Family is tough. So tough. Who are these people who claim to have totally normal, happy families?
Not Akhil Sharma’s characters in Family Life. I just read two sad, heartbreaking books back to back and I’m feeling particularly maudlin, but really! In Sharma’s novel, a family immigrates from India to New York in 1978. At first, things are going well. Ajay, the narrator, and his brother are going to school and his brother Birju gets into a fancy science school, which pleases his parents and makes him a model citizen in their community. But things go horribly wrong when Birju has an accident in a swimming pool and is left with brain damage. Ajay, who is younger, finds that his whole life is turned upside down. His parents end up dedicating their time and energy to his brother and there is little left for him in the strange and foreign city of New York.
Ajay’s narration is little-boy like but wise in the innocent way kids are sometimes. He worries about money; he talks to God; he wants to be a superhero; he wants his mother to love him, he wants to have a life but feels guilty because his brother’s has been ruined; he sees the problems in America’s society, or at least the things that jar with his understanding of Indian society, even while he loves watching television and going to the library. We see the world through his eyes and things are worse than we realized.
Sharma’s writing is deftly funny too, although there is something melancholy and tender about his brand of funniness. “I used to think that my father had been assigned to us by the government,” muses the narrator. “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. By the time we left for America, I knew that the government had not sent him to live with us. Still, I continued to think he served no purpose.”
How perfectly we suddenly understand Ajay’s father. Ajay’s viewpoint is amusing. He doesn’t seem sad about his father—his existence in this way is normal and expected. As observers, we’re more likely to feel sad for this little boy whose father hasn’t quite lived up to our expectations of modern parenting.
Ajay considers: “My father, who seemed pointless in India, had brought us to America, and made us rich. What he had done was undeniable. He now seemed mysterious, like he was a different person, someone who looked like my father but was not the same man.”