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"The Family Life" by Akhil Sharma

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Family Life is a semi-autobiographical novel by Akhil Sharma. This is Akhil Sharma’s second novel, which cost him years of hardship and emotional stress to write. It was published in 2014 and was released to widespread critical acclaim. The New York Times described the novel as “deeply unnerving and gorgeously tender at its core.” David Sedaris noted that “every page is alive and surprising, proof of Sharma’s huge, unique talent.” The novel won him the 2015 Folio Prize for fiction and 2016 International Dublin Literary Award. Family Life portrays the life of Ajay Mishra (modeled upon Akhil Sharma himself) as he struggles to grow within a family shattered by loss and disoriented by a recent move from India to America. It is equally the story of Ajay’s parents, whose response to grief renders them unable to find the space in which to cherish and raise him.

The book opens in Delhi, India in the late 1970s where eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju who is twelve, are anxiously awaiting their move to America. Their departure is such a big deal that townspeople gather around just to have a look at their airplane tickets. Mr. Rajinder Mishra so much craves the glamour of Western science that he regularly gets his urine tested in a laboratory. Reflecting on the superfluous nature of his father Ajay wonders if he’s been assigned to them by the government. Ajay is eight when the story begins, and Sharma relates the saga from his viewpoint, adopting a child’s sharp perception and simple language.

Upon arriving at their new home in Queens, they’re hardly able to grasp what Ajay describes as “the wealth of America”. Everything from the size of the libraries to the frequency of the television programming astonishes them. In America, everything seems miraculous from hot water flowing from a tap to a wall-to-wall carpet in their new apartment. When Ajay presses a button in an elevator, he says, “I felt powerful that it had to obey me.” When Mr. Mishra offers his sons fifty cents for every library book they read, Ajay wonders if his father has turned too American — an Indian dad would have threatened to beat them for not reading.

In America, Mr. Mishra works as a clerk in a government agency while Mrs. Mishra (Shuba) is content as a garment factory worker. After Ajay’s older brother Birju is accepted to a prestigious Bronx high school, this innocent and excited family feels secure in its future. After all, Birju’s education eventually leads to a career as a doctor. Like a typical Indian family, they open the school’s acceptance letter at the temple, on their knees before an idol of the Hindu god, Ram. While trying to differentiate between Indian and American temples, Ajay says, “In India, though, temples also smelled of flowers, of sweat from the crowds, of spoilage from the milk used to bathe the idols. Here, along with the smell of incense, there was only a faint odor of mildew. Because the temple smelled so simple, it seemed fake.

Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his new high school, he has an accident. He hits his head in a swimming pool and stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage that lasts throughout his life. He is now blind. He can’t talk or walk anymore. He has suffered catastrophic head injuries and gets confined to death-in-life. The golden future is replaced by a terrible nothingness –– not only for Birju himself but for his parents and brother also. When the 10-year-old Ajay first learns of the accident, unaware of its gravity, he casually speculates that if Birju were dead, “I would get to be the only son.” This accident changes the entire dynamic of the Mishra family. All the excitement of American television or a library is now replaced by descriptions of seizures and suffering. The resulting brain damage leaves the boy in need of expensive, round-the-clock care. A dreadful feeling starts to take over the novel, and all the naïve hopefulness just disappears. Ajay tries to arouse sympathy in his bored classmates by devising cringe-worthy stories of Birju’s pre-accident powers, “My brother was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground”.

Years pass and Birju’s condition remains unchanged. The family is so much torn with grief that on one cheerless Christmas Day, Ajay erupts, sobbing to his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring — at least some pizza. “I am so sad,” Ajay confides to his father that evening. “You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day” (Sharma 131). Medicine and science do little for Birju. Mr. Mishra becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stresses brought about by Birju’s medical needs while mother turns to increasingly desperate and pointless measures to cure her son. They began to fight frequently and in their grief and suffering, they turn their gaze away from Ajay and don’t care for his nourishment and we see how Mrs. Mishra’s unwillingness to absorb the reality of her son’s condition eventually makes her unreachable — not just to Ajay and her husband but to herself.

The Mishras are surrounded by other Indian families, all striving for success in America. Mrs. Mishra’s devotion to her maimed son is interpreted by the community as saintly and she is adored. Talk of Mrs. Mishra’s special powers spreads quickly. Some parents even bring their children to be blessed by her. One woman drags in her son whose stopped being vegetarian so he can witness what being Indian really means. Mrs. Mishra insists that Birju is in a coma because the phrase “brain damage” would confirm he will not improve. So she seeks cures from pundits who visit her son’s bedside. She employs a series of miracle workers to wake Birju. One bathes him in turmeric. Another sits by him and recites things like, “My name is Birju. . . My ambition is to be a surgeon.”

Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be the academic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high school class—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes an investment banker. As the Mishras watch their second son’s ascension into an alien world of wealth and status, Shuba whispers to Birju: “Your brother can eat pain. He can sit all day at his desk and eat pain.” Along the way, Ajay becomes enamored with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories about his family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—a style Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel. Storytelling remains a therapeutic outlet for Ajay towards the end of the novel.

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