Home alone


Home alone

Ruthlessly honest, painfully private, darkly funny – Akhil Sharma’s novel, Family Life, is essential reading

By Arati Menon Carroll  May 5th, 2014

It’s not often you hear a writer say, “I regret writing this book,” on the eve of its release. Seconds later, Akhil Sharma offers a postscript: “It’s a good book – perhaps even a helpful book – but all I’m saying is that I could’ve written another book in less time.” Sharma is referring to the fact that it has taken him 13 years to finish Family Life, his long-anticipated second novel. But more on that in a bit.

I meet Akhil Sharma in his Upper West Side home on one of those blustery New York mornings that winter tries to snatch back from spring. I arrive early for our meeting, but Sharma approves: “I prefer being early – I’m worried that I will be seen as one of those stereotypical Indians who always shows up late.” Sharma is a slightly-built, bespectacled man, his mien both boyish and bookish; and 35 years after moving to America, his ‘Indianness’ still doesn’t allow him to begin the interview without first taking care of me, even making it a point to suggest I drink my coffee with warm milk – a rejection of the American style of making coffee. 

He is remarkably relaxed for someone whose book is about to be picked up (and judged) by a universe of readers – perhaps that has something to do with the fact that he refuses to read any of the early reviews. “I can sometimes feel diminished, flattened, marginalised.” For someone whose work has attracted reviews far more flattering than faltering, that might seem over-cautious, a carefully cultivated art of self-preservation. “I sometimes get jealous when other writers get great reviews. But that’s silly. Being jealous of great writers like Jonathan Franzen, that makes sense to me, but most of the others – no.” 

Sharma’s own entry into the literary world was, for a while, fraught with uncertainty. For several years, he says, he wrestled with an overwhelming desire to be a writer, all the while draping himself with more expected manifestations of success, starting with an Ivy League education at the enviable trinity of Princeton, Stanford and Harvard, followed by a three-year stint as an investment banker. The shine wore off the 80-hour weeks quite quickly, according to Sharma. The urge to write didn’t.

It was towards the end of his career in finance that Sharma started working on An Obedient Father (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2000). Borrowing from a patchwork of affiliations left over from his early childhood in India, Sharma’s debut novel tells the story of Ram Karan, a lowly officer in the Delhi government’s Physical Education department – quick to put his hand out to take a bribe, or cop a feel of an underage girl. Ram Karan’s joys include visiting schools on collection day so he can partake of the elaborate lunches laid out by the schools’ Home Economics departments. The character was borrowed loosely from Sharma’s own uncle, who worked for the Physical Education department and often let his children and nephews, Sharma included, tag along for the free meals. “Obviously, he wasn’t a sex offender,” Sharma clarifies.

An Obedient Father went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Whiting prize, and Sharma was named one of The New Yorker’s ‘20 Under 40’. He has also, since, had several short stories published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The very fact that a 13-year gap between the two novels put no dent in his reputation gives credence to his success. But there’s little that’s smug about him when he says, “I want Family Life to sell hundreds of thousands of books, and win awards. Every single award it can win”. Vice has him down for a National Book Award and Pulitzer.

It wouldn’t be the easiest of victories, though. Family Life is a fictionalised and largely unmediated (save for the failings of memory itself) account of Sharma’s own life, starting with the family’s migration from Delhi to Queens when he was eight years old. “The move was really traumatic – I had to relearn everything. I used to be a talkative child and I moved here and for years, I almost stopped talking.” His young narrator in Family Life recounts that trauma with the unsentimental honesty that his writer’s voice has come to be acclaimed for.

‘I had a shy nature. “You are a tiger at home,” my mother said, “and a cat outside.” At school, I sat at the very back of the class, in the row closest to the door. Often I could not understand what my teacher was saying. I had studied English in India, but either my teacher spoke too quickly and used words I did not know or else I was so afraid that her words sounded garbled to my ears.’

Two years after their move to the US, Sharma’s brother Anup, who he describes as unusually smart (he qualified to attend the elite Bronx High School of Science) had an accident: he hit his head on the floor of a swimming pool and lay unconscious leading to a lifetime of irreversible brain damage, until his passing two years ago. The cascade of problems this tragedy unleashed on the newly-displaced family was unending, and the next several years, says Sharma, saw them struggle to keep afloat – financially and emotionally. “We began to be seen as this weird, tragic fairy tale of a family.” With the same disarming honesty he adds, “My father was depressive and perpetually angry, and my mother was completely irrational. She would bring crackpot miracle workers home who would perform these weird rituals on my brother. I genuinely felt like my parents were not doing a good job.”

The burden of reliving this troubled history diminished the likelihood of a short, breezy writing schedule.

 

In a recent conversation with Sharma for Guernica, his friend and contemporary, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, says he couldn’t stop laughing when reading Family Life. Indeed, Sharma has tackled the themes of heartbreak, despair and loneliness with his characteristic improbable black humour – when the boy talks about the volunteer pundits who pretend they have miracle cures for his brother, for instance; or a god whom he envisions as Superman; or even his belief that his father has been assigned to them by the government.

‘In India, my mother had been the one who made all the decisions concerning Birju and me. Now I realized that my father, too, had opinions about us. This felt both surprising and intrusive, like being touched by a relative you don’t know well.’

“Despair is dull,” says Sharma, and so he chose not to foreground it. “I think about my readers a lot. And I know exactly at what points I could lose them. When great writers like [Ernest] Hemingway and  [F Scott] Fitzgerald tackled a complicated subject to make it more readable, they used devices like humour or plot. I write in that great literary tradition. I’d like to think I write for writers, like Hemingway. That’s why I put in so much detail, details that regular readers will skip over. I’m a writer’s writer.”

When he’s not writing for writers, Sharma is teaching: he does four different classes at Rutgers University in New Jersey, including one on 18th-century Russian literature. In fact, more than one reviewer has compared his narrative voice to that in the pages of Dostoyevsky, not to mention the similarities between the Russian master’s guilt-ridden anti-heroes and someone like An Obedient Father’s Ram Karan and his repeated chant, “I am a sad, bad man,” even as his actions seem to deny the guilt.

When Sharma was 25 and interviewed by The Atlantic, he had said, “Read [Anton] Chekhov and think about why you will probably never be as good as he was.” Chekhov is still very much on his mind. “He always used stickier elements like present tense or senses like smell and sound to dramatise his fiction. I consciously choose the least sticky. All the elements used to thicken the moment are missing. [Vladimir] Nabokov once said that Chekhov’s stories always have an even grey tone to them. I like to think of mine as evenly white, you can see through to the parchment they’re painted on.” The technical challenges of writing a novel like Family Life, says Sharma, were even more immense than just stickiness. “It is really hard to create a simple narrative structure when you’re basically writing about an explosion and shrapnel flying everywhere and hitting different things.”

 

For all its technical trials and triumphs, Sharma says Family Life also marked a personal journey of resolution. “My writing reshaped my memory. I revised what I wrote so much, again and again, that I now struggle to remember the whole truth. Things that were the most important suddenly aren’t anymore.” His relationship with his parents has been wrung clean of much of its bitterness (they have shown little interest, however, in reading Family Life, and for that he is partly relieved); even the resentment towards the “incompetent, corrupt” Indian socio-political system (played out as a distinct narrative strand in An Obedient Father) that force-ejected his family from the country is tempered.

Still, Sharma says he no longer situates his writing in India: he is a product of modernity and his distance from the pre-liberalisation India of his childhood has grown too much. His wife and he are hard-boiled New Yorkers. “There’s definitely a sense of being in an abusive relationship, and choosing to stay in it.”

Still, nearly four decades later, it’s not easy to shrug off the tags – “native of New Delhi”, “South Asian fiction writer”, “immigrant novelist” – post-colonial definitions of local versus diasporic writing are easy tropes for the identification of literature. Sharma has little patience for this. “I can’t be responsible for other people being idiots. These gatekeepers of institutions need to oversimplify for their audience so they rely on these tags. It’s like how Philip Roth and Saul Bellow will always be Jewish writers, even if they found that distasteful. You can’t break through this because nobody cares.” To underline that thought, he adds that he only gets asked to review ethnic minority writing. “It’s disheartening.”

Sharma is on to his next book – a less taxing collection of short stories, some previously published, others new – a respite from what has been a schedule of writing five hours a day (he used a stopwatch) for over a decade, to produce 7,000 pages. “That’s 35 books’ worth!” he says. And continues, “I have a friend whose girlfriend fell very ill. They hadn’t been dating long at all but he felt a tremendous sense of duty towards staying with her. He looked after her for five long years, and then she died. He recently told me how glad he was that there was someone by her side through her illness. He just wishes it hadn’t been him. Family Life needed to be written. I just wish I wasn’t the schmuck that had to write it.”

Photograph: Karla Carballar

 

 

It’s not often you hear a writer say, “I regret writing this book,” on the eve of its release. Seconds later, Akhil Sharma offers a postscript: “It’s a good book – perhaps even a helpful book – but all I’m saying is that I could’ve written another book in less time.” Sharma is referring to the fact that it has taken him 13 years to finish Family Life, his long-anticipated second novel. But more on that in a bit.

I meet Akhil Sharma in his Upper West Side home on one of those blustery New York mornings that winter tries to snatch back from spring. I arrive early for our meeting, but Sharma approves: “I prefer being early – I’m worried that I will be seen as one of those stereotypical Indians who always shows up late.” Sharma is a slightly-built, bespectacled man, his mien both boyish and bookish; and 35 years after moving to America, his ‘Indianness’ still doesn’t allow him to begin the interview without first taking care of me, even making it a point to suggest I drink my coffee with warm milk – a rejection of the American style of making coffee. 

He is remarkably relaxed for someone whose book is about to be picked up (and judged) by a universe of readers – perhaps that has something to do with the fact that he refuses to read any of the early reviews. “I can sometimes feel diminished, flattened, marginalised.” For someone whose work has attracted reviews far more flattering than faltering, that might seem over-cautious, a carefully cultivated art of self-preservation. “I sometimes get jealous when other writers get great reviews. But that’s silly. Being jealous of great writers like Jonathan Franzen, that makes sense to me, but most of the others – no.” 

Sharma’s own entry into the literary world was, for a while, fraught with uncertainty. For several years, he says, he wrestled with an overwhelming desire to be a writer, all the while draping himself with more expected manifestations of success, starting with an Ivy League education at the enviable trinity of Princeton, Stanford and Harvard, followed by a three-year stint as an investment banker. The shine wore off the 80-hour weeks quite quickly, according to Sharma. The urge to write didn’t.

It was towards the end of his career in finance that Sharma started working on An Obedient Father (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2000). Borrowing from a patchwork of affiliations left over from his early childhood in India, Sharma’s debut novel tells the story of Ram Karan, a lowly officer in the Delhi government’s Physical Education department – quick to put his hand out to take a bribe, or cop a feel of an underage girl. Ram Karan’s joys include visiting schools on collection day so he can partake of the elaborate lunches laid out by the schools’ Home Economics departments. The character was borrowed loosely from Sharma’s own uncle, who worked for the Physical Education department and often let his children and nephews, Sharma included, tag along for the free meals. “Obviously, he wasn’t a sex offender,” Sharma clarifies.

An Obedient Father went on to win the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Whiting prize, and Sharma was named one of The New Yorker’s ‘20 Under 40’. He has also, since, had several short stories published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The very fact that a 13-year gap between the two novels put no dent in his reputation gives credence to his success. But there’s little that’s smug about him when he says, “I want Family Life to sell hundreds of thousands of books, and win awards. Every single award it can win”. Vice has him down for a National Book Award and Pulitzer.

It wouldn’t be the easiest of victories, though. Family Life is a fictionalised and largely unmediated (save for the failings of memory itself) account of Sharma’s own life, starting with the family’s migration from Delhi to Queens when he was eight years old. “The move was really traumatic – I had to relearn everything. I used to be a talkative child and I moved here and for years, I almost stopped talking.” His young narrator in Family Life recounts that trauma with the unsentimental honesty that his writer’s voice has come to be acclaimed for.

‘I had a shy nature. “You are a tiger at home,” my mother said, “and a cat outside.” At school, I sat at the very back of the class, in the row closest to the door. Often I could not understand what my teacher was saying. I had studied English in India, but either my teacher spoke too quickly and used words I did not know or else I was so afraid that her words sounded garbled to my ears.’

Two years after their move to the US, Sharma’s brother Anup, who he describes as unusually smart (he qualified to attend the elite Bronx High School of Science) had an accident: he hit his head on the floor of a swimming pool and lay unconscious leading to a lifetime of irreversible brain damage, until his passing two years ago. The cascade of problems this tragedy unleashed on the newly-displaced family was unending, and the next several years, says Sharma, saw them struggle to keep afloat – financially and emotionally. “We began to be seen as this weird, tragic fairy tale of a family.” With the same disarming honesty he adds, “My father was depressive and perpetually angry, and my mother was completely irrational. She would bring crackpot miracle workers home who would perform these weird rituals on my brother. I genuinely felt like my parents were not doing a good job.”

The burden of reliving this troubled history diminished the likelihood of a short, breezy writing schedule.

 

In a recent conversation with Sharma for Guernica, his friend and contemporary, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, says he couldn’t stop laughing when reading Family Life. Indeed, Sharma has tackled the themes of heartbreak, despair and loneliness with his characteristic improbable black humour – when the boy talks about the volunteer pundits who pretend they have miracle cures for his brother, for instance; or a god whom he envisions as Superman; or even his belief that his father has been assigned to them by the government.

‘In India, my mother had been the one who made all the decisions concerning Birju and me. Now I realized that my father, too, had opinions about us. This felt both surprising and intrusive, like being touched by a relative you don’t know well.’

“Despair is dull,” says Sharma, and so he chose not to foreground it. “I think about my readers a lot. And I know exactly at what points I could lose them. When great writers like [Ernest] Hemingway and  [F Scott] Fitzgerald tackled a complicated subject to make it more readable, they used devices like humour or plot. I write in that great literary tradition. I’d like to think I write for writers, like Hemingway. That’s why I put in so much detail, details that regular readers will skip over. I’m a writer’s writer.”

When he’s not writing for writers, Sharma is teaching: he does four different classes at Rutgers University in New Jersey, including one on 18th-century Russian literature. In fact, more than one reviewer has compared his narrative voice to that in the pages of Dostoyevsky, not to mention the similarities between the Russian master’s guilt-ridden anti-heroes and someone like An Obedient Father’s Ram Karan and his repeated chant, “I am a sad, bad man,” even as his actions seem to deny the guilt.

When Sharma was 25 and interviewed by The Atlantic, he had said, “Read [Anton] Chekhov and think about why you will probably never be as good as he was.” Chekhov is still very much on his mind. “He always used stickier elements like present tense or senses like smell and sound to dramatise his fiction. I consciously choose the least sticky. All the elements used to thicken the moment are missing. [Vladimir] Nabokov once said that Chekhov’s stories always have an even grey tone to them. I like to think of mine as evenly white, you can see through to the parchment they’re painted on.” The technical challenges of writing a novel like Family Life, says Sharma, were even more immense than just stickiness. “It is really hard to create a simple narrative structure when you’re basically writing about an explosion and shrapnel flying everywhere and hitting different things.”

 

For all its technical trials and triumphs, Sharma says Family Life also marked a personal journey of resolution. “My writing reshaped my memory. I revised what I wrote so much, again and again, that I now struggle to remember the whole truth. Things that were the most important suddenly aren’t anymore.” His relationship with his parents has been wrung clean of much of its bitterness (they have shown little interest, however, in reading Family Life, and for that he is partly relieved); even the resentment towards the “incompetent, corrupt” Indian socio-political system (played out as a distinct narrative strand in An Obedient Father) that force-ejected his family from the country is tempered.

Still, Sharma says he no longer situates his writing in India: he is a product of modernity and his distance from the pre-liberalisation India of his childhood has grown too much. His wife and he are hard-boiled New Yorkers. “There’s definitely a sense of being in an abusive relationship, and choosing to stay in it.”

Still, nearly four decades later, it’s not easy to shrug off the tags – “native of New Delhi”, “South Asian fiction writer”, “immigrant novelist” – post-colonial definitions of local versus diasporic writing are easy tropes for the identification of literature. Sharma has little patience for this. “I can’t be responsible for other people being idiots. These gatekeepers of institutions need to oversimplify for their audience so they rely on these tags. It’s like how Philip Roth and Saul Bellow will always be Jewish writers, even if they found that distasteful. You can’t break through this because nobody cares.” To underline that thought, he adds that he only gets asked to review ethnic minority writing. “It’s disheartening.”

Sharma is on to his next book – a less taxing collection of short stories, some previously published, others new – a respite from what has been a schedule of writing five hours a day (he used a stopwatch) for over a decade, to produce 7,000 pages. “That’s 35 books’ worth!” he says. And continues, “I have a friend whose girlfriend fell very ill. They hadn’t been dating long at all but he felt a tremendous sense of duty towards staying with her. He looked after her for five long years, and then she died. He recently told me how glad he was that there was someone by her side through her illness. He just wishes it hadn’t been him. Family Life needed to be written. I just wish I wasn’t the schmuck that had to write it.”

Photograph: Karla Carballar