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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.

Akhil Sharma.
Akhil Sharma: "I'm not sure it was the right investment of my time". Photograph: Tim Knox/Guardian News & Media.

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.’”