Akhil Sharma: "I'm not sure it was the right investment of my time". Photograph: Tim Knox/Guardian News & Media.
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The son also rises: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

It took Akhil Sharma 13 years to write his second novel: a bildungsroman with a family tragedy at its core. It was worth the wait, writes Philip Maughan.

For 13 years, Akhil Sharma failed to tell his life story. Born in Delhi in 1971, he moved with his family to New York when he was eight years old, was accepted into Princeton University at 18 and later became an investment banker. Soon he was earning an annual bonus of over half a million dollars. He was, to use an expression clipped from Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March, “set up like the July fourth rocket”, powered by raw intelligence and the immigrant’s determination to succeed.

The same is true of Ajay Mishra, Sharma’s fictional counterpart in his new “autobiographical novel”, Family Life. For both Ajay and Sharma, tragedy powers achievement. When Sharma was ten, his older brother Anup (named Birju in the book) suffered a horrific accident. It changed Sharma’s family irrevocably and became the emotional source of his honest, steel-eyed fiction.

The author’s debut, An Obedient Father, was published to great acclaim in 2001. It told the story of a corrupt education official, Ram Karan, who raped his daughter when she was 12 and lives cooped up with her and her daughter Asha in a Delhi slum. Its genius was to render such monstrosity intelligible, keeping the reader within range of forgiveness and compassion as Ram awaits his overdue punishment.

“I remember Gary Shteyngart saying to me that there was a sense that I was going to be the one,” Sharma recently told the Guardian, “but then I just vanished.” In the 13 years that followed, Sharma wrote and rewrote his second book, struggling to find a language with which to tell an equally upsetting story, much closer to his own experience. “I’m not sure it was the right investment of my time,” he wrote earlier this year, on the day the book was finally published in the US.

Ajay is constantly overshadowed by Bir­ju, who is doted on by their mother, Shuba, and has been accepted to study at the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. The dynamic within this tenement-dwelling Indian-American family shifts, however, when Birju jumps into a swimming pool and cracks his head on its concrete floor. He dwells at the bottom, stunned, for three minutes, only to emerge catastrophically brain-damaged and confined to a hospital bed for the rest of his life.

In An Obedient Father, the Karan family served as a microcosm for all that troubled India in the early 1990s: corruption, inefficiency, political unrest. Likewise in America, the Mishras acquire a kind of symbolism, battling the nation’s ills on a domestic scale: from avarice and addiction to the dire state of health care for the poor. “It was as if we represented something,” Ajay recalls, “love of family, sacrificing for others.” The Mishras, renowned for their piety and insight, are consulted by their Indian neighbours. “This is love, animal,” a Hindu woman scolds her son, who wants to eat meat “like the blacks, like the Spanish”, as Ajay sits and dutifully rubs his brother’s feet.

In the end the family collapses under the weight of Birju’s needs. They are visited by a series of “miracle workers” who dance, pray and coat the paralysed teen in turmeric powder, all the while believing him to be in a coma. This is a lie told by Shuba Mishra so that the family will not be cast out from the “community” – though eventually they are, at least until young Ajay is accepted into Princeton. Mr Mishra drinks so much he risks being fired from his job as a government clerk, while Shuba vents her disappointment at her second son. “If Birju were all right, I would tell you to get out. I’d tell you to leave right now,” she says. “Go with your stupid grades and die.” Shocking as it is, amid the bitterness there lurks a sharp, wry comedy. “I was not going to let her have the last word,” Ajay decides. “How can they be stupid when they’re so high?”

The anecdotal quality of the book aligns it with tough, funny memoirs by Dave Eggers, Jeanette Winterson and David Sedaris. The style, however – neat, spare, almost without texture – owes more to Chekhov and Hemingway. Outright metaphors are rare. When they do occur, they magnificently capture a child’s-eye view of things. When Ajay first sees his brother in critical condition at the hospital, Birju looks “like he was in the middle of many clotheslines”.

As the Mishras watch their second son’s ascension into an alien world of wealth and status, Shuba whispers to Birju: “Your brother can eat pain. He can sit all day at his desk and eat pain.” For all the anguish that has defined his journey, there are moments of exquisite tenderness as well.

“Brother,” Ajay says as he bathes Birju, “I have never met anyone as lazy as you.” His mother laughs, casting an approving smile on them both. “Tell him, ‘I’m not lazy,’” she says, “‘I’m a king.’”

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State