Living on the edge

If you have read Akhil Sharma’s recent account in The New Yorker of the 12 torturous years he spent working on his second novel, you may have a fair idea of what to expect from the book proper.

Family Life tells the story of Indian parents who move to America with their two sons from New Delhi in 1978, a year after then prime minister Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency. A couple of years into their lives in the US, the older son, Birju, has a freak accident in a swimming pool and loses his faculties of speech, cognition and movement. In the 3 minutes he remains unconscious underwater, Birju, a bright boy with an aptitude for science about to enter a prestigious school in New York, becomes a burden for his parents and younger brother.

Akhil Sharma. Photo: Courtesy Penguin Books India
Akhil Sharma. Photo: Courtesy Penguin Books India

It is hard to remain unaffected by the clinical precision of Sharma’s prose, by the cold stare of his narrator’s eye that surveys the world, as also the self, with a perverse clarity, and then goes on to articulate truths that can crush even the most robust of human spirits.

Ajay is brutally honest about his impatience with Birju’s vegetative state, and this inability to sympathize fills him with guilt and self-loathing. As the healthy younger brother, Ajay has to put up a charade of normalcy around Birju, enact a travesty of brotherly camaraderie to please his imperious mother, who embraces her duty as a carer with the blind purposefulness of a martyr, and his feckless father, who finds refuge in alcohol.

Ajay himself passes through denial, acceptance, self-pity and repulsion, creating narratives of misery in his head, dramatizing them to his friends, and later to his girlfriend Minakshi, before he finally turns to writing fiction as a possible antidote. For much of his youth, the overwhelming feeling in his being is one of oppressive sadness: “I could feel my unhappiness walking beside me, waiting for my breath to return, so that it could climb back inside me," he confesses at one point.

The melancholy that haunts the pages of this novel is a physical entity. You see its shadow stretch between the sentences, but with each encounter, you also recall the reality it emanates from. Unlike the autobiographical fiction of J.M. Coetzee, Sharma does not introduce enough distance between his life and art. As a result, the pleasures one associates with reading fiction—the crafting and unfolding of plot, for instance—are relatively dimmed in his writing by the force of autobiographical truths.

Family Life: Hamish Hamilton, 229 pages, Rs 499
Family Life: Hamish Hamilton, 229 pages, Rs 499

In Family Life, Sharma is invested in recording the daily rhythms of life, each careful detail after the other. He archives every feeling that comes to Ajay, who derives a certain satisfaction from exploring the depths of his cruelty.

In perhaps the most powerful scene, while bathing Birju one morning with his mother, Ajay starts stripping. His mother had been telling him “that she knew I hated him, that whatever I did for him I did because of guilt and not because of love". In retaliation, to prove his mother right—that he, indeed, has no shame—Ajay starts undressing. “We often sought to show that there was no limit to what we would say or do," he explains.

Sharma’s novel may not be particularly ambitious in its structure, but it is not the least hesitant about violating the limits human beings like to impose on their imagination.

Excerpt | Family Life