On Diwali ….standing on the sidewalk…. I felt the life I was living in America was not important, that no matter how rich America was, how wonderful it was to have cartoons on TV, only life in India mattered.
– Ajay in Family Life by Akhil Sharma, P.35
It’s been a while since SI orgasmed over a book.
Akhil Sharma’s new novel Family Life did it for me.
Although I’d read some of the early chapters of the book as a short story in the New Yorker a few months back, the novel still turned out to be a riveting read, indescribable joy from beginning to end.
It was like Mithai from Bengali Sweets in Jersey City, NJ.
The book sent me into a drooling fit of ecstasy (the feeling, not the tablets)!
At the center of this fine novel is the family of Mishras who migrated to the U.S. from Delhi in the 1970s.
Like so many migrants to the U.S., the Mishras drop anchor in Queens.
Things go swimmingly well for the family initially. Mr. Mishra has a decent job as an accountant in NYC. Mrs. Mishra works at a garment factory.
The two boys (Birju and Ajay) settle down and attend a local school in Queens.
Wow! Birju gets admission into the coveted Bronx High School of Science.
And then tragedy strikes with a ferocity!
A horrific tragedy that not merely saps the life out of the Mishras but reincarnates India, first in Virginia and then in New Jersey, in countless ways.
The family’s ‘reincarnation’ in the New Jersey suburbs is an extraordinary Indian-American tragi-comedy that kept me engrossed!
The book is narrated in the voice of the younger boy Ajay (a stand-in for the author in this semi-autobiographical novel).
India and the Indian experience in America come alive in Family Life with a humor and pathos rarely seen in print!
Since I’m an Indian immigrant familiar with India as well as NJ, NYC, and VA, I can relate well to the Mishras’ experience in both Delhi and America in Family Life.
Not merely Delhi, but descriptions of Oak Tree Road (in Edison/Iselin), Queens and New Jersey too jump to life for me!
Oak Tree Road, Iselin (NJ)
If I had any irritation with the book, it was that while so many pages are devoted to Ajay’s childhood and the aftermath of the family tragedy, his college and work years are compressed into just a few pages.
And the last sections seem a bit rushed.
I had the sudden realization that probably we would never go back to India, that probably we would live in America forever. The realization disturbed me. I saw that one day I would be nothing like who I was right there. I felt all alone. [p.98]
Akhil Sharma vs Jhumpa Lahiri
So how does Family Life compare to Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel The Lowland?
I’ll confess to enjoying both works.
Jhumpa’s Lowland is set against the backdrop of a larger canvas, the Naxalite movement in West Bengal (the failed rebellion against the Indian state constitutes a key part of the book), although later events happen in the U.S.
Akhil Sharma’s novel on the other hand is rooted firmly within the confines of a small family, initially in Delhi and later in the U.S. (Queens, Virginia and New Jersey).
Family Life is kinda like Jhumpa’s Namesake (initially set in Kolkata and then in the U.S.), the story of a single family.
Now, don’t expect dramatic things to happen in Family Life because they don’t (other than the swimming pool tragedy in Virginia).
Family Life is a novel where the flow is more important than the ultimate destination.
Sadly, Akhil’s prose is not stellar. Not even a tenth as good as what you’d find in, say, Jonathan Miles’ new book Want Not.
His prose limitations notwithstanding, Akhil Sharma brings a single Indian family’s life in Amreeka to life in a manner I’ve rarely seen before.
Family Life should be available at most U.S. county and town libraries.
Reserve your copy today.