Title: Family Life
Author: Akhil Sharma
Price: Rs. 499
Three minutes is what it takes to heat a can of soup. Three minutes is what it takes to reduce a brilliant boy to a vegetative state.
I first heard about the book when I met its writer at the Times Literary Carnival 2013. Both of us had just finished sessions, and were drinking coffee. I was bored, he was jetlagged, and we began to talk about our writing. When he told me his last book, An Obedient Father, had come out twelve years before this one, I gasped and asked what book had taken twelve years to write.
Akhil Sharma said it was a book about a child who has an accident which leads to brain damage, and his family trying to cope with the tragedy. Intrigued, I asked him for more. As he told the story, there was an intensity of expression and a layered poignancy to his telling that made me marvel at how taken he was with his own writing. When that happens to an artist, it makes me think the art is its own author, and the artist a spectator.
"It sounds very interesting," I said, as we finished our coffee, "I'll pick it up when it's out."
"Thank you," he said, with a warm smile.
I had no idea at the time that he was writing from experience. It makes me feel embarrassed now, for describing as "interesting" an incident that swallowed the lives of an entire family.
The humdrum title is indicative in itself. How does one describe such a terrible ordeal, the emotional upheaval, the exhausting hope, the coping mechanisms a family seeks? How does one describe the effects of caring for a child with brain damage, on his younger brother, his mother, his father? How does one lament, without being sentimental, the loss of such a promising life? How does one mourn for a boy who is alive, but dead?
What could be worse than a child's death, we often ask. This book tells us what could be worse. Here is a twelve year old boy, swaggering in his new American home, invited to several immigrant homes as a shining example of what hard work can achieve, after he has passed a difficult exam and got into an elite high school. His parents dream that he will become a doctor. His younger brother, the narrator of the story, is lost between admiration and jealousy. One day, the star goes to a swimming pool that he and his brother frequent on visits to their aunt's home in Virginia. That will be the last time he walks or talks.
Even in the short section before the accident, the boy's vitality strikes the reader. He's the big brother everyone wants, the son everyone hopes to have. For the rest of the book, we want the clock to turn back. Why did he have to go swimming that day? Why didn't he watch TV like his little brother? What was the lifeguard doing for those three minutes? What amount of compensation could possibly make up for the promise of a life cut off?
The book doesn't allow us the release of tears, perhaps because the writing is so contained. But there is a sense of intense loneliness, even from the cover, where a child stands with a schoolbag, his back to us. He faces an empty road: the sort of cold, pristine, suburban emptiness associated with 'abroad'. His colourful schoolbag, his thin arms and his short-cropped hair accentuate his vulnerability.
Akhil Sharma doesn't restrict himself to the microcosm of the family's life. The book is interlaced with observations of immigrant life, and extraordinarily peppered with humour. When the narrator says he thought his father had been assigned to the family by the government, it makes us chuckle. How many of us, who were born in the Seventies and Eighties, whose fathers disappeared in the morning and returned at night, their only evident purpose being to sign things and supply money, have had that impression in childhood?
On the fringes of the story are irrelevant details that make it all seem so real – such as the narrator's father stealing turf from a housing colony that is under construction, or people who spoke no English vocalising their hatred of America, despite having struggled so hard to get their visas. What could be sadder than a high school teacher from Delhi working at a toll booth? Or a family elder serving at a petrol bunk in America?
The fear that one may never go back to one's homeland is dealt with subtly. Mixed with the immigrant's pride at having made it to this land of promise, where dishes wash themselves and clothes dry themselves, is the immigrant's loneliness and alienation. As a student, I would often shudder at the thought of living so far away, growing distanced from my family as so many of my relatives have. Now, I feel guilty for having the means to travel back and forth, to live in India and holiday abroad.
However, it is not just these external aspects of family life that are relatable. The book is filled with vignettes that make us feel part of the family. The narrator, as a child, learns to write through Ernest Hemingway, by reading critiques of Hemingway's writing before actually reading his novels. After months of studying the man, he is suddenly afraid he may not like Hemingway's writing. Soon after his brother's accident, he glances at the alphabet in his classroom. When he sees 'Aa', 'Bb', 'Cc', he thinks 'Big brother, little brother'. When his mother switches on a torch and gives it to him, as they make their way back from a neighbour's house, he is reminded of his childhood in Delhi, when his brother would wield the torch during power cuts. The only illustration in the book is a torch. It makes the paragraph heavy, as if we feel that the burden has been passed from big brother to little brother.
The narrative picks up pace as the story goes on, and suddenly the main character earns 700,000 dollars a year – more money than the compensation his brother received. Leading his parents through the aisles of fancy grocery stores, he remembers how, during their early days in America, his brother and he had stopped to read the labels on the cans in the supermarkets. The next sentence is "Birju had some white hair now".
I would be tempted to use a cliche like "the author knows the pulse of his audience", but I get the sense that Akhil Sharma doesn't give a damn about the audience. So honest is his story, so vulnerable this family, that a passing statement can tug at our heartstrings.
The best part is its final sentence, which gives the book a Hemingway ending, 'unexpected and natural', as the author puts it.
It leaves us feeling empty, guilty and selfish.
Family Life is so effortlessly written that it's strange to read that the book was overdue by nine years. One gets the feeling that the author struggled with telling his story for a decade, and then threw his drafts away and wrote it from scratch, at one go, frenzied and brutally honest.
Read more by the author:
Sexual harassment: When cops turn criminals
Can we create a secular India?
Is there a saviour between the devil and the deep sea?
Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. She sells herself and the book on www.nandinikrishnan.com