Ajay’s timeline in Family Life precedes my own by almost a decade. And yet the retelling of his early years in Delhi felt surprisingly similar to my own in Bangalore. The simplicity of his revelations belies the effectiveness with which Akhil Sharma is able to give voice to the observations of a child and snatch the attention of his reader. I ended up finishing this novella in two sittings.
This is the tale of a middle class Indian family that immigrates to USA. It seems like every Indian-American author has to write one of these, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake comes to mind. Ajay, the younger of two brothers, is the narrator. His father finds a government job in NYC and the two brothers and their mother move across to join him. The shining star of the family is the first son Birju, who tragically goes into a coma after a swimming accident.
What follows is the travails of this leaking ship of a family on stormy seas. The parents are initially strong minded in their care of Birju, who has essentially turned into a vegetable. But as the years wear on and with no signs of their prodigious son waking up, the dad ends up turning alcoholic. Ajay on the other hand slowly walks out of the shadow of his genius brother to stand on his own. Though Birju’s fate never turns rosy, the story of the family ends on a good note with their other worries getting solved.
This is a short novel and the prose is very easy to read. Though it follows in a long string of similar FOB tales, it does stand its ground. The experiences of a desi family settling into US society is good. But, what the book excels in is what its title promises. It is full of those intimate and minute details in the behavior and interactions of our parents, siblings, relatives and visitors that we witness while growing up. The author could have easily cut out the numerous instances of desi folks visiting Birju to try to cure him. And the ending is too hurried, which is something I keep seeing in many good books. You feel like there is a part two of this story and bam, it is over! Still those are minor quibbles in a book that is sure to provide numerous trips to that sunny backyard of our childhood.
I used to think that my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose. When he got home in the evening, all he did was sit in his chair in the living room, drink tea, and read the paper. Often he looked angry.
(The wealth of America kept astonishing me.) The bathroom was narrow. It had a tub, sink, and toilet in a row along one wall. My father reached between Birju and me to turn on the tap. Hot water came shaking and steaming from the faucet. He stepped back and looked at us to gauge our reaction. I had never seen hot water coming from a tap before. In India, during winter, my mother used to get up early to heat pots of water on the stove so we could bathe. Watching the hot water spill as if water being hot meant nothing, as if there was an endless supply, I had the sense of being in a fairy tale, one of those stories with a jug that is always full of milk or a bag that never empties of food.