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Akhil Sharma's debut, An Obedient Father, published at the turn of the century, was hard and brilliant, a black diamond. His limpid prose, the unspeakable grief suffered by so many of his characters, the meanness of his chiefly north Indian milieu and the startling vulnerability of his work is a profoundly unsettling mix. If An Obedient Father didn't win the audience and the plaudits it deserved, Sharma's second, Family Life, has moved him to the front line of contemporary American authors.
A Life of Adventure and Delight is his first collection of short stories. The work ranges from the mid-1990s, when the Princeton and Harvard educated Sharma was an investment banker, up till the present. Many of these stories were published in The New Yorker. But Indians find Sharma less palatable than America's de facto arbiter of literary taste. He writes about Indians and India the way Patrick McCabe writes about small-town Ireland, with an eye for hypocrisy and the horror that results from it.
Speaking on the phone from New York, Sharma describes how he resists thinking too much about his past. He moved from India to the US with his family when he was eight. As in Family Life, Sharma's older brother, the pride of his family, having gained admission to a selective New York public school, hits his head on the cement of a pool and lies unseen and unhelped underwater for three minutes, enough time to suffer irreparable brain damage. He spends a year in hospital. Then his family care for him at home, coming undone around him, unable to cope with the tragedy.
"One can be haunted by one's past," Sharma says. "The people that I love the most in my life have been almost psychologically destroyed." Family Life took a dozen years or so to write, as Sharma struggled to find a way to express the trauma. In A Life of Adventure and Delight too, Sharma's characters battle to overcome trauma and crippling feelings of social inadequacy. Sharma says he "stopped talking for the first three years" after his family moved to America and his brother had his accident. "I didn't know how to engage with other kids," he says. "I was, until after college, uncomfortable in my own skin."
Sharma writes about India with an eye for the hypocrisy and the horror that results from it
Writing was a way of "managing anxiety, balling it up". That anxiety is common to many of Sharma's protagonists. In the opening story, 'Cosmopolitan', Gopal Maurya's wife and daughter have abandoned him. In another, a young boy's mother turns to alcohol, retiring to her room to drink wine and eat bags of potato chips: "...there was the stench. The smell of vomit, urine, and shit was such that it did not seem thinkable that a human being ate there, slept there." Self-degradation is a typical characteristic. The title story opens with the protagonist being arrested for hiring a prostitute: "[Gautama] hoped to have as much sex as possible... but he also believed that any Indian girl who had sex before marriage... was in some way depraved and foul."
Unsympathetic though many of Sharma's characters might be, they are all searching for love, to become better people through love. In the longest, and best, story in the collection, newly married Anita feels an immense but fleeting love for her husband, Rajinder. But can we repair ourselves through our love for others? Is hell other people, or is it just that other people cannot be the lifeboats on which we seek refuge and respite from ourselves? At the end of 'Cosmopolitan', Gopal has, through his neediness seemingly alienated his lover, his next door neighbour Mrs Shaw. "We are made who we are," Gopal reflects, "by the dust and corrosion and dents and unflagging hearts. Why should we need anything else to fall in love?" Armed with this insight, he shaves, brushes his teeth and rings Mrs Shaw's doorbell. "[When she] saw him, Mrs Shaw drew back as if she were afraid."
Sharma is a master of this sort of scene, part menacing, part comic, part hopeful, moving and, yet, imbued with so much sadness. We are self-deluding, self-deceiving. But how else, Sharma asks, like Samuel Beckett, do we survive? How else do we go on?