Growing up in Delhi in the 70s is a quiet and frugal life for eight-year-old Ajay and his brother Birju. But their father is drawn to the glamour and romance of the West and so moves the Mishra family to a tiny flat in New York; believing that a life in Queens, earning American dollars, will bring happiness.
Akhil Sharma’s second novel, Family Life, is a dark, coming-of-age story. It’s the story of Sharma’s own life, which he has chosen to somewhat fictionalise. It is easy to see why this novel took him nine years to write, considering the trauma and grief the family suffer.
But discovering America with Ajay is magical. Hot water running in taps, traffic lights, hot dogs, snow, television. “I had never been in an elevator before and when I pressed a button in the elevator and the elevator started moving, I felt powerful that it had to obey me.”
But the novelty of being in a new land soon wears off. In India, Ajay was popular, he was good at cricket, and sometimes he even bullied other kids. At school in America, where he can’t tell the white people apart, he is confused by his vast new school which is three stories high. He becomes so scared of getting lost he stops going to the toilet. He is bullied by his classmates until his older brother Birju interferes. Like most brothers, Birju and Ajay fight, but it is clear that Birju is Ajay’s idol.
But then a shocking accident further disrupts the peace in the family’s new lives and rather than pulling together, the incident sets each family member spinning off into their own lonely orbit of grief and anger. Ajay tries to hide his pain from his parents, not wanting to add further weight to their problems. He cries alone or at school, where he is sent out of the classroom.
“I cried so hard that I lost my breath. When this happened, I became detached from myself. I walked and gasped and, as I did, I could feel my unhappiness walking beside me, waiting for my breath to return so that it could climb back inside me.”
At first Ajay has conversations with God, he wishes for fame, fortune, and for his family life to return to the way it was. He comes to realise that wishing and praying make no difference and he loses his faith.
Throughout Family Life, Ajay feels his otherness sharply. An Indian living in America, with an alcoholic father, coupled with the trauma experienced in his youth, means that Ajay finds it hard to relate to his peers or feel empathy. He longs for his life in India as a way to belong again. Even with his girlfriend, who he grows very close to, Ajay is unable to confide his true feelings, working hard to keep his father’s addiction a secret. His efforts to connect with his parents are also futile. Once, he says to his father “Daddy, I am so sad,” to which his father replies, “I want to hang myself every day.”
Ajay’s transformation from a carefree rascal to a lonely, deep, and philosophical young man is both painful and absorbing reading. Sharma articulates in a straightforward, matter-of-fact style his own childhood memories, thoughts, and feelings, even though it must have been an immense challenge to relive his youth for the sake of his novel. Family Life was selected as one of the Top Ten Books of 2014 by the New York Times and won the 2015 Folio Prize.