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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit