At the beginning of Akhil Sharma’s new book, Family Life, there is a description of the narrator’s father outside their two-room barsaati on a rooftop in Delhi. The bathroom has a sink attached to the outside wall. Here is the sentence I want to share with you: “Each night my father would stand before the sink, the sky full of stars, and brush his teeth till his gums bled.”
Upon reading that sentence, I have stepped into the world of Akhil Sharma’s writing. Simple words, simple phrases; but there is nothing simple about the world being described. There are the stars, and there is blood—in the same breath, we have both beauty and death.
I’m tempted to say there is something very Indian about this contradictory reality, but other writers have also produced such worlds. For example, Isaac Babel (1894-1940). Think of his classic story, “My First Goose”, and the way in which its sentences embrace opposites: “Savitsky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of his giant’s body … His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.”
Like Babel, Sharma surprises us with his sentences. Their real surprise is that even the monstrous is touched with humanity; and vice versa: small gestures made memorable because they startle or disturb us with their unworldliness. Again, a line from the beginning of Family Life: “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.”
I have read what I have written above and am struck immediately by the thought that Sharma himself would never approach his subject in the same way that I have. His writing isn’t clogged with commentary. Instead of being academic, he reaches for the heart of the matter. A recent article by him begins, “I am not sure what caused me to start sleeping with married women, especially ones who were much older than I was.” Which is to say, his sentences, with their air of simplicity, and their energy, are also characterised by their directness. This is a part of the writer’s honesty. (Jonathan Franzen once said to me about Sharma: “His candour almost gets to frightening but stops short of exhilarating.”) Honesty in a writer doesn’t mean simply the desire to not hide anything; no, it refers to an ability to see through his characters and know what the story is really about.
Sharma was born in Delhi and came to America when he was eight. This was in 1979. His brother, Anup, was four years older than him. Their family wasn’t well-off but the boys were bright. Two years later, Anup performed well in an entrance test and got admitted into an elite school. But one day things went wrong. There was a swimming accident. Anup hit his head on the bottom and stayed underwater for three minutes. He suffered severe brain damage, unable to walk or talk or see for the rest of his life. He died two years ago. Family Life is a novel spun out of the facts of this shared past.
The book was released in the US and appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. In that first week of the book’s release, Sharma came to Vassar College, where I teach. During a public conversation, I had a question for him. The first books that people write are often autobiographical—they are about the subjects that exert the greatest gravitational pull on their authors. But Sharma had avoided that. Instead, his first book, An Obedient Father, was about a corrupt official in Delhi living with his newly-widowed daughter whom he had molested twenty years earlier.
How come he didn’t first write about his brother’s drowning and the catastrophe that befell his family?
“I think of both books as very autobiographical,” Sharma said in response. “The first book was my autobiography when I was 20 or so, which is when I began the book. It is my autobiography in the sense that it is filled with guilt.”
When Sharma said this, I remembered our interview from nearly 15 years previously. I had read and admired An Obedient Father. It was a difficult read because of its subject matter, but on each page one could see that the work was special. In fact, I quickly formed the conviction that An Obedient Father was one of the top three or four original novels in English written by an Indian over the past several decades. At the end of our interview those many years ago I had asked Sharma about his parents. He said, “They are traditional. They came a long time ago but they never adapted.” I noted that he had mentioned an older brother on his novel’s dedication page. He then told me about the accident and the fact that Anup had suffered serious brain damage. I said, “That must have been an enormous burden to grow up with.” And Sharma had replied, “Yes. I think it gave me a sense of guilt and the ability to identify with the victimiser instead of the victim.”
Although An Obedient Father wasn’t a bestseller, it was definitely what is called a “critical success” in the publishing industry. It won the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best debut novel of the year. It was largely ignored or attacked in India, however. The editor of a prominent weekly told me in Delhi that their reviewer had returned the book, calling it obscene. I asked Sharma whether he had anything to say to such critics, but he was dismissive. “What can you really do with somebody who is a liar?”
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