Author: Akhil Sharma
Publisher: Penguin Books India
“Family Life” revolves around the Mishra family, who move to the United States from Delhi in the 1970s. The eight year old narrator is in awe of everything around him from elevators to wall-to-wall carpet in their new house. Simple things like the hot water flowing directly from the taps also amazes him. He goes on to talk about the struggles and adjustments his family makes in order to fit in to the new world. Ajay narrates how his Father who works as a clerk in a government agency and mother who left her job as a high-school economics teacher in India and now works as a garment factory worker, are anxious about the acceptance of his elder brother in a reputed school. There is happiness and celebration all around when Birju wins acceptance to the Bronx High School of Science.
The twist in the story comes when the elder son of the family is in a unfortunate diving accident that leaves him severely brain damaged, blind, and mute. Only able to breathe by himself, otherwise incapacitated. The tragedy and the family’s response to it seen through young Ajay’s eyes touches the heart and leaves knots in the stomach.
Each member of the family suffers differently. His father becomes an alcoholic, his mother looks for cures through hoards of miracle workers while Ajay acts out trying to find an outlet for his feelings as well as his place in the world now that it’s been turned upside down.
The author relates the story with a view point of an eight year old, adapting a child’s sharp perception and simple language. The book makes you very sad and then smiles make sudden appearances on the childlike outlook of a grim situation. You sympathise with every character at all times. Its deeply unnerving and tremendously tender all at once.
This is Akhil Sharma’s second novel after the PEN/Hemingway Award-winning “An Obedient Father”. He is an Indian-American writer. A graduate of Princeton University, where he studied Public Policy. Sharma won a Stegner Fellowship to the writing program at Stanford, and won several O. Henry Prizes.
I read “Family Life” with a lot of sighs. Not everyone who reads it can relate to it, a few definitely will. Its one of those reads that shakes your core. This one does it with a large helping of sorrow topped with a kiss of dark humour.