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.
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.
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.