Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Akhil Sharma’s “A Mistake” was originally published in the January 20, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
“A Mistake,” by Akhil Sharma, is, according to the Page-Turner interview with Deborah Treisman, the fictional account of an event that really happened to Sharma and his family. Sharma says that using fiction to tell his family’s story allowed him to shape the story beyond what merely memory would allow. The story is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel, Family Life.
An Indian family has immigrated to Queens in the late seventies early eighties. While the father had been dreaming of emigration, it was the Indian Emergency (1975-1977) that catapulted the family into action:
Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and put thousands of politicians and journalists in jail. My parents, like almost everyone who had seen Independence come, were very loyal; they were the sort of people who looked up at a cloud and thought, That’s an Indian cloud. After the Emergency, however, they began to think that even though they were ordinary and unlikely to get into trouble, it might still be better to emigrate.
The title of the story guides the reader: what is the mistake that Sharma has in mind? While a tragedy is the culmination of the story, and while that tragedy is the result of a mistake, Sharma also has other misjudgments and mistaken ideas in mind as well. One keenly observed and original riff is the younger son’s assessment of his father:
I used to assume that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose. When he got home in the evening, all he did was sit in his chair in the living room, drink tea, and read the paper. By the time we left for America, when I was eight and Birju was twelve, I knew the government had not assigned him to live with us. Still, I continued to think that he served no purpose.
I enjoyed this restrained but still wry account.
When the family finally rejoins their father after his first year in Queens, they are taken up with their new-found comforts, but at the same time, they are seized with the idea of “making it” in America. And the sure-fire way to make it, in immigrant terms, is to outperform academically, a route which is pressed upon Birju.
As for the speaker, the younger brother, surviving the bullying is his test.
What is the mistake of the story? Misjudging or mismanaging the task of being an immigrant is at the heart of the story, and something which I suspect is addressed by the entire novel. There is also the question of the balance to be struck between getting ahead and treasuring the family, the question of balancing “science” and love, and the question of the price paid by the student who must succeed at all costs.
The relaxed, unhurried story-telling is part of the story’s appeal. Sharma recounts how immigration has changed his father:
My father, who had seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America and now we were rich. The fact that he had achieved this made him seem different, mysterious.
He goes on to point out that his father’s authority now took the form of him having “opinions about us,” something that felt “like being touched by a relative you don’t know well.”
The story doesn’t stand on its own: the last sentence has the younger brother wondering what he is going to do. We have no basis of knowing, from this story, what it is he will do. In a conventional short story, the story would contain enough information that we could mull over the possibilities of what will happen after the story’s conclusion, even if the conclusion is ambiguous. In the case of this excerpt, the central character is only about twelve, and we hardly know him. The point is that he has been in his older brother’s shadow and he is unformed; only the novel will tell the bigger story: what direction will he take, given the several pressures of immigration, family tragedy, and his own desires?
What we do know is that the novel’s strengths may lie in the narrator’s carefully observed awareness of how the boy is changing, how he understands his family and his role in the world. We have the example of not only his slowly emerging understanding of his father, but also a similar growth in his understanding of his mother.
The tragedy at the heart of the story is almost unbearable within the confines of this excerpt, but I suspect that the novel’s business will be to come to terms with the tragedy. That is the story of our human condition, isn’t it? Loss, suffering, and recovery? Sharma himself says that one of the keys to growing up with this tragedy was to realize that the tragic is common to life. So I suspect the novel will be an exploration of what you do next.
For me, this is an interesting problem. Like you, I have had more than my share of loss. The difference between us and Akhil Sharma, though, is that he has gathered the strength to write about the loss and his recovery, if that was even what it was. It is that which interests me about his novel — what the boy decides to do, what he is able to do, and where he finds the strength to do it.