A Life of Adventure and Delight
You wouldn’t expect the title of Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight to refer to a man whose delight comes from asking a prostitute to jump in the air as he holds her breasts, but it does. Similarly, if I say this astute short-story collection speaks of the Indian immigrant experience, while accurate, that doesn’t reflect the universality of the stories, set in America and India. Sharma’s concerns are how we find meaning, and the curious emotion of being human.
This collection, some of which has been published in The New Yorker and elsewhere, follows two award-winning novels, An Obedient Father and Family Life, inspired by Sharma’s family experience moving to America. Sharma has been writing short fiction since the age of 15, and you can tell – his sentences are honed to perfection. He has said he wants his emotions to “land like punches”. In the title story, we understand much about Gautama through his observation of a woman: “Since other people respected her, he assumed she was admirable.” The opening story, “Cosmopolitan” – to my mind the strongest – explores the solace found in connection: “He wanted to tell her how the loneliness had made him fantasize about calling an ambulance so that he could be touched and prodded.”
Desire in its many faces is a connecting skein through this collection. Beauty arises unexpectedly: a sudden erotic charge between neighbours; a woman falls in love with her husband for the first time (though it only lasts a few hours); a man sleeps with the blonde object of his desire at work. In more than one story, we witness the clinical practicality involved in arranged marriages. Memories of the past and traditions reappear, providing a friction for the characters’ new lives in present-day America.
There’s nothing romantic in Sharma’s portraits, though in his realism there’s an eroticism that pulses with energy. While he exposes his characters’ weaknesses, there’s something redeeming in his understanding of humanity. Each story contains richness, humour and wisdom. Above all, the language is a joy to read: “I liked to lie on the bed imagining that the monsoon had come. Sometimes this made me sad, for the smell of wet earth and the sound of rain have always made me feel as if I have been waiting for someone all my life and that person has not yet come.” WZ
Faber, 280pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 30, 2017 as "Akhil Sharma, A Life of Adventure and Delight". Subscribe here.