Family Life is Sharma’s second novel, and unlike his first, An Obedient Father, which was set in India, Family Lifeis a story of Indian immigrants to America. A middle-class, Delhi family, the Mishras, migrate to New York when their father, an accountant, manages to secure a job, and subsequently, visas for his family in the late 1970s. Life in America begins well for the Mishras, but after less than two years, tragedy strikes when Birju, the elder of two sons in the family, has an accident and ends up brain damaged and paralysed.
The family struggles to cope, quarrel incessantly amongst themselves, each separately struggles with their own demons, and the father becomes an alcoholic. The story is told through the view point of the youngest Mishra, Ajay, who is deeply conflicted within himself, alternately constricted by guilt and duty, but also by fueled with ambition and desire for personal fulfillment. It is a tale of heroic family sacrifices, made sometimes unwillingly, unheroically and even begrudgingly; it weaves the occasional (very occasional!) bright threads of kindnesses and unity into a grim set of daily struggles and ugliness; it depicts frailty and resilience fiercely intertwined; ultimately, it offers us a cast of deeply wounded and deeply flawed characters.
Moving from Delhi to the US at the age of 8, Ajay’s measuring stick and point of reference for comparisons, is always India and Indian culture. There are astute observations of American life from Indian perspectives, and both cultures end up severely critiqued and emerge looking rather foolish. It is as if juxtaposition of the two ways of life only ends up revealing the absurdity of both. In fact, sprinkled throughout this novel are slightly contemptuous accounts of how Indians behave in America, in overblown, ridiculous, seemingly backward and provincial ways. For example, after Birju’s accident, many of the Indian immigrant community come to the Mishra’s house to ask for blessings; the absurdity of this practise is underlined by Sharma with an acerbic observation: “It is common among Indians to look at someone who is suffering and sacrificing and think that that person is noble and holy.” (p131)
This particular style of writing is distinctively Sharma’s, as is the consciousness, immediately and recognizably so from his previous novel. It is a terse, spare, but strangely luminous writing style, imparting bleakness with apparent simplicity of form, surface observations underlain with profundity. While appearing on one level to be as disingenuous as a child, on another level, it communicates volumes unwritten. Although the teenaged Ajay is not the villainous protagonist of Sharma’s debut novel - Ram Karan the pedophile and corrupt civil servant – the two protagonists nevertheless share a surprisingly similar mental landscape – both seek gratification, both seek praise and laudatory attention, both reveal baser motives underlying even seemingly good actions. Both protagonists are also exceptionally self-aware, and able to perceive their own hypocrisies and attempted self-delusions, and point out their double dealing with the world. Compare these passages, for example:
Ajay: “Having received the tickets to America: “I came up to a boy and pressed my hands together before me ‘Namaste,’ I said. The boy looked at me strangely. I know it was odd to speak so formally to someone my own age, but I felt that being excessively proper would make me even more special; not only was I going to America but I was polite and humble.” […] I spoke again. “I learned that everybody in America has their own speedboat” Nobody had told me any such thing. As I said this, though, it felt true. “Brother, I can’t swim. I hope I don’t drown.” To be modest and to also be leaving for America made me feel like I was wonderful.” (Family Life, 2014: p13)
Ram Karan: “Weeping was comforting. A part of me reasoned that because I was crying and penitent, God could not have let Anita see what I was doing. […] Whatever happened, Anita needed to stay with me because she had no money. Her poverty should keep her from confronting me. Then I noticed how my mind was working, and shame filled me. […] From the shame came the idea of going to my village and finding the pundit to make sure he was in Delhi tomorrow. I would be doing something good and God would protect me because of this. Going to Beri also meant one day of not having to see Anita.” (An Obedient Father, 2002: 64-65)
As Lorin Stein of Paris Review writes, he “strips his characters bare”.
Sharma’s writing is remarkable for managing to transport the reader right into the mindscape of its protagonists, mercilessly exposing vanity, superficiality, selfishness, low self-esteem, duplicity. It also manages to convey to the reader an understanding of what a wretched situation some family lives can be, while managing to stem the reader’s sympathy and hold sentiment strictly at bay. If there can be such a thing as the opposite of a self-indulgent novel, this is one such. It should not be called pessimistic - that would be unfair - but it is a novel which rubs the reader’s nose in the starkest version of reality, unhistrionically showing up the world from a particularly unflattering angle, sketching out a portrait of family life in the most unforgiving of lights. An excellent read.
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