Family Life by Akhil Sharma
Imagine the excitement of going to America from Delhi to live. Even though life in India was comfortable and full of cricket, America is the dream destination for nine-year-old Ajay’s accountant father. First, his father went, found a job, set up home; then a year later, he sent one-way tickets for his wife and two sons. At first Ajay brags about the tickets to the other children queuing at the milk shop each morning, but then the truth sinks in – that he’ll be leaving his grandparents and everyone else he knows. They also won’t be taking much with them:
Among the things that remained was my plastic bucket of toys. My mother said that I could just leave it behind in the apartment. … I decided to give away my toys.
On our last morning in India, I took the bucket with me to the milk shop. When I saw the crowd of boys, shoving and pushing on the sidewalk, I felt embarrassed. I wanted the boys to remember me, and yet in the past, I had tried to make them feel bad.
“Will you take something?” I said…
That night, my mother’s younger brother arrived to take us to the airport.(p21)
Their new home is a one-bedroom apartment in Queens; the bathroom has both hot water and toilet paper. Ajay and older brother Birju begin to settle in despite speaking little English, although Ajay is bullied a little at first. Television and the library make up for that a little. Ajay’s parents are concentrating on Birju though – trying to get him into a top High School, Ajay feels left out. Then on the day that Birju’s letter of acceptance comes through, he has an accident. Hitting his head on the bottom of a pool, he was underwater for three minutes.
The American Dream is shattered for the family. Ajay’s mother spends almost all her time at the hospital, then nursing home where Birju remains in a brain-damaged vegetative state. She refuses to believe he won’t recover, but tells people Birju is in a coma for more sympathy. Ajay’s father starts to drink, and Ajay is more forgotten than ever.
This all sounds terribly sad and gloomy – you know it can’t end well for Birju. However Ajay loves his parents and is a dutiful son who also tries hard at school hoping for eventual recognition, and he is a wonderful character who is actually very funny too. I’m not trying to make out that this novel is a comedy, but you have to have a sense of gallows humour to survive this kind of tragedy. In that, it reminded me a lot of Cathy Rentzenbrink’s amazing memoir The Last Act of Love.
This short novel was as uplifting as it was heart-breaking, but it was also fascinating for its portrayal of Indian life in America. Sharma went on to win The Folio Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. Sharma’s unshowy prose and charming narrator in Ajay completely won me over and I raced through this novel, enjoying it very much indeed. (9/10)
Source: Own copy
Akhil Sharma, Family Life (Faber, 2014) paperback, 224 pages.