Welcome to The Aerogram Book Club, a new feature where Book Club editor Neelanjana Banerjee will be bringing together writers and thinkers to discuss new South Asian books of significance every other month. We launch the Book Club with Akhil Sharma’s Family Life (W. W. Norton). Join in with your thoughts on the book in the comments after reading the discussion between writer and editor Neelanjana Banerjee, technologist, bibliophile, and activist Anirvan Chatterjee and doctoral candidate in comparative literature at UCLA Nasia Anam.
Akhil Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award Stories. A native of Delhi, he lives in New York City. In his highly anticipated second novel, we meet the Mishra family in Delhi in 1978, waiting for the day when they can join their father in America. America to the Mishras is, indeed, everything they could have imagined and more. Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes, leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land. Ajay, the family’s younger son, longs to find his place amid the ruins of his family’s new life.
Neela: When I sat down with Akhil Sharma’s new novel Family Life, I felt — at first — ambivalent about reading another novel centering around Indian immigration and assimilation during the 1970s. For years, I’ve been yearning for our most celebrated South Asian American authors to tell us stories that haven’t been told, to set out on uncharted territory. But my critical resistance caved quickly to Sharma’s gut-wrenchingly precise language.
“[Our] frugality meant that we were sensitive to the physical reality of our world in a way most people no longer are. When my mother bought a box of matches, she had my brother sit at a table and use a razor to split the matches in half. When we had to light several things, we would use the match to set a twist of paper on fire and then use that flame to light the stove, the incense stick, the mosquito coil. This close engagement with things meant that we were conscious that the wood of a match is soft, that a bit of spit on paper slows down how it burns so one can walk around lighting things.”
I remembered Sharma’s ability to render India and its inhabitants through a sharp lens from his under-read first novel An Obedient Father (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000). That book tells the story of Ram Karan: an overweight, corrupt civil servant whose life unravels under the weight of his sins — primarily that he raped his own daughter, and is just starting to molest his granddaughter. Sharma doesn’t make Karan likeable, but even more than illuminating his complex personal life, shows us how he is just a cog in the giant Indian government machine. Similar to Arvind Adiga’s The White Tiger, I often find myself thinking of An Obedient Father when I’m in India dealing with the daily reality of corruption.
In Family Life, Sharma gives us a more straightforward tale — one of an Indian family who emigrates from Delhi to New York with two sons, aged 8 and 12, in the late 1970s. Just as the family is adjusting to their new life, Birju — the older son — suffers an accident that leaves him severely brain-damaged. The story, told from the perspective of the younger son Ajay, shifts then to be more about how a family, and a community, react to tragedy. Though written as a novel, Sharma admits that this is a loosely fictionalized account of his own life.
Throughout the novel, Ajay — the narrator — keeps us at a distance, usually summarizing the difficult events his family is going through: like dealing with the financial burden of his brother’s condition, and his father’s alcoholism. Sharma draws back the curtain and gives us details that remind the reader that he has been shaping this narrative carefully, protecting us from the truth.But then Sharma draws back the curtain and gives us details that remind the reader that he has been shaping this narrative carefully, protecting us from the truth. For example, after not telling his grade-school friend Michael about Birju’s accident for nearly a year — Ajay begins telling him fantastic stories about his brother. When Michael tires of his obvious lies, Ajay responds with gruesome details about his brother’s care. “To say the horrible truth and to know that I had seen awful things, made me feel that I was strong and Michael was weak.” I felt like Michael in this scene, repulsed by Ajay and what he was telling me, but finally understanding the horrors that this family was going through.
Anirvan and Nasia, along with your own impressions of the novel — I’m interested in whether you think that Family Life was a pleasurable reading experience, and how much that matters for you in books that you read? I am asking because of Sharma’s insistence on writing into: “The constant despair of living with someone ill, of having no hope,” as he calls it in an interview with Mohsin Hamid. I feel moved by the book, deeply so, but there is very little light in it, which is confirmed by the “heavy” ending. I appreciate this choice, but I just wanted to recognize it.
Anirvan: I was a more ambitious reader in the past, but today, I do most of my book-a-week reading on the train to and from work, where books compete with my email inbox for my time. As my attention span’s shrunk, I increasingly read only for pleasure. So, to answer the question: Family Life hit the mark.
Neela, like you, I feel like I’ve read enough South Asian American coming of age stories. To me, Family Life is most interesting as an illness narrative. South Asian American lit is littered with writing from inside the world of healthcare and medical research — To me, Family Life is most interesting as an illness narrative.Abraham Verghese, Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Sandeep Jauhar. It feels relatively rare to see things from the point of view of patients or caregivers. Sharma’s characters contend with the chaos of a medical tragedy, the day-to-day difficulties of managing and providing care, and the challenge of framing their story in a way that leaves them some room for hope and dignity at home and in their communities.
I identified with Ajay’s awkward attempts to come to terms with his brother’s accident as he comes of age, but his parents felt much more like people I might know, and it’s particularly difficult for me to read them as only fictional characters as they try to navigate a family tragedy with a public semblance of grace. And when they find themselves faltering, Sharma unsentimentally captures that moment when their community can finally see the gap between who they aspire to be on the outside and the damaged people they are behind closed doors. For me, it’s scenes like this which made Family Life worth reading.
Nasia: Ok, Neela, I hope you’ll allow me to be my literary critic self when I address the question of reading and pleasure. In the 1970s, Roland Barthes split texts into two categories (I don’t necessary fully subscribe to these, but they are useful) — those that give the reader an experience either of pleasure (plaisir) or ecstasy (jouissance). Pleasurable texts are those that are fairly straightforward reads. They are satisfying without demanding much work on the reader’s part. Ecstatic texts are ones in which there are gaps, fissures, and spaces that the reader must work to fill. The ecstasy comes from the experience of exchange and interaction one feels.
Family Life, at the start, seems as though it will be a straightforward, pleasurable text. As Anirvan and Neela have both pointed out, the narrative of the young South Asian immigrant’s coming of age, struggling through harrowing school life, and balancing the sometimes crushing expectations of the traditional family are all familiar tropes now. When I started Family Life, I thought I would breeze through, since I have not only read that story numerous times, I’ve also lived it. But just as Anirvan mentioned, Sharma’s novel breaks new ground in its subject matter. That is, what happens when a family is doubly alienated and shunned by the host society, both because of their culture and because of illness and disability?
What struck me most was the voice of the narrator. Sharma’s vigilance in keeping Ajay’s He so deftly depicts limitations of being a twelve-year-old navigating a family tragedy, and of also having to be the conduit between your immigrant family and the American world at large.perspective that of an adolescent is immensely affecting. He so deftly depicts limitations of being a twelve-year-old navigating a family tragedy, and of also having to be the conduit between your immigrant family and the American world at large. These are limitations of knowledge, and also of power. Ajay’s helplessness is palpable, but Sharma also grants him a keen awareness only a child can have — the ability to see clearly where his family is willfully blind. This to me is a generous and very genuine way of rendering Ajay’s voice.
Sharma’s depiction of the medical world — of hospital wards, of insurance injustice, of caretaking regimens — is also very striking. Anirvan is right: it is very rare to read the perspective of the Indian-American patient. The ways ritual and medicine are sometimes complimentary and sometimes at devastating odds was also so fascinating, and rung so true. Family Life dredged up many locked-up memories for me. Tragedy befell a number of my family members and family friends growing up. I felt like I spent a great deal of time in hospitals and waiting rooms as a child, and Ajay’s complex mixture of fear, desperation, and boredom was incredible to read. It was at once familiar and utterly new because I had never thought about articulating these memories. I had never thought of them as a story to tell. I was deeply moved too by Ajay’s response to the tension between hospital life, the intensely religious and ritualized home life, his father’s alcoholism, and his ostracization at school. He dives headfirst into literature. He escapes into Hemingway. Not only Hemingway — essays about Hemingway. I teared up when I read that section; it hit a little close to home. So to answer your question, Neela: no, I don’t think Family Life is a pleasurable text. It is an ecstatic one.
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Nasia Anam is a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at UCLA. Her dissertation project is on novels of South Asian and North African immigration in postwar London and Paris. She lives in Los Angeles.
Anirvan Chatterjee is a bibliophile and tech geek from Berkeley, California. He’s read over 1,500 books in the past two decades, and was the founder and CEO of pioneering used/rare book search engine BookFinder.com.
Neelanjana Banerjee‘s arts journalism has appeared in Colorlines, Fiction Writers Review, HTML Giant, Hyphen, New America Media and more. She is the Managing Editor of Kaya Press, and an editor-at-large for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches writing to young people and adults through artworxLA and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.