During the coming days, the wealth of America kept astonishing me. The television had programming from morning till night. I had never been in an elevator before and when I pressed a button in the elevator and the elevator started moving, I felt powerful that it had to obey me. In our shiny brass mailbox in the lobby, we received ads on colored paper. In India colored paper could be sold to the recycler for more money than newsprint. The sliding glass doors of our apartment building would open when we approached. Each time this happened, I felt that we had been mistaken for somebody important. Outside our building was a four-lane road. This was usually full of cars, and every few blocks there were traffic lights. In India, the only traffic light I had ever seen was near India Gate. My parents had taken me and Birju for picnics near there, and when they did, we would go look at the light. People were so unused to being directed by a light that a traffic guard in a white uniform and white pith helmet stood underneath, repeating its directions with his hands.
Opening a review of a novel that largely concerns responses to tragedy and almost unendurable change with a gently-satirical cultural comparison might feel a little inappropriate, but Akhil Sharma doesn’t spend any time milking or over-emphasizing devastation. Here it’s a daily occurrence, and it’s treated evenly, like everything else. Comedy, when it arrives, is given no precedence. Everything is recounted as though through a veil of general disbelief, the good and the bad all part of the same nightmare that’s still unfolding.
Family Life (2014) is, primarily (and not all in the sense of “stranger in a strange land”) a fish-out-of-water tale. Ajay is an uncomfortable member of his family regardless of emigration to the United States: his mother favors his older brother Birju; his dad “serves no purpose” and certainly gets little in the way of thanks for leaving Delhi for America and, eventually, sending tickets for everyone else to join him. Once in America, Ajay’s inherent sense of alienation, not helped by an already volatile mix of personalities he’s stuck with, is exacerbated, as are his father’s demons. New York is no place for such a man and acts as an untimely and disastrous catalyst, though Ajay’s desperation for respect and esteem is curtailed somewhat by a burgeoning and horribly blatant alcoholism. And then there’s a tragedy that binds and underpins every moment of the book thereafter: Birju, set for the Brooklyn School of Science (a fact that lends the family plenty of much-sought regard amongst fellow Indian émigrés in the community), is crippled by a swimming accident. Sharma, who suggests that this is basically a memoir polished for narrative thrust, is starkly candid about the painfully ambivalent thoughts running through his young mind about this seismic turn of events as the immediate and uncertain aftermath hits him.
I started on my way back. I walked head down along the sidewalk. I was irritated. Birju had gotten into the Bronx High School of Science, and now he was going to get to be in a hospital. I was certain our mother would feel bad for him and give him a gift. As I walked, I wondered whether Birju had stepped on a nail. I wondered if he was dead. This last was thrilling. If he was dead, I would get to be the only son. The sun pressed heavily on me. Considering that Birju was going to a hospital, I decided I should probably cry. I pictured myself alone in the house. I imagined Birju getting to be in the hospital while I had just another ordinary day. I imagined how next year Birju was going to get to be at the Bronx High School of Science and I would have to go to my regular school. Finally the tears came.
Family Life has plenty of this: convincing, clipped, ingratiatingly frank characterization of a troubled, narcissistic, attention-starved kid as he runs through his own attenuated yet vivid impressions for which he has no access to alternatives. He’s grieving the absence of Delhi, of India, and is eight years old at the beginning of the book. Just the wrong age, in many ways, to deal with the assault of horrendous upheaval and change this collective new start delivers.
It was strange to be among so many whites. They all looked alike. When a boy came up to me between periods and asked a question, it took me a moment to realize I had spoken to him before. We had lunch in an asphalt yard surrounded by a high chain-link fence. Wheeled garbage cans were spread around the yard. I was often bullied. Sometimes a little boy would come up to me and tell me that I smelled bad. Then, if I said anything, a bigger boy would appear so suddenly that I couldn’t tell where he had come from. He would knock me down. He’d stand over me, fists clenched, and demand, “You want to fight? You want to fight?” Sometimes boys surrounded me and shoved me back and forth, keeping me upright as a kind of game. Often, standing in a corner of the asphalt yard, I would think, There has been a mistake. I am not the sort of boy who is pushed around. I am good at cricket. I am good at marbles.
Ajay’s 1970s Delhi was (and remains in his mind as the taunting antidote to the all-replete, inexorably frenetic bombardment of New York) street cricket, glacial contentment, deference to simplicity and where he belonged. He finds his new home, a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, to be a curious, surreal novelty of bizarre and anxiety-inducing abundance, and Not Delhi.
The apartment my father had rented had one bedroom. It was in a tall, brown-brick building in Queens. The apartment’s gray metal front door swung open into a foyer with a wooden floor. Beyond this was a living room with a reddish brown carpet that went from wall to wall. Other than in the movies, I had never seen a carpet. Birju and my parents walked across the foyer and into the living room. I went to the carpet’s edge and stopped. A brass metal strip held it to the floor. I took a step forward. I felt as if I were stepping onto a painting. I tried not to bring my weight down. My father took us to the bathroom to show us toilet paper and hot water. While my mother was interested in status, being better educated than others or being considered more proper, my father was just interested in being rich. I think this was because although both of my parents had grown up poor, my father’s childhood had been much more desperate. At some point my grandfather, my father’s father, had begun to believe that thorns were growing out of his palms. He had taken a razor and picked at them till they were shaggy with scraps of skin. Because of my grandfather’s problems, my father had grown up feeling that no matter what he did, people would look down on him. As a result, he cared less about convincing people of his merits and more about just owning things.
Ajay’s incongruent troubles endure, he’s hardly screened from the periodic combustibility of his mother, who is busy not coming to terms with her son’s ruined life (she nurses delusional hope of a return to Birju’s former physical and mental state, which manifests as many opportunistic visitors offering miracle cures — no sooner has she come to terms with being taken for a fool, another laughable practitioner of ceremonial hocus pocus is drafted in, before quickly abandoning the hopeless project) or her husband’s head-in-in-the-sand oblivion, and is learning to look the other way, either when his father arrives home shambling drunk once again, or when speaking to his vegetative brother in faux-optimistic tones. He begins to compulsively fabricate and seems to watch himself annoy the hell out of classmates. He’s a mess, and we sympathize, and wait for the worst. But Ajay, and this was, for me, the chief (if obvious) delight of the book, begins to find succor in his adopted country. His penchant for making stuff up and daydreaming his way out of his suffocating purgatory leads him in a predictable direction.
For me, the two best things about America were television and the library. Every Saturday night I watched The Love Boat. I looked at the women in their one-piece bathing suits and their high heels and imagined what it would be like when I was married. I decided that when I was married, I would be very serious, and my silence would lead to misunderstandings between me and my wife. We would have a fight and later make up and kiss. She would be wearing a blue swimsuit as we kissed.
A case against the firm that runs the swimming pool is relatively successful, and two-thirds of a million dollars buys a new house and chance to escape the reliance on neglectful, humiliating care facilities. But Ajay’s parents are still lost, and both lean on their weaknesses: his mother becomes more and more entrenched in her bias towards her thwarted son; his father struggles horribly with the drink and almost loses his job. Although Akhil Sharma never drives the point home, Ajay is basically abandoned, left to fend for himself. And he begins to immerse himself in fictional worlds to escape.
Before we came to America, I had never read a book just to read it. When I began doing so, at first, whatever I read seemed obviously a lie. If a book said a boy walked into a room, I was aware that there was no boy and there was no room. Still, I read so much that often I imagined myself in the book. I imagined being Pinocchio, swallowed by a whale. I wished to be inside a whale with a candle burning on a wooden crate, as in an illustration I had seen. Vanishing into books, I felt held. While at school and walking down the street, there seemed no end to the world, when I read a book or watched The Love Boat, the world felt simple and understandable.
He begins to write thinly-veiled autobiographical tales; by doing so he lays claim to a more solid version of his life and can, by such methods, both cope with them and understand them on his own terms. He writes his way out of pain, ultimately, and wrestling with modified, manageable versions of his family saves him, to an extent. It’s an ongoing process; the writing of this novel may be a mere extension of that process. It’s a shedding of a skin, a reinvention: another world in another world. Multiplications of protection against a world that writes itself beholden to nothing. Is that what fiction is?
Akhil Sharma initially spent nine years failing to write Family Life. The version he ended up with is the result of maddened cathartic expediency, and feels like it. Hemingway, the key figure to initiate Ajay’s serious writerly leanings and a fairly prominent character during the middle part of the book, influences the final version considerably. There is no purple prose anywhere: it’s all bone-white and stripped to the absolute essentials. This is prose you could rap your knuckles against: taut, remorseless, impactful, solid and swift. It really does feel as though Sharma has written “notes for a novel” and stuck with them. The results are undoubtedly impressive: there is a harshness and an economy that befits such sadness; there is an urgency and a determination not to dwell upon any of the recurrent grim episodes and to simply pound it out and move on. This means it’s incredibly readable and funny in its tersely dismissive refusal to lend anything weight or gravitas: he lets skilfully-sketched characters and the simply conveyed, elegantly-drawn facts do their job. It’s a great story, and needs to be. It loses a lot of the nuances I tend to look for in fiction but I can hardly use that as a particular criticism as the book is a mesmerising triumph. And whilst there are, for me, more impressive books that it beat out for the Folio Prize, I can hardly be disappointed that such a likeable and enjoyable book won. It’s a horribly fascinated and fascinating sad shrug of a book, and the ending is suitably downbeat. You may find yourself worrying about the author, but you’ll probably be delighted that he became a writer, for his sake as well as yours. What else was he going to be having lived such a life but an artist of some kind?