A Literary Journey Characterised by Tenderness and Grit

Akhil Sharma, the India-born American author has won the prestigious International Dublin Literary Award for his autobiographical novel, Family Life, a book he once almost gave up on.

Akhil Sharma. Credit: Twitter.

Akhil Sharma. Credit: Twitter.

Upon learning this month that his autobiographical novel Family Life had won the €100,000 International Dublin Literary Award — the world’s richest prize for a single novel — Akhil Sharma exhaled, thinking: “Thank God, another disappointment averted.”  He received the news in a hotel room in Guatemala.

It makes sense that the India-born, Manhattan-based American novelist, journalist and professor of creative writing remains ever alert to bad news.  When he was eight years old and his family moved from Delhi to New York in the 1970s brimming with hope, they could hardly have imagined that his older brother, Anup, the character Birju Mishra in the book, would soon be catastrophically disabled in a swimming pool accident: left permanently brain damaged, blind, unable to speak and requiring round-the-clock care for the rest of his life. (He died just four years ago). Family Life puts the prolonged and harrowing ordeal under fluorescent lights.

The author of an award-winning first novel, An Obedient Father, Sharma spent 13 years wrestling Family Life onto the page, a process he has likened to “chewing gravel”. A few years in, despairing and overweight, he says, he gave up on the project. Then he started running inhuman distances every day and, accessing the grit that he’s used to succeed at pretty much everything he’s ever set his mind to, he staggered across page 218 and handed in the manuscript to his editor, Jill Bialosky at Norton.

It’s hard to believe that he was ever out of shape. Sharma, who doesn’t touch alcohol and watches his cholesterol, is a slip of a man, always tidily dressed in slim-cut garments that he has custom-made on trips to Asia. He favours pinks and florals.

While he may still question whether completing the novel was worth the emotional toll, his effort floored the Dublin prize judges, leaving them with “the sense that while reading, you were actually at the core of human experience and what it is to be alive”. Sharma’s book, they concluded, marks “the highest form of achievement in literature. Few manage it. This novel does. Triumphantly. Luminously. Movingly”.

A universal narrative

As singular and punishing as Sharma’s personal experience was, his narrative — scrubbed clean of platitudes, sentimentality and big words — speaks directly to readers the world over. The author is emotionally generous and ruthlessly honest in his report from the murky moral swamps of childhood. Early in the book the narrator, Ajay Mishra, relays a Delhi memory that could be easily transplanted to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu: “I used to think that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose.” Though a Hindu by birth, after Birju’s accident the Americanised Ajay prays to a hilariously familiar globalised deity: “God looked like Clark Kent. He was wearing a gray cardigan and slacks.”

After winning the Dublin award, Sharma told me, “For me the very best things in life, the most spiritual things, tend to be next to buffoonery. This is an absolute characteristic of life. I want to fill my books full of life. For me this quality of life is what I am seeking and it comes through time and revision.”

Sharma’s young protagonist exhibits the full range of impulses that make us human. Before the accident, when the Mishras get their plane tickets for America, Ajay lords it over the neighbours on his Delhi street, showing off his new luggage tags to a less fortunate child. Ajay, realising that his emigration makes him exceptional, wants a response from the kid: “The boy was boxed in. If he refused to look, he would be revealing his jealousy and so appear weak.” Then Ajay rubs it in for good measure. “I learned that everybody in America has their own speedboat,” he tells his victim, knowing this to be complete BS.

The cover of Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Credit: Faber.

The cover of Family Life by Akhil Sharma. Credit: Faber.

Much of the novel is filtered, in this manner, through a childish mind. Then we see Ajay starting to grow up and gain a foothold in adult reality. Some time after Birju is brought home from the nursing facility to live out his existence in the family’s suburban New Jersey home, Ajay’s father starts hitting the bottle. To escape the tension that escalates between his parents in a household where he is now effectively the only child, Ajay retreats to his room to read Hemingway, whose characters are able to drink deeply, he notes, without ugly consequences. “Their drinking appeared false,” as when “cartoon characters fall of cliffs without being injured”.

Clearly, Sharma was an astute young reader of people and of texts. But having shown his precocity, instead of congratulating himself, the author goes on to reveal his own, inescapable adolescent spite and pettiness: “Spotting this lie in Hemingway made me feel superior to him, and this bit of superiority led me to feel anger and contempt and being angry was pleasurable,” he writes in notably Hemingway-esque rhythms.

Sharma’s autobiography suggests that he started inventing his authorial identity before he quite fathomed his own ambition to become a writer. “I often lied about my reading. The books I liked were science fiction and fantasy, books where things were not as complicated and unsatisfying as real life.” And yet, “I claimed to have read more famous books… the ones our teachers told us were for older students… ”

Ajay reads a biography of young Hemingway: “I could then more effectively pretend to have read him.” He “thought about how wonderful it would be to be a writer and get attention and get to travel and not have to be a doctor or an engineer”.

Sharma is hard on himself, seeming to record, via Ajay, every uncharitable or selfish thought that ever passed through his mind when he was a kid. But he also reveals his compassion. After Ajay’s father undergoes treatment for his alcoholism, “Two days passed without drinking and then three. I began to feel a strange exhilaration.”  Ajay “continued worrying that my father would drink. When he got home and went up the stairs, I watched to see if he put his hand on the railing, because he used to do this for support when he was drunk.”

It’s a scene that must strike home for any child of an alcoholic, anywhere in the world.

An atypical ‘immigrant novel’

But in addition to its universality, Sharma’s novel also offers a culturally specific kind of pathos. It’s filled with revelations for non-Indian readers: the almost mystical aura of suffering that hovers over Ajay’s household draws charlatan healers and fellow immigrant Indians from his community who seem to believe they can benefit from the holiness of his family’s martyrdom.  Then Ajay excels at academics and Indian parents bring their children around to soak up the brainy kid’s mojo. Indians eat, pray and aspire in a particular way, and the distinction was perhaps more pronounced when Sharma was growing up in New Jersey, before globalisation, than it is now that Indians are among the most academically and professionally accomplished minority groups in the country.

In the novel, mostly set in the early 1980s, the cultural disconnect between India and America sometimes muddles young Ajay’s thinking: “In the past, when I had thought about having a dog, I had imagined that possessing one would make me white, like one of those boys on TV who hugged their pet when unhappy,” Sharma writes. When Ajay falls for a girl at school, image management becomes another burden, as he worries about his family freaking her out.

So, like many industrious and gifted immigrants, Ajay (read Akhil) leans into a future that will take him away from his parents and their foreign ways: Princeton (where he studies with famous writers), Harvard Law School, investment banking and the ability to send his mother generous monthly checks — from lower Manhattan where he works like a Trojan and earns piles of money, to the outer galaxy of Edison, New Jersey, where his parents are stuck in perpetual mourning.

Early in the book the narrator, Ajay Mishra, relays a Delhi memory that could be easily transplanted to Kalamazoo or Timbuktu: “I used to think that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose.”

Family Life is not what Americans commonly call an “immigrant novel”. There is no sense that the protagonist is redeemed or damaged in any internal way by his new land. (It’s likely that Sharma would have been a famous novelist even if he’d never left India). Yet the book is inescapably about comparative privilege. In Delhi, the Mishras were impoverished by any American standard. Ajay sees hot water run from a tap for the first time when he arrives in New York. He is awed by the largesse of a New York City public library that will allow him to check out as many books as he wants, instead of the one-book limit of an Indian library. He’s thrown off by his father’s offer to pay him and his older brother 50 cents for every book they read – he’s a little worried that his father has gone native in America — a proper Indian father would simply beat his sons for not reading, he thinks.

Back in India, Ajay’s family had saved the cotton packed into pill bottles and used it to make wicks for lamps. The kids had been tasked with cutting matches in half to stretch the commodity. When the Mishras got the coveted plane tickets to a new life in America, relatives descended and laid claim to the furniture that would be left behind in Ajay’s dust.

Yet American ease comes with insults. Ajay is intimidated and bullied by classmates. Even without the misfortune of his brother’s accident, he would have felt vaguely damaged, ashamed of his home life. As they take their evening walk through their neighbourhood, Ajay and his mother are subjected to ethnic slurs hurled by idiots driving past in cars. The pool accident itself is a confusion (or perhaps a racist form of negligence) in which Birju is left to languish at the bottom of the swimming pool: the lifeguard on duty doesn’t see him, or fails to act, and no CPR is performed in time. That forensic aspect of the story is never resolved.

The fulfilment of a promise

Akhil Sharma is a soft-spoken and gracious man who chooses his words carefully and tends to make others the centre of attention, asking thoughtful questions about their work, health and interests. (I have known him for years, through my Delhi-born husband). Literary celebrity is unlikely to change Sharma. Teaching, writing for the New Yorker and other magazines and now working on a collection of short stories, he earns “enough to support myself. I don’t give myself credit for it though because my fears of becoming helpless are not taken away. This is obviously wacky and I have to talk myself out of my lunacy”. (The character Ajay, even after becoming an investment banker, won’t shell out $2 for gloves on an arctic day because it seems profligate.) Sharma maintains “the belief that if I have money I will be free from fear. Partially this fear of not having enough money comes from my brother being sick and the pressure of affording his very expensive care”. The author went to Wall Street after law school, he says, “because of this fear and not that Wall Street cultivated a desire for money”.

Sharma is married to an attorney, Lisa Swanson, a tall Midwesterner who appears, standing serenely by his side, to embody a certain desi image of American womanhood. He considers himself to be fully American. Yet the author, who says he loves India, brings an international perspective to all he does. Even without the Dublin award money he had plans to fund a school for girls in his homeland. He is also involved with City of Asylum, a Pittsburgh-based organisation that provides housing and other support in the US for writers from countries where they are censored and intimidated.

Sharma dislikes lazy literary classifications that lump together books by writers born outside of the US as some sort of exotic genre.  “People refer to me as a South Asian writer or an immigrant writer,” Sharma told me. “But they called Saul Bellow and Philip Roth Jewish writers. Winning this prize won’t change how people categorise me because the category comes from a certain intellectual sloppiness and that is unlikely to change.” Asked which Indian writers he admires most he mentions: “Upamanyu Chatterjee and Kiran Desai among the living writers come immediately to mind. Daya Pawar was a genius. Manto was a genius in a completely different way.”

Many critics are calling Sharma a genius these days.

“You’ll be so famous that fame will be a problem,” that cardigan-clad God told Ajay when he asked what his future would be.

“I want Birju’s accident to lead to something,” Ajay told his higher power. And God replied: “He won’t be forgotten.” The success of Family Life fulfils that promise.