Three minutes changed Akhil Sharma’s life. In those three minutes, his brother remained unconscious and without oxygen at the edge of a swimming pool. As a result he became profoundly disabled, unable to speak or move. Family Life, a semi-autobiographical novel, is a moving account of the effect of this random accident on Sharma’s family.
The novel begins in Delhi in the ’70s where young Ajay Mishra’s family are preparing to leave for America. Ajay describes arriving at their new apartment as feeling “as if I were stepping onto a painting”, and the family is beguiled by a tap that runs hot water. In these opening chapters there is a crisp sense of optimism: they have high expectations for their new life, which makes the subsequent accident even more jarring. Birju, the eldest brother, was a promising and popular student; Ajay lived in his shadow.
After the accident, the responsibility of caring for Birju becomes the focus of their lives. Instead of institutionalising him, they nurse him at home. His parents become deeply disillusioned by their experience – the cost of healthcare much greater than they expect and the compensation far less. Ajay’s father finds solace in alcohol and his mother grows resentful.
Sharma’s simple prose sparkles with the clarity of truth. He describes the world from a child’s perspective, but with an adult’s insight. The pleasure in the writing is in the exquisite attention to detail. A temple in America “smelled so simple, it seemed fake” and in autumn “the world looked like a fire had gone through it”. This same level of detail makes for uncomfortable reading when applied to the excruciating facts of Birju’s condition.
Family Life also provides a window into Indian culture; the pride derived from one’s family and the politeness that does not always mean what it seems. Sharma even suggests that these religious and cultural conventions exacerbated his family’s grief.
Though the family survives the accident and Ajay becomes a successful professional, it is not without the sense that something is missing. Despite the disturbing acuity with which the family’s ordeal is portrayed, there is a touching message that crystallises in the book’s last pages. Sharma warns against the perils of taking responsibility too seriously at the expense of joy, until even happiness itself feels heavy. Family Life is a plea to others to find good things, even among the terrible. HT
Faber Fiction, 224pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 28, 2014 as "Akhil Sharma, Family Life". Subscribe here.