India Today - - LEISURE -

Akhil Sharma’s de­but, An Obe­di­ent Father, pub­lished at the turn of the cen­tury, was hard and bril­liant, a black di­a­mond. His limpid prose, the un­speak­able grief suf­fered by so many of his char­ac­ters, the mean­ness of his chiefly north In­dian mi­lieu and the star­tling vul­ner­a­bil­ity of his work is a pro­foundly un­set­tling mix. If An Obe­di­ent Father didn’t win the au­di­ence and the plau­dits it de­served, Sharma’s sec­ond, Fam­ily Life, has moved him to the front line of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can au­thors.

A Life of Ad­ven­ture and De­light is his first col­lec­tion of short sto­ries. The work ranges from the mid-1990s, when the Prince­ton and Har­vard ed­u­cated Sharma was an in­vest­ment banker, up till the present. Many of these sto­ries were pub­lished in The New Yorker. But In­di­ans find Sharma less palat­able than Amer­ica’s de facto

ar­biter of lit­er­ary taste. He writes about In­di­ans and In­dia the way Pa­trick Mc­Cabe writes about small-town Ire­land, with an eye for hypocrisy and the hor­ror that re­sults from it.

Speak­ing on the phone from New York, Sharma de­scribes how he re­sists think­ing too much about his past. He moved from In­dia to the US with his fam­ily when he was eight. As in Fam­ily Life, Sharma’s older brother, the pride of his fam­ily, hav­ing gained ad­mis­sion to a se­lec­tive New York pub­lic school, hits his head on the ce­ment of a pool and lies un­seen and un­helped un­der­wa­ter for three min­utes, enough time to suf­fer other kids,” he says. “I was, un­til af­ter col­lege, un­com­fort­able in my own skin.”

Writ­ing was a way of “manag­ing anx­i­ety, balling it up”. That anx­i­ety is com­mon to many of Sharma’s pro­tag­o­nists. In the open­ing story, ‘Cos­mopoli­tan’, Gopal Mau­rya’s wife and daugh­ter have aban­doned him. In an­other, a young boy’s mother turns to al­co­hol, re­tir­ing to her room to drink wine and eat bags of potato chips: “...there was the stench. The smell of vomit, urine, and shit was such that it did not seem think­able that a hu­man be­ing ate there, slept there.” Self-degra­da­tion is a typ­i­cal char­ac­ter­is­tic. The ti­tle story opens with the pro­tag­o­nist be­ing ar­rested for hir­ing a pros­ti­tute: “[Gau­tama] hoped to have as much sex as pos­si­ble... but he also be­lieved that any In­dian girl who had sex be­fore mar­riage... was in some way depraved and foul.”

Un­sym­pa­thetic though many of Sharma’s char­ac­ters might be, they are all search­ing for love, to be­come bet­ter peo­ple through love. In the long­est, and best, story in the col­lec­tion, newly mar­ried Anita feels an im­mense but fleet­ing love for her hus­band, Ra­jin­der. But can we re­pair our­selves through our love for others? Is hell other peo­ple, or is it just that other peo­ple can­not be the lifeboats on which we seek refuge and respite from our­selves? At the end of ‘Cos­mopoli­tan’, Gopal has, through his need­i­ness seem­ingly alien­ated his lover, his next door neigh­bour Mrs Shaw. “We are made who we are,” Gopal re­flects, “by the dust and cor­ro­sion and dents and un­flag­ging hearts. Why should we need any­thing else to fall in love?” Armed with this in­sight, he shaves, brushes his teeth and rings Mrs Shaw’s door­bell. “[When she] saw him, Mrs Shaw drew back as if she were afraid.”

Sharma is a mas­ter of this sort of scene, part men­ac­ing, part comic, part hope­ful, mov­ing and, yet, im­bued with so much sad­ness. We are self-de­lud­ing, self-de­ceiv­ing. But how else, Sharma asks, like Sa­muel Beck­ett, do we sur­vive? How else do we go on?

—Shougat Das­gupta

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