Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is not a model minority story. No one could accuse it of sentimentalizing or even remotely encouraging immigration from India to the United States. In this novel, immigration means a skull cracked open in a swimming pool, brain damage and bedpans, alcoholism and depression. But it is still an American story, long before the Mishras land on American soil in 1978. Mr. Mishra has always dreamed of moving to the West, a place of scientific rationalism and development. For her part, his wife says to her mother, who questions her decision to leave India, “What is here? Thieves? That Indira woman will eat us.” And Ajay, our protagonist, adopts the condescension that comes with privilege even before he has left, forcibly passing off his toys and favorite yellow bucket to others, and using the cachet that comes with airline tickets to jump the milk line. This is what it means to arrive in the States. Reading the novel now, in the contemporary moment, must offer a shiver of pride to American readers, presented as they are with a bygone image of the United States: flush with ideas, technically superior, cash-laden, beloved.
Life in America—first Queens, then North Jersey—takes a tragic turn for the Mishras. Birju, the older brother of the family, on his way to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, smashes his head while jumping into a concrete pool and never speaks or moves again. During Birju’s transition from hospital to nursing facility to home, his father’s drinking increases. His mother resorts to prayer and quasi-priests to ameliorate his condition. In a space surrounded by misery, Ajay grows up.
For a novel about flight, immigration and assimilation, this is a small book, and there is a charming irony about it appearing in our era of sprawling global novels. Most of Family Life is about just that: family life. But what “family” means in America is a tiny, nucleated, walled-off world. The story unfolds in a small apartment in Queens, with its small kitchen and the small white table where homework is done. A large section of the novel takes place in Birju’s hospital room, where a small postcard of Kali serves as an idol. Occasionally, the narrator stops for a minute, in a small bar, a small courtyard or a small parking lot. Ajay reads small books in small rooms. The conversations are small, too: short, not weighty, a few lines of interchange. And they are often about small things, only comprehensible to the three primary figures of the novel: brother, father, mother. “Thank you,” says Mr. Mishra to the nurse. “Don’t say, ‘thank you,’” says his wife. “If you do, they will think you’re weak.”
That smallness sometimes produces a novel of quiet insight, the kind with which contemporary culture has little patience. In one of the book’s most beautiful moments, Sharma writes, “When my mother bought a box of matches, she had my brother sit at a table and use a razor to split the matches in half. When we had to light several things, we would use the match to set a twist of paper on fire and then walk around the apartment lighting the stove, the incense stick, the mosquito coil. This close engagement with things meant that we were conscious that the wood of a match is soft, that a bit of spit on paper slows down how it burns.” The phrase “close engagement” might be the closest we get to a metanarrative moment in the novel, where to engage closely is to see how small is one’s way in the world, and to rarely see outside it.
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Sharma’s first novel, The Obedient Father (2000), was in some ways just as claustrophobic, inward-looking and stifling. In it, incest marked a kind of radical and perverse form of domestication. But hovering around that crime, just beyond the walls of the home, was Delhi’s corruption, government service, bribery and, of course, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Incest in the novel was the private sign of the era’s larger social grotesquerie or charade. Family Life, on the other hand, is so relentlessly insular that it can make an outing to a drug-rehabilitation center at Bellevue seem like an enormous relief. When someone from Alcoholics Anonymous begins talking about smoking her mother’s Marlboros in fifth grade and having abortions, a crack emerges in the eggshell surrounding the Mishras’ little world, before it seals itself off again.
The domestic microcosm presented in Family Life offers almost no signs of the world outside the family circle. What is happening in America in 1985—or in New York City, for that matter? What happened in India once the Mishras left? What of racism and the Reagan years, or Delhi in 1984? Even closer to home: What kind of work does Mr. Mishra really do, what’s become of the grandparents, how did the family get a mortgage, and what kinds of medical treatments does Birju undergo? Of the twelve years it took Sharma to write this book, were the vast majority spent paring away the layers of the world surrounding the small home?
Of course, there is the fact of the memoiristic nature of the text, which draws from Sharma’s own life and absolves him, to some degree, of historical and political demands. This is Ajay’s story. The work of memoir creates an “I,” and memory is its only agent of causality. But the novel is a historical beast, particularly in its modern form. In the works that came to define the genre (Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education), history—the world—is inescapable, always lurking behind private life. In The Paris Review, Lorin Stein wrote of Family Life that “with acid, deceptively artless prose and a faultless ear for dialogue, Sharma strips his characters bare from page one and dares us to love them in their nakedness. I cannot think of a more honest or unsparing novelist in our generation.” Then again, shouldn’t every generation’s novelist, in short, do more than cultivate a bonsai tree?
There is no doubt that domestic life can be suffocatingly small. And the idea of this novel is clearly to demonstrate the enclosure that immigrant life painstakingly creates from the water in which it swims. But the central, and quite sophisticated, accomplishment of Family Life is its narrative voice, expressed in its sentences—carefully built, neatly composed, pruned of adjectival flair. It is the ideology of craft that is the agent here, the subject of much recent inquiry in contemporary American writing. Craft today privileges voice rather than description, favors clean creases over vast spectral landscapes. Turning prose into origami inevitably demands a certain truncated relationship to the social world. Miniaturization produces an exacting beauty, but the novel must be more than painterly technique.
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What kinds of Indians immigrate to America? For whom was the America of the 1970s an answer or an escape? These are a post-Emergency people. The Mishras are Brahmins, lower middle class, frugal, mildly patriotic and deeply cynical, predisposed, in some ways, to turn their face westward. They are educated and literate, and they play it straight. Most important, they are disenchanted; they want more than what their social and economic life in India can provide. And yet they lack the connections and capital of the elites. Mr. Mishra is a man who feels that “he mattered so little.” Although Gandhi herself insists, during the suspension of civil liberties and arrest of political dissidents, that the Emergency “was not a personal matter,” the Mishras are affronted. A psychic neocolonial depression hangs over the family—the accountant father calculating miseries, the sparring brothers, the mother rolling wicks from cotton saved from pill bottles. Still, the novel makes a point of describing them as “ordinary.”
What does “ordinary” mean here? “We don’t speak English,” says the mother. “We don’t wear blue jeans. We don’t drink wine and have three wives.” Ordinaries from India, the kind who immigrate, are non-elite, non-Westernized, non-Muslim subjects. Ordinaries are middling-class and upper-caste, family-first kind of people, and they are suspicious of the state: “After the Emergency, [the Mishras] began to feel that even though they were ordinary and not likely to get into trouble with the government, it might still be better to leave.” Ordinaries are nonpolitical, private, inward-looking individuals for whom civil society is an abstraction.
If this had been a story of Indian immigration to the Americas, rather than to the United States, all kinds of things might have happened—indentured labor, global merchant movement, missionary travel, radical flight. At the turn of the previous century, Muslim merchants from West Bengal set up shop in New York and New Orleans; Punjabi Sikhs, both servants of empire and political dissenters, came to California; and Ahmadis from Punjab came to New York City, giving African-Americans a faith that predated the Nation of Islam.
But with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 and its special-skills provisions, a certain kind of foreign national started to emigrate from India to the United States, as well as a certain kind of narrative. These immigrants were literate and educated people; their religious faiths seemed insular and unobtrusive; they came with their degrees in hand and family following close behind. They had a relationship to English, especially through comic books and television. They were engineers, accountants, professors. They ironed their clothes and bought appliances. And their befuddlement at elevators and escalators, signage as well as the American language of signs—the high five, for example—was charming, rather than an indication of a civilizational otherness. Bharati Mukherjee’s Dimple Dasgupta, after all, is bored more than simply bewildered, and at the end of the novel Wife (1975), when she puts her husband’s head in an oven, it was easy to read as simply a metaphor.
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As hypnotic and smoothly whirring as Sharma’s remarkable narrative is, it makes very little of what must have been the most radical transition for the ordinaries: American bureaucracy and the labyrinth of the state, its public schools and city hospitals, immigration officials and unions, Medicare and welfare. The Mishras, like so many other ordinaries, apply for citizenship and disability and subsidized healthcare. For whom does life only exist within four walls?
In this book, a bit of the world enters through writing. There is one extended episode in which Ajay wrestles with becoming a writer. Inspired by biographies of Hemingway, he learns some of the necessary mechanical tools. There is also the simple pleasure of the foreign vistas provided by Hemingway’s novels. “Feeling myself being connected, I had the sense that I was being taken away from my own life and brought in to a world that was glamorous, where people did pleasurable things, where people did not worry all the time.”
But Ajay is also largely bewildered by the literary; he finds Hemingway’s prose tedious; he misunderstands the grammar. Surrounded by the bloated Birju, a father in a stupor, a mother forced to woo self-made priests, Hemingway seems distant, unreachable. Reading a book of critical essays on Hemingway, Ajay notes: “The sentences were like long weeds waving from the bottom of a muddy pond. I read the essay carefully, afraid, trying to hold what I could in my head. The second essay made no sense either. As I read it, I felt stupid for having thought I could be a writer. Still I kept reading. Now and then I learned something that struck me as practical.”
This is a Naipaulian moment, for Ajay as well as Sharma. In V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), the protagonist finds himself similarly alone, alienated, marked by misreadings:
He stayed in the back trace and read Samuel Smiles. He had bought one of his books in the belief that it was a novel, and had become an addict. Samuel Smiles was as romantic and satisfying as any novelist, and Mr. Biswas saw himself in many Samuel Smiles heroes; he was young, he was poor, and he fancied he was struggling. But there always came a point when resemblance ceased. The heroes had rigid ambitions and lived in countries where ambitions could be pursued and had a meaning. He had no ambition, and in this hot land, apart from opening a shop or buying a motorbus, what could he do? What could he invent?
There is something pitiable in the way Mr. Biswas begins to paint signs—he becomes a sign painter—just as Ajay marks the number of articles in a sentence. Both young men struggle to determine what to do with words, with language, with ideas. Are they decoration, or artifice? Puzzles? Diagrams or the beads of an abacus?
There is one radical difference between the two writers. In Naipaul’s case, this tragedy is much larger and longer than squat Mr. Biswas: it has to do with debilitating, tired Port of Spain; overheated Trinidad, and colonialism, and servitude; and that bondage called the family. Mr. Biswas suffers a crisis that is personal, and racial, but most of all historical. And while one could never agree with Naipaul’s damning reading of the Caribbean—“unimportant, uncreative, cynical…a dot on the map”—there is no question of the historical structures under which individuals suffer.
In the end, though, things change for both Mr. Biswas and Ajay. Beyond assimilation, knowledge of English and economic imperative, their upper-caste conditioning prepares them for a relationship to text. Brahmanism is distinguished by ritual and superstition putatively untranslatable in a secular society, but also a specialized relationship to book knowledge, language and writing, the privileges of the highest caste. Biswas’s uncle asks him to read to him; Ajay’s father pays him for each book read. Mr. Biswas, forever a victim of cynicism and cruel optimism in turn, is condemned by history, goes a bit mad and dies in a falling-down house; Ajay leaves for Princeton University—“another country,” Sharma writes.
Family Life couldn’t possibly have probed all the reasons for this radical divergence or filled in all the blanks of caste, class, the Emergency, the Reagan years, union workers, the hospital crisis and so on. No one who believes in fiction as an art expects contemporary American writing to necessarily provide ethnographic knowledge of any sort. But in Sharma’s attempt to “strip his characters bare,” as Stein says, the novel leaves out many things. In favoring Ajay’s tiny grief, it chips away the mother’s low-wage labor and the cost of whiskey, and any other signs of what the Mishras struggle against. It masks the conditions that make these characters who they are. It is a humanism of sorts, but the kind that throws only the human into relief.
While reading Family Life, I was reminded of D.R. Nagaraj’s comment on autobiographies written by the Dalit, the “untouchable” caste. Dalit writing attempts to account for the individual and the community, society and history, but they are committed, in their narrative form, to a singular life. Nagaraj writes, “Dalit autobiography has become important not because of the vast expanse of experience but by its violent bonsaization. Massive trees, like the suicide of an uncle, are dwarfed. Bonsai trees are cute, true, but they can never be a substitute for the giant woods.”
If there is a moment in the history of Indian immigration to the United States that demands penetration into the giant woods, it is clearly now. The image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that I saw hanging on a wall in Sukhadia’s snack and sweets shop in Parsippany, New Jersey, after the recent Indian election is only the smallest evidence of this. Indian-America is playing a crucial role in administering US state policy, as well as shaping US-India relations. Some recent examples are the debate surrounding the appointment of Sonal Shah to Obama’s transition team, with her links to the Hindu right VHP; the arrest and incarceration of Rajat Gupta, the businessman who attended Obama’s first state dinner; and the recalling of the Indian deputy consul general, Devyani Khobragade, from New York for her treatment of her servant. In 2005, a coalition of Indian-American activist groups helped to secure the denial of an entry visa to Modi; in 2014, Modi’s post-election extravaganza at Madison Square Garden made this point moot. Indian-Americans are the richest ethnic minority in the United States, and are gradually playing an outsize role in foreign policy in South Asia. According to some reports, this most recent election attracted support from the Indian diaspora—ideological, material, financial—as never before.
In some ways, the smallness of Family Life is a symptom of the contemporary moment, rather than in any way at odds with it. Historically, great fiction has viewed the present askance, from the fractured light of another time, past or future. If this seems like too much to expect from a novel—from novels, from culture—then that, too, might be indicative of a moment that expects so little from its art, from its thinkers, from its intellectuals: no more than the careful and systematic reconstruction of a life. Perhaps we should be looking for the giant woods.
There is a lovely image toward the end of Family Life, and I mean that literally: it is a drawing of a flashlight, the only artwork in the novel. The flashlight shows the Mishras the way home in the suburban New Jersey night after a terrible scene with the Sethis, fellow Indian friends, who have abandoned them upon learning that Ajay’s father is a drunk. But the flashlight also did service in Delhi, after a blackout, when Ajay, his brother and mother would walk home. It is a sign of continuity, of sorts, across the great divide, between India and America. Despite all of America’s privileges, the Mishras must still walk home in the dark.