Immigrants' struggles rendered beautifully in a spare style by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma's tale is a pared-down, no-frills account of immigrants' struggles and personal tragedy, inspired by his own story, writes Ajay Singh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2014, 3:45pm

On his first day after emigrating from India to America in the 1970s, the narrator of Akhil Sharma's novel Family Life watches in amazement as his father turns on the hot water tap in their one-bedroom apartment in New York City.

"I had the sense of being in a fairy tale, one of those stories with a jug that is always full of milk or a bag that never empties of food," writes the novel's protagonist, Ajay Mishra. "During the coming days, the wealth of America kept astonishing me."

Family Life is an immigrant novel, but it's also a coming-of-age story about a young man torn between caring for his family and focusing on his own life

Family Life is a thinly veiled autobiography based on a tragedy that struck Sharma's own family when he was 10 years old. Not long after he arrived in the US, Sharma's 14-year-old brother, Anup - named Birju in the novel - dived into a swimming pool in an apartment building and hit his head on the bottom. For three minutes, he remained unconscious at the bottom of the pool. By the time he was rescued, he could neither walk nor talk.

For the next 28 years, until he died shortly before the publication of Family Life, Sharma's brother remained uncommunicative.

To cope with the calamity, Sharma's family turned to faith healing. In a recent article in The New York Times, Sharma describes how: "Strange men - not priests or gurus, but engineers, accountants, candy shop owners - would come to the house and perform bizarre rituals, claiming that God had visited them in a dream and told them of a magical cure to fix Anup."

Although Mishra dislikes these "miracle workers", he finds comfort in their presence. "I dreaded the moment of their departure, when my parents and I would be alone with Birju," Sharma writes in Family Life. "When people left, the loneliness came so quickly that it was as if a window had been opened and cold air had rushed in."

In his novel, Sharma describes his family's appeals to the divine with a comic touch. Each morning, the novel's narrator and his mother pray before an altar in their home. "When I did my prayers, I traced an Om, a crucifix, a Star of David onto the carpet. Beneath these I drew an S inside an upside-down triangle, for Superman. It seemed to me we should flatter anyone who could help," Sharma writes.

The narrator's father, an accountant who brought the family to America, takes to drink to drown his sorrows. One day, standing beside the hospital bed where his first-born is lying, he shouts at his younger son: "Don't think I don't know this is all your fault? What was in the pool? What was in there that you had to jump before anybody else got to it? Was there gold? Was there treasure?"

As time goes on, the family worries about money. When the father advertises in the local newspaper for a fulltime nurse's aide for his bedridden son, a Filipina responds. "When she learnt how much my mother intended to pay, she shouted, 'Why not you tell me on the phone?' " writes Sharma. "'Why you make me drive so long? You do this to a black, she burn your house down'."

Sharma deftly portrays the intense psychological pressure on his characters. The narrator's mother, for example, insists on saying her elder son is not brain-damaged, but in a coma. The delusion helps her believe that he might someday wake up from his stupor.

The father, meanwhile, is convinced that a lifeguard at the apartment building where his older son nearly drowned refused to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because he's Indian. Although the narrator realises this is not true, he finds it comforting. "Because then Birju's accident was no longer purely accidental, unconnected to the larger world, lacking all meaning," writes Sharma. "Also, there was something satisfying about being angry."

Sharma's first novel, An Obedient Father, was published in 2000. A story about a corrupt education official in India who forces himself on his 12-year-old daughter, the book won the Pen/Hemingway Award and established Sharma's reputation as an inventive voice in fiction.

Sharma was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. Yet it took him nine years to write his debut novel - and nearly 13 to finish Family Life.

At 218 pages, Family Life is hardly long. It is, by equal turns, comical and serious - and Sharma has a knack for injecting sly humour into the most banal observations. For example, he writes that his parents felt such immense pride when India gained independence from British colonial rule that "when they saw a cloud, they would think: that's an Indian cloud".

At the end of Family Life, Sharma thanks the Mrs Giles Whiting Foundation, which supports the humanities and creative writing, for providing him with US$50,000 in financial assistance "when I was beginning to give up on the novel". Sharma also thanks the American Academy in Rome for allowing him "to stay in an apartment in their beautiful building when I was feeling especially wretched".

Sharma reserves his deepest gratitude, however, for Jill Bialosky, his editor at W.W. Norton publishing house. "When I handed it in, this book was nine years overdue," Sharma writes. "Each year, on the anniversary of its due date, Jill would e-mail me and invite me to lunch."

Satirist David Sedaris has praised Family Life as an "outstanding" novel whose "every page is alive and surprising, proof of [Sharma's] huge, unique talent".

In a recent article in Publishers Weekly, Sharma is quoted as saying that he wrote "thousands and thousands" of pages before arriving at his final draft. He chose not to write a memoir, he says, because "when you're making things up you can just stop - when it's real life and based on yourself, the situation keeps expanding and getting more complicated".

Sharma's prose is so utterly plain that it appears to deliberately avoid playing on the reader's feelings, as if the situation at hand were sufficient to do that. Asked what kind of reader he writes for, Sharma told Publishers Weekly: "I write for an audience [that] barely reads - like my mother. I think what I'm writing is so lucid and simple that even people who don't read will not find it challenging."

Such a calculated low style results in a series of mostly short, unremarkable sentences. "One night, snow drifted down from a night sky," Sharma writes in what appears to be a clumsy attempt by his non-native English narrator to sound poetic.

Family Life is an immigrant novel, but it's also a coming-of-age story about a young man torn between caring for his family and focusing on his own life. After years of living with his family in a New Jersey suburb, Sharma's narrator finally leaves for an Ivy League college and later gets a well-paying job as an investment banker in New York City.

But the job is so stressful that for "about seven years I didn't date in any sort of regular way", the narrator says. "If I had dinner with a woman at a restaurant and she went to the bathroom, I became panicked. I felt that I had almost no time and the little I had was being wasted. I became sick with longing for women I barely knew."

Inspired by Hemingway, the narrator finds solace in writing. "The first story I wrote was about my brother coughing," writes Sharma. "I began my story in the middle of the action, the way Hemingway did. Writing the story changed me."

Along the way, Sharma's fictional alter-ego learns that "Hemingway got away with writing plainly because he wrote about exotic things". Were he to "write about ordinary things in an ordinary way, he would be boring". The narrator goes on to confess that "as long as I wrote about exotic things, I thought, I could then be a not very good writer and still be successful".

Anyone who looks forward to Sharma's next book had better hope there's nothing run of the mill about its subject matter.