Publisher: Penguin Books India
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An Indian family of four – a country hating Father, a typical Indian mom with endless worries and two brothers, immigrate to America in search for a life that India could not provide. But then, tragedy strikes and leaves every member of the family scarred for the rest of their lives.
In his second installment, the critically acclaimed Akhil Sharma weaves a dark story that illustrates the irremediable consequences a familial misfortune can bring upon it’s survivors. Ajay’s family relocate to the US when he is quite young. His strict father, who he believes is government appointed to take care of his family, works with a government agency and is a brooding man of few words. His mother is a typical Indian doting mother who values her Indian traditions even in a foreign land. Birju, Ajay’s elder brother is an outstanding student, on his way to achieve great success when a sad (and rather silly for someone so intelligent) accident leaves him brain damaged and bed ridden for the rest of his life. As they say, Disasters and tragedies bring out the best and the worst in people. We begin to see the fissures develop in the inter-personal relationships of Ajay, his father and mother. Each resort to their own course in search of peace and consolation.
There is nothing happy about this book. It is gloomy and rather depressing in nature. But you still don’t quit because of the way it is being told. Through a first person narrative, told by Ajay, the narration, filled with opinions and ideas, smartly transitions with his age. The devotion of Ajay’s mom to Birju after his accident leaves you questioning your sincerity to your kids. The way she opts to say that Birju is in a coma to everyone, even when she knows that he is brain dead, shows that weak ray of hope she bears for her son as well as herself. She resorts to all kind of treatments for her elder son and ends up often ignoring her younger one. But the author slyly points out that really isn’t her fault but her guilt working. Ajay grows up in loneliness and yearns for his parent’s attention. Though he resents his brother for snatching all his attention, he does love him a lot. Ajay’s conversation with his bed-ridden brother, calling him a ‘Fatso’, discovering Hemingway and conversation with God are told wonderfully. Ajay is not very likable but that doesn’t stop you from feeling sorry for him or empathizing with him at many occasions. The phrase ‘We are what we become’ resonates in your mind as you see Ajay growing up.
Many of us think that immigrating to the US is moving to the better side of life – all green and gay. But this novel tells you the bitter side. The author lays out the Indian way of life in a simple manner, from the domestic end to the moral end and its clashes with the western counterpart. I like how The Guardian summarized this book –
“Sharma’s story is a deeply American one in the way it takes a poor boy and makes him rich, valourising the wonders of the material world and giving his hero’s life a fairytale gloss. Like fiction by writers from Fitzgerald through to Cheever and, more recently, James Salter and Louis Begley, Family Life reveals a kind of American survival story that is actually fatal.”
With Akhil Sharma being one of the most brilliant contemporary authors of recent times, this book is highly recommended for all.