not carried her ashes or scattered them in the river.

    Somehow, I had the feeling that the author added the details about Manshu’s wife being from a different caste early in the story, and forgot all about it when she died. If the author had not mentioned her caste at all, the entire story would have been credible.

  3. Betsy May 30, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Welcome, Avataram. Your detailed comments regarding caste are very interesting, as India’s culture is vast, and I know very little about it. Your comments give us another way to look at the story.

  4. Betsy May 30, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Trevor, Beyond,the questions that Avataram raises, I have a question of you. Is Sharma posing this story as a type of parable that muses upon the nature of hatred? While the story seems at first read to be confined to a lane in a city in India, the ideas being addressed have to do with the nature of the human heart, which while capable of love, also finds it paradoxically easy to hate. One man has grown up, has perhaps been brought up, finding it very easy to disregard the elemental humanity of another. This man, a lawyer, twice has had the very keen feeling that it is okay to ignore or deny another man’s most basic feelings.At the same time, the other man, the pandit, has done the same to other, has mis-used his priestly podium to make money. He has even sent messages out to the world that he can cure cancer. That he has all the answers, so to speak.

    The story appears to call attention to the way we find it so easy, on any side of the question, to mis-use our power, and so easy to ignore what is really being expressed when stupid things are done.

    Did the New Yorker choose this story for Memorial Day, not just because it is a day when we honor the dead, but because it is a day when we honor the victims of war?

    In Massachusetts, we cannot have a memorial day without thinking about the innocent victims of the Boston bombing. If the story is read with these larger issues in mind, I find the story impossible – in the sense that parables are meant to be impossible. That is – being from Massachusetts, I find it impossible to imagine washing the feet of my enemy. And yet, in the end, if we are ever to have a solution, that is what must happen, or what must happen in some form. The moment must come when I can imagine washing the feet of this enemy, this other. Or the moment must come when the other can imagine washing my feet. But the story bothers me because I am not there yet, at all.

    Actually, I find it scary to raise this issue. It is as if these are topics so taboo (in the midst of our present wars) that silence is safer. That is a question raised eloquently and provocatively by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in the WSJ this past Tuesday, and actually in other forums as well..

    I do find the last event of Sharma’s story odd and pointed, however. The Hindu lawyer’s action, the bathing of the pandit’s feet, is done in the service of Hindu ritual, but also in the figurative language of Christianity.

    Somehow I don’t see this as giving authority to one religion or another, I see it as somehow elevating the story to include anybody, of any religion, within the human possibility: that any of us of any faith is capable of stupidity, capable of hatred, but also capable of atonement. The story seems to argue that the moment can come when we see the other as us.

    As a story, the lawyer comes to his senses and washes the feet of the unacceptable pandit. But seen as a parable, this story presents that stumbling block, that impossibility. Is this the question Sharma has presented me? Or have I just got current events on the brain? So that’s my question, Trevor. Do I take the story too far to see it as more than the story it is?

  5. Trevor May 31, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Hi Betsy, sorry for my delay in responding. I wasn’t around a computer yesterday, though I read your comment and have some thoughts of my own. I appreciate the question because it made me think more fully about why I enjoyed this story.

    While I do think this is about hatred, I don’t look quite think it’s about general hatred. In other words, I don’t think it’s about our general capacity to hate, especially those who do us harm. Rather, I think it’s in part about the strange interplay of hatred and pride. Or, in another way, the way we may look down on people, even going so far as to despise them for their feelings, as if they don’t deserve to feel pain or loss or elation.

    When they were children, the narrator being younger and felt intimidated by Manshu. He and the other children hated it when he’d come to play. At a young age, the narrator already started positioning himself over Manshu based on Manshu’s loss of his father. How could Manshu talk to the narrator’s father! This may seem like a childish tendency, but it continues throughout their slightly intermingled lives. Though they both suffer losses — and it’s easy for the reader to side with the narrator — the narrator is upset Manshu never came to visit his own dying father. Then the narrator completely desecrates Manshu’s own tremendous loss. Sharma does a superb job conveying that dumb-struck silence both must have been feeling on the way home together.

    In some ways, it’s obvious the narrator has the moral high ground, but in so many other ways it’s obvious he uses that to step on Manshu.

    I’m not sure I’m making sense :-) .

  6. Ken June 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm

    I found the exchange and analysis between Betsy and Trevor more interesting than the story itself. I have become, thanks for Trevor, so sensitized to excerpts from novels that I look up the author’s description in the front of the New Yorker to see if the story this week is an excerpt. This struck me as an example of the problems of the excerpt: far too much back story and narrative compression, all of which would work well over the course of a long book. I felt because of this the story was far too much on the surface, lacking any subtext. We are constantly told what the narrator feels and why. Granted, he’s unreliable and Betsy and Trevor do a good job explicating that. Also, it is an interesting question about why we are judgmental of others and can lack empathy or self-reflection. But…there are far more artful ways than this to convey those concepts. I didn’t even comment on last weeks story–by Millhauser (a normally excellent writer)–because I was surprised such a thin conceit (and that’s all I got out of it) was being treated with such seriousness in this forum. Milllhauser always writes conceits, to some degree, but I usually think they are fascinating. This had no narrative propulsion and seemed at most a gimmick.

  7. Trevor June 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Over the weekend I heard someone say the word “dignity” and I realized that dignity is key to what I’m trying to say above. The relationship between dignity and cruelty, dignity and superiority, the silly things we do to feel more dignified than someone else, the terrible things we do when we think someone else doesn’t deserve dignity, etc.

  8. avataram (@avataram) June 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Is this an excerpt from Sharma’s new novel? He seems to say in the Q&A with Treisman that this is a new story.

    The title was striking – “We didn’t like him”. Jean-Luc Godard once said that identification is the lowest form of criticism – we easily say “I don’t like him” about someone we do not identify with, without understanding them deeply. Maybe the narrator and Manshu looked at each other in a similar superficial way.

    Sharma’s characters have never been likable – I cannot identify with any of them, including the characters in “An Obedient Father” or in some of his earlier short stories. So it is very easy to say, “I don’t like the story” as I cannot identify with the characters. But as Betsy does, I should have looked deeper and thought about why The New Yorker chose this story for their Memorial day issue.

    At best, I see Sharma’s story as the fictional equivalent of Daniel Mendelsohn’s wonderful essay on burying Tamerlan Tsarnaev – again taking off from Betsy’s comments on Boston. The narrator and Manshu dislike each other, but they help each other perform the funeral rites for their loved ones, although both could have done so with more dignity and respect, both for each other and for the dead relatives.

  9. Betsy June 4, 2013 at 10:33 am

    Avataram – thank you very much for letting us know about Daniel Mendelsohn’s essay on our problem with Tamerlan Tsarnaev; Mendelsohn reminds us how Homer and Sophocles posed this issue (our inability to recognize the humanity of the enemy) as a tragedy. I, too, cannot recommend this essay highly enough..

    And Trevor, similar to Mendelsohn, your capture of Sharma’s story in your remarks about “dignity” feel deeply right. I also identify with the way you worked this out – that the act of writing is an exploration that doesn’t stop with the act of it – that the mind continues to search, for days, in fact, for the center of what it is trying to say, especially when the general subject is of something deeply troubling.

    And Avataram, I hear you about that problem of “unlikable” characters, particularly your Godard quote. I notice that I dislike stories that have women who scare me: “M&M World” by Kate Walbert comes to mind. Stories that take place in some foreign place (India or Albuquerque or Chile) trick me in by being exotic; I am more open and more curious than I would be about a story that is placed my own particular “happy valley”. I think you are right on when you remark that Manshu and the speaker are operating, in regard to each other, at Godard’s “lowest form” of criticism.
    This particular line of thought will occupy me for a while! I hated Walbert’s “M&M World”! But I remember it so well! Is that Walbert’s art still speaking to me?

    Sharma still interests me, regardless. Or maybe his stumbling blocks are actually my particular cup of tea. Thanks, Avataram, for your provocative comments. Hope to hear from you again.

  10. San Lin Tun July 10, 2013 at 12:06 am

    Quite nice. It reveals the entire event of a man who has misfortune and how his experiences change his attitude and life. Really a good one—writing style and the choice of words as well as the syntaxs.

  11. […] usual The Mookse and the Gripes had a great discussion. An excerpt from […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.