Akhil Sharma’s wounded world
Akhil Sharma’s universe is a quiet one. Quiet and devastating. Where tragedy befalls and wrecks characters in the space of an instant: a few minutes in a swimming pool, the click of a mouse, a gesture, a look, a conversation. In this way, the book, a collection of eight masterful short stories, couldn’t have been more ironically titled. For within the pages of A Life Of Adventure And Delight, people are crippled by forces both external and within.
The book comes in the wake of Sharma’s massively acclaimed and much awarded second novel, Family Life, which won the Folio Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award in 2015. In these two books, what shines is his language.
In an April 2014 essay for The New Yorker, titled “A Novel Like A Rocket”, Sharma outlines the difficulties he had writing the autobiographical Family Life—it took over 12 years—mentioning that apart from the emotional upheaval the process caused, he struggled especially with three technical challenges. The first being point of view, since his narrator was a young boy; tricky since children “understand bits and pieces of what’s happening, but they can’t process what it all means”. The second was representing the physical horror of the situation that is at the heart of the novel—the protagonist’s older brother hits his head on the side of a swimming pool and sinks into a comatose state for the rest of his life. And the last, most pertinently, has to do with writing a book without a plot.
It was, Sharma says, the hardest to resolve. So he looked for novels that “shared some of the same DNA as (his) book”. Yet the texts, among them A House For Mr Biswas, Radetzky March, Remembrance Of Things Past, failed to help. Until he read Anton Chekhov. And noticing that Chekhov relies heavily on certain aspects of our senses—smell, sound, touch—and very little on the visual. This, according to Sharma, helps create a sense of immediacy and realism in the text, but without a plot, descriptions adding to the visceral reality weighed down the writing, leaving “the reader stuck in a particular scene”. Without causation, a stronger sense of the present tense seemed irrelevant. “Reading Chekhov,” continues Sharma, “I began to wonder what it would be like to remove sound, feel and smell, and to leave just visuals and dialogue and introspection.”
Sharma’s prose in Family Life and A Life Of Adventure And Delight is pruned to the barest essentials, leaving readers to negotiate a carefully pared sensual reality. Even geographical cues are few and far between, marking some of these stories with a strange anywhereness. What saves them from flimsiness though is the rich emotional landscapes Sharma invests in his characters. Laying them bare, holding them up unflinchingly, flaws and all, to the light.
In Cosmopolitan, the collection’s first story, for example, we first meet Gopal Maurya at his most vulnerable—sleeping and naked, hurriedly pulling on crumpled pants and a shirt to greet his neighbour, Mrs Shaw, at the door. We learn that his wife and daughter have left him, and he is on his own, somehow getting by in a house that is beginning to rapidly show signs of neglect and shabbiness. Much like himself. The neighbours embark on an affair, regularly spending more time together, but Gopal’s strategy to get to know Mrs Shaw better is to read articles on how to be a good lover in women’s magazines. Later, to win friends within the expat Indian community, he memorizes jokes from “1,001 Polish Jokes” and changes the Poles to Sikhs. It doesn’t work, and in the end, he also loses Mrs Shaw.
This stumbling social awkwardness runs through the book. With people trying, and mostly failing, to create connections. Quite telling then that the title story opens with the protagonist Gautama being arrested for hiring a prostitute. A small-town boy from India, he had arrived in New York to study for a PhD, and “like many foreign students in America who are living far away from home for the first time, he had immediately begun loitering on Craigslist and Backpage”. After all, “he knew he would have to get married one day, and he hoped to have as much sex as possible before then....” Gautama does find tentative love and happiness with Nirmala, a fellow Indian student, but because his parents don’t approve of the match, he ends the relationship, and at the end we find him back on Craigslist, looking for “adventure and delight”.
Sharma’s world is also unrelentingly cruel, with his characters propelled not so much by personal choice and preference as by conservative familial traditions that are as asphyxiating in America as in India. In If You Sing Like That For Me, Sharma skilfully captures the sense of watching your own life unfurl before you while you stand aside and watch. Here, our young newly wedded narrator struggles to love her arranged marriage partner, Rajinder, and tries to hold on to the tenderness she feels for him on one single afternoon. Also crushed by loveless ties is Lakshman’s mother in You Are Happy? In this story, the desperation and despair spiral into raging alcoholism, and Sharma’s bare descriptions of the nameless mother slowly losing her grip on life are among the book’s most moving passages. Eventually, for the shame she has brought upon them, she is sent back to India, to be murdered by her family.
Despite the seeming geographical looseness of the stories, conflict also arises in cross-cultural disjuncture, which makes impossible relationships attempting to straddle these different worlds. Mrs Shaw, for instance, forever remains a mystery to Gopal. “I love you,” she tells him, “but I am not in love with you.” In the last story, The Well, there’s a sadly hilarious scene where the protagonist’s Indian mother places a box of jewellery on the table, offering it to Betsy, a white girl his son has got pregnant and wants to marry. This despite Betsy saying she likes Pavan but doesn’t want to marry him, and in fact isn’t ready to get married at all.
For me, the story which seemed at odds with the others in the collection was Surrounded By Sleep, an early piece of fiction carved out from Family Life. Here too the narrator’s elder brother nearly drowns in a swimming pool, and we follow the gradual unravelling of the family in the aftermath of the tragedy. Perhaps because I know it to be expanded in form otherwise, it seemed thematically less developed, and, in a way, incomplete. Yet Sharma’s characteristic psychological insight runs powerfully through this story too. The boy suffers much from guilt and neglectful parents, erupting in quiet tears and a demand for Christmas presents: “You have to give me something. I should get something for all this.”
Sharma’s prose cuts in razor-edge slices, thin, deep, and leaves his characters, and readers, bleeding, sometimes without them even noticing.
Janice Pariat is the author of Seahorse: A Novel.