Thursday, December 4, 2014

Akhil Sharma's "Family Life"

This appeared in Republica on December 5, 2014:

The famous first line of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece “Anna Karenina” reads, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. This holds true for Akhil Sharma’s second novel “Family Life”. The novel tells the story of a migrant family of Indian origin in the US having its unique trouble that feeds unhappiness in the family and unravels it. The sad tale of the family, however, is not aimed at exploiting readers’ emotions like a cheap tearjerker; rather it uplifts their spirit with the undying belief in life.

The Mishra family, consisting of parents and two sons, Birju and Ajay, move to greener pastures in America in the 1970s. The stifling atmosphere of the Emergency period in India motivates them to emigrate. America is full of hope and promise and the family starts chasing the American Dream. 

Birju, the older son, is an academically brilliant person with a great future potential. But an accident in the swimming pool (where his head struck the cement bottom and he left stunned for three minutes) leaves him brain-damaged. His motor ability suffers a fatal blow and he is forced to take to the bed forever.

This accident hits the family hard. Ajay is left to pick up the pieces of a life torn apart. He does not know what to do and how to grow up in a strange country. The father becomes a drunk. The mother loses sight of everything else and only wants to take care of Birju.

Ajay, from whose point of view the novel is written, refuses to be devastated by this tragedy. Instead, he loses himself to the world of books. It is a convenient escape from the suffering. “I was always lost in a book, whether I was actually reading or imagining myself as a character. If bad things happened, like Birju developing pneumonia and having to wear an oxygen mask, I would think that soon I would be able to go back to my reading and then time would vanish and when I reentered the world, the difficult thing would be gone or changed.”

He “discovers” Ernest Hemingway and is enamored with the works of this great writer. Emulating Hemingway’s sparse style, he writes his own stories about his family (in fact, Sharma adopts this style for the whole novel). The power of art in healing life’s wounds is succinctly emphasized. Besides this love for books, he falls for girls, gets acquainted with the popular American culture, and chats with God and daydreams. These coping mechanisms enable him to transcend the life-shattering grief in the family.

Birju´s tragedy defines the life of his family so much that Ajay has to fulfill his elder brother´s dream of getting good grades and being useful to the family. Denied of parental love after the tragedy, Ajay fends for himself and studies diligently. However, the bedridden Birju continues to haunt Ajay even after achieving something in life, making him feel as if he were living a vicarious life. "That spring I was continuously aware that if the accident had not occurred, Birju would be graduating from college, that he would be applying to medical schools. The awareness was like a physical sensitivity, like when your back is hurting and you are careful all the time how you take a step". The Indian values of emphasizing family over the individual may have influenced Ajay´s thoughts. However, Ajay´s loss of the self is regained towards the climax.

The novel deals with migration at two levels. At the apparent level, an Indian family´s emigration to America brings along with it the issues of difficulties in cultural adaptation, "We even discussed what part of a dog a hot dog must be made of". Ajay is bullied by the white boys in school because of his color. The father aggressively pushes the family for assimilation into the American society. He makes his sons watch American news channels every evening and asks them to play tennis as he considers the game to be played by the rich. The family is slowly Americanized.

At the deeper level, the migration from happiness to grief characterizes the Mishra family. The single traumatic event defines the family and misery takes the center stage. The members of the family become clueless after the event and lapse into their idiosyncrasies. The father drowns his grief in drinking while the mother turns to religious superstition and miracle workers. They keep fighting with one another most of the time. But with the passing time, they learn to live with their grief.

This novel deals with a dark and maudlin matter but the reader is not bogged down in the narrative because Sharma sprinkles humor at times. For instance, Ajay and his mother tease Birju for not paying attention when they play cards by his bedside, at other times they accuse him of being lazy for never getting out of bed. This dark humor shows the lighter side of human nature that is not suppressed by tragedies. The acceptance of life in all its forms and the power of love and hope that works as a beacon in the darkness of despair elevate the novel to the first grade work of art.

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