Akhil Sharma : Family Life

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The Delhi of the seventies is hard to imagine: the quietness, the streets empty of traffic, children playing cricket in the middle of the street and rarely having to move out of the way to let cars by, the vegetable vendors who came pushing their carts down the street in the late afternoon, crying out their wares in tight, high-pitched voices. There weren’t VCRs back then, let alone cable channels. A movie would play for twenty-five or fifty weeks in huge auditorium theaters, and then one day the movie was gone. I remember feeling grief when the enormous billboards for ‘Sholay’ at the end of our street were taken down. It was like somebody had died. (8)

From this Delhi Ajay’s family moves to New York when the father gets a clerical job, believing there are more opportunities for their two sons and uneasy about Indira Gandhi’s government. For Ajay’s father, though, there’s more to it than that:

He believed that if he were somewhere else, especially somewhere where he earned in dollars and so was rich, he would be a different person and not feel the way he did. (5)

Others (Jhumpa Lahiri, Hari Kunzru) have written about the Indian immigrant experience in the US or Britain, in particular the younger generation’s search for identity. Family Life is unusual, though, because there’s a crisis in this family (no spoilers) that takes the story beyond cultural boundaries. Young Ajay, the narrator, has to deal not only with the difficulties of fitting in with his American schoolmates and the expectations of the growing Indian community, but also with the clashing needs of his parents and his brother Birju. He’s the archetypal good boy trying to hold together a family in crisis, torn between love, resentment and shame at his own resentment.

I have the impression there’s a lot of autobiography here. Tough and sad as the story is, it’s a great pleasure to experience such writerly and humane intelligence, to be carried in the lovely rhythm of his understated style. I liked it better than Lahiri or Kunzru, and next on my list is his book of short stories, A Life Of Adventure And Delight.

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