It has been 14 years since Akhil Sharma published his first, widely acclaimed novel, An Obedient Father. Though its subject matter is very different, Family Life more than fulfils the expectations raised by that grim but compelling story of financial, political and moral corruption in India. Growing up in Delhi in the 1970s, the eight-year-old Ajay Mishra believed that his father ‘had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose.’
Everything changes when Mr Mishra leaves for America in 1978, followed a year later by Ajay, his 12-year-old brother Birju, and their mother. What starts out as a beautifully observed story about the dislocations of immigration is brought up short when Birju suffers catastrophic brain damage as the result of an accident. While Ajay gradually grows up, does well at school, dates girls, goes to Princeton, and embarks on a career as an investment banker, Birju remains immobilised in the family home in suburban New Jersey, unable to speak, see or feed himself, permanently catheterised, and entirely dependent on his parents and brother.
In bare outline the book sounds unbearably bleak. Without diminishing the tragedy at its centre, however, Sharma has produced a novel that is both exhilarating and often very funny. He achieves this partly by the astonishing clarity and economy of his writing, but also because the story is seen entirely from the perspective of Ajay, a perspective skewed by childhood and adolescence.
Sharma is particularly good on the ruthless egotism of children. Ajay had been jealous of his clever older brother, and his immediate reaction upon hearing that Birju has had an accident and will have to go to hospital is ‘irritation’: ‘I was certain our mother would feel bad for him and give him a gift.’ He then wonders whether Birju might die: ‘This last was thrilling. If he was dead, I would get to be the only son.’ Although sympathetic when the full extent of Birju’s incapacity becomes apparent, Ajay is not above exploiting the disaster in his attempts to become more popular at school. So inept is he that this plan badly backfires, and his strategy for acquiring a girlfriend at the age of 15 is similarly cack-handed.
Having untruthfully claimed to have read the kind of novels ‘our teachers told us were for older students’, Ajay takes a biography of Hemingway out of the local library, thinking this an easier option than reading any of the writer’s books. He is duly impressed: ‘I 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.’ Even so, as well as being a devastating account of what a terrible accident does to family life, the book is also about becoming a writer, about transforming the (very) raw material of that life into art.
It is so closely based on the events of his own early life that Sharma has been asked why he wrote a novel rather than a memoir. His answer that ‘one can be more honest in fiction than in a memoir’ sounds paradoxical, but points to the essential distinction between facts and truth. Unsparing but droll, beautifully constructed, and always alert to the arresting details of the everyday, this simply wonderful book entirely vindicates his decision.