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'Being angry is like drinking poison'

May 13, 2014 14:28 IST

Akhil Sharma's novel Family Life is one of the best reviewed novels in years. The former banker, in a fascinating conversation with Arthur J Pais/

Eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju are playing cricket in the streets of Delhi, waiting for the plane tickets that will take them and their mother across half the world into America where their father will welcome them.

America to the Mishras is everything they could have imagined or chosen to see in movies. The excitement and anticipation starts building up very quickly, especially at school.

'Americans clean themselves with paper, not water,' says a classmate of Ajay, the narrator of the novel Family Life.

'In America, they say 'yeah' not yes,' the boy adds.

Ajay does not waste a moment. 'That's nothing,' he asserts. 'On an airplane, the stewardess has to give you whatever you ask for. I'm going to ask for a baby tiger.'

The Mishras are impressed and awestruck. When automatic glass doors open before them, they are not sure they can go through it. Could they have been mistaken for somebody important?

Life is thrilling until Birju hits his head diving into a swimming pool and is severely brain-damaged and suddenly the future is fraught with fear, tension, mistrust and family friction.

Ajay finds himself on his own, and often the recipient of his mother's curses while she turns to desperate and pointless measures to cure her son, and his father becomes an alcoholic. Ajay prays to a god imagining him to be Superman. But will there be a miracle?

Akhil Sharma's second novel in about 13 years, Family Life, is a beguiling treasure of poignant and suspenseful stories and an energetic narration filled with tension and hope. Read the first chapter and see if you can put the book down.

One of the best-reviewed novels in recent months, it made the cover story of the New York Times Book Review.

Sharma, who came to America with his immigrant parents from New Delhi when he was 8 in 1979, and grew up in immigrant pockets in New York and New Jersey, has based much of the book on the upheavals in his family following a swimming pool accident that left his older brother Anup brain dead for nearly 30 years.

'When tragedy occurs, even non-immigrants and non-pious people find themselves turning to their most atavistic selves,' Sharma wrote in an essay for The New York Times's Sunday Review. 'My parents took Anup out of the hospital and brought him to our house. For the next 28 years, until he died, they tried to fix him through faith healing.

Strange men -- not priests or gurus, but engineers, accountants, candy shop owners -- would come to the house and perform bizarre rituals, claiming that god had visited them in a dream and told them of a magical cure that would fix Anup.'

You will find some of these scenes in the novel, too.

Hailed as a 'supreme storyteller' (Philadelphia Inquirer) for his 'cunning, dismaying and beautifully conceived' fiction (New York Times), Sharma is possessed of a narrative voice 'as hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky' (The Nation).

The Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai is among many writers who have admired Family Life.

'Sharma is a rare master at charting the frailties and failures, the cruelties and rages,' she wrote.

'The altering moods and contradictions, whims and perversities of a tragic cast of characters. But this most unsentimental writer leaves the reader, finally and surprisingly, moved,' Desai noted.

A former banker and now a literature professor at Rutgers University, Sharma studied at Princeton, Stanford and Harvard.

His first novel An Obedient Father is being re-issued by his new publisher W W Norton. It centres on a corrupt official in New Delhi who lives with his widowed daughter and his little granddaughter. He may seem to be a bumbling, and sad person, but Kanak Ram is also a man eaten up by a secret.

The novel was a winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Given the glowing reviews, he has every reason to feel happy but he also remembers, like he did in a New Yorker blog, that the book took over 12 years to write and rewrite. And he has wondered if it was the right investment of his time.

'I once met a man who told me how, soon after he started dating a woman, she became sick,' he wrote in the blog. 'He found himself going to hospitals with her and helping her in a way that his affection for her would not have justified. Eventually, she died. He told me, "I am glad that someone was with her, but I don't think I should have been that person".'

'I sort of feel the same way about the time I spent writing Family Life. I think the book is strong. I think it does things with style that I have never seen before. If someone gave me a copy and I began reading it, I would have a hard time putting it down... I just wish 12-and-a-half years of my life hadn't gone into creating it.'

Arthur J Pais/ met Akhil Sharma, a slightly built man with a contemplative look and warm demeanour, on a balmy day recently at the entrance to the Central Park in New York. The conversation was continued through e-mail.

To buy Akhil Sharma's Family Life, please click here!

Please click NEXT to read the interview...

'I resist being called an immigrant novelist, I am proud of being Indian'

May 13, 2014 14:28 IST
The cover of Family Life; Inset: Akhil Sharma

What did the writing of Family Life do to you?

It took me 12-and-a-half years to write the book. I changed during this period, of course. It is hard though to tell how much of that change was due to writing the book and how much was due to time passing.

One thing that writing this book did was that it made me so unhappy over so many years that I decided that whenever there was an opportunity for happiness I would grab it.

You know everybody has to deal with fools. Nobody can avoid this. Now, instead of trying to prove myself right, I try to go around the fool.

You went through a very difficult childhood, but as we speak I do not sense any bitterness...

I had a difficult childhood, but I am not living in my childhood now. Right now, I have a wonderful life. I have a nice home. I have a wife who loves me. I am glad my parents are as healthy as elderly people can be.

Being angry is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.

This novel is just about 218 pages. Yet you have distilled years of a difficult life and there is black humour in it as well as delicate humour. What was the revision process like?

I don't so much revise as rewrite.

Once a draft is done, I open up a blank document and start writing again. The reason I do this is so that I am forced to only put down the things, which are so important that they are unforgettable.

To me, one of the tests of a good book is that the book can be shaken and nothing falls out.

There is something very specific that I am aiming for and I am always testing to see if what I want is being achieved.

What I want is a novel that is irresistible. For me, that is the primary goal: A novel that is irresistible.

I want people who don't normally read to pick up the book and become so intensely curious that they will keep reading.

The other thing that I want is that I want the characters and situations to be full of life. I want the characters to feel real. I want the rooms and streets to feel real.

How do you work?

I wrote almost every day for the 12-and-a-half years. I would write for five hours. I would write with a stopwatch. My goal was to write for five hours. If the phone rang and I answered it, I would stop the stopwatch. If I checked my e-mail, I would stop the stopwatch.

I ended up writing 7,000 pages over the course of the decade plus that I worked on the book.

Since this novel is substantially grown out of your own life, were you tempted to make it a memoir at any time?

I thought about this, of course. I don't really know how to write a memoir while I do know how to write a novel.

For example, in a memoir I wouldn't be able to use dialogue since I don't remember what people said 20 years ago, whereas in a novel I can.

Also, a memoir, to me, must meet the standards of objective truth. I can't use composite characters. I need to include things which don't interest me, but which were important parts of my experience as a child.

For example, a lot of my childhood was spent being bored and I don't have any interest in trying to represent boredom.

What are some of the things you invented for the novel?

I don't want to talk about this because telling what is or what is not will affect how readers will read the book.

The dedication reads, 'To my brave and faithful parents. In what way were they brave and faithful?

They were brave in that they did an enormously difficult thing. They took care of my brother for 30 years; he died only two years ago. To take care of a sick child for so long requires enormous fortitude. It also requires a faith in trying to do the right thing.

You said in an interview with the novelist Mohsin Hamid that writing about the constant despair of living with someone ill, of having no hope could be boring and kills the reader's interest in the other strands of the narrative. Would you talk a little on this?

A book needs to be full of variety. It also needs to contain hope and joy. If that isn't the case, the reader begins to want to turn away from the narrative.

Also, it is important to remember that every day includes some joy and if that joy is not being included then the book is in some way fundamentally untrue.

You were an investment banker for years. What made you give it up and move into far less lucrative field as teaching literature?

I didn't like banking and I loved books. I like earning money, but I don't care about money tremendously.

Being an autobiographical novel, it surely unfolds in the Indian immigrant family, and yet it transcends any limited space.

Yes, there are things in the novel which can only happen in an Indian or South Asian family but overall, the book should strike a chord with any reader.

Everybody has to deal with illness. Everybody has already dealt with illness or will deal with it. Also, everybody wonders about what it means to be loyal.

How much should I sacrifice for the people who are important for me? When does my sacrificing for one person begin causing harm to others?

I also want to be clear that while I resist being called an immigrant novelist, I am proud of being Indian and proud of my community.

My issue with being called an immigrant novelist or this book being considered an immigrant novel is that when Americans say that a book is an Indian novel or an immigrant novel, that term sometimes means that Americans think that what is relevant for immigrants is not important or relevant to them.

I think a good book is relevant to everyone.

I also want to point out that Philip Roth and Saul Bellow were called Jewish novelists and William Faulkner was called a Southern novelist. These sort of terms reveal more about the person using them then about the author who is being discussed.

What was your reaction to the miracle workers who came to your house and sought to cure your brother? And those who looked at your mother as a living saint, an embodiment of sacrifice?

I felt upset with the miracle workers and I also felt hurt and frightened that my mother was allowing these people into the house.

It seemed clear to me that my brother was not going to get better and the fact that she was acting irrationally made me question her judgment about other things.

I also felt that her reasoning was impossible to argue against, that if a cure causes no harm and is free, then why not try. Because I understood her reasoning and yet felt frightened by the fact that she was doing something that was pointless and which I found crazy and humiliating, I felt twisted up inside.

It seems important to note that miracle workers are not unique to our community and that someone who suffers from a grave illness might end up looking everywhere for help.

My mother was viewed as a saint and it makes sense to me that she was. Here is a mother doing something heroic. If we don't admire somebody like her, who are we going to admire?

Your brother Anup lived severely brain damaged for nearly three decades. Seeing him in that state did you ever fear if something tragic could happen to you?

Not then. Not when I was a teenager and I went to college. But as I have grown older, I have gotten more and more scared. I have friends who have had strokes, heart attacks, who have had car accidents.

I see my body as fragile in a way that I had not as a young man.

To buy Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father, please click here!

India Abroad