I was transfixed reading Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. The semi-autobiographical novel is full and heavy with grief and comedy following the story of the Mishtra family from the perspective of Ajay, the youngest son, as they cope not only with immigrating to America from India but the tragic loss of their eldest child.
Birju becomes brain damaged when he hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool the summer before he is supposed to begin studying at the Bronx High School of Science. Those three minutes shatter Ajay’s world as he struggles to understand his family’s new life fending off insurance agents, suing the swimming pool facilities, dealing with intrusive neighbours, helping his father battle alcoholism, and the day-to-day care of Birju (with all of the drool, feces, and urine no one likes to think about). Ajay prays almost every second when Birju is first in the hospital. as per his mother’s wishes, whether it is God, Krishna, or Superman, giving childlike insight to the impossible question of why tragedies happen.
This is not just an immigration story. Issues of postcolonialism, racism, and “exoticism” are inevitably there, as in life, but they roll by quietly in the background, a fact which Sharma winks at with charm with a nod to Hemingway. When Ajay deconstructs Hemingway’s writing as a way of becoming famous he sums up the classical writer’s approach to race neatly: “I knew that I should just push all the exotic things to the side as if they didn’t matter.” Family Life leaves capturing India on paper to the side in order to focus on the human experiences of Ajay and his family, but their cultural experience is not covered up or abandoned anyway. His father is the only Indian in the Alcoholics Anonymous group Ajay can’t help but point out. He finds the complex social values within the small Indian community in New Jersey, with its many ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles,’ too difficult to write in English. He sees the difference between the newly immigrated Indian children and the ones who sit with white kids in the cafeteria.
Hemingway is a major inspiration for Ajay as a writer, and for Sharma himself, as he notes, “I began to see my family’s pain as belonging in a story.” The novel took 9 years to complete and is nearly a complete autobiographical account of his own family’s experience of losing his older brother, Anup. I first encountered Sharma’s story in the New Yorker piece “Surrounded by Sleep” a precursor to Family Life with different names for the characters and encapsulating the first 6 months after the accident. A large portion of the novel was also published by Granta under the title “Mother and Son“. This is clearly a story which has been revisited to the novel’s benefit.
Another excellent read for the holidays, Family Life is about people, grief, what it means to be alive, and what it means not to be. This in an important book for everyone.