You may find reading Akhil Sharma’s debut novel akin to having your head held underwater. Attendant with feelings of a relentless, choking panic, though, will be an almost preternatural awareness of the details suffusing the experience.
In Sharma’s An Obedient Father, a stunning work that is both personal and political, you hear a man say, “Misery often makes me want to look away from the present and leads me to nostalgia.” The misery of the present is born out of the political trials of India in the early eighties. The escape that the narrator wishes for is driven by yearning for a rural past: “As I swallowed my heart medicine in the blue dark of the common room, I imagined walking through Beri’s sugarcane fields and sitting beneath a mango tree. I wanted to be a child again, with the future a wide, still river in the afternoon.” What makes this nostalgia for an unsullied past both poignant and problematic is that it is the desire of a man who cannot escape the memory of the newspapers soaking up the blood beneath his daughter’s thighs each night after he has raped her.
The protagonist, Ram Karan, is a corrupt official in the Education Department in Delhi. He is a widower living with his newly widowed daughter, Anita, and his young granddaughter. Anita is the child he raped repeatedly twenty years earlier. Most of the book is in Karan’s voice.
The experience of an intimacy so often violent, of being a witness to what is routinely hidden but is here plainly visible, is a result of the quality of the narrator’s voice. Lucid and perverse, like the solipsistic narrator of Nabokov’s Lolita, the confessions of Sharma’s antihero are sharp, even empathetic, and loathsome. (Recall Nabokov’s H.H.: “I had possessed her–and she never knew it. All right. But would it not tell sometime later? Had I not tampered with her fate by involving her image in my voluptas? Oh, it was, and remains, a source of great and terrible wonder.”)
The social backdrop of the novel is also enriched by the tussle for the Delhi seat between a dying Congress Party and an emergent, right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Karan is the money man, the bribe-collector, for one of the candidates in the parliamentary election. The petty political intrigues and their murderous fallouts provide a distraction from the less public drama that is played out inside the three-member Karan home.
It is to Sharma’s great credit as a novelist that I was as often horrified by Karan’s abuses and compulsive degradations as I was held captive by his pellucid dissection of shame that exposes a geography of self-delusion and national wrongdoing. There can be no doubt that Ram Karan is evil, but because he almost always is given voice, he also remains in some measure human.
This is the book’s most disturbing feature but also its most powerful triumph. As a result, An Obedient Father poses a serious challenge to a reviewer who is tempted to take refuge in the easiest, moralizing dismissal of this unusual novel. There is reason to be dismayed by its brutality, and not everyone can savor its black humor; but it cannot be denied that the maddening narrative voice is as darkly hypnotic as those found in the pages of Dostoyevsky.
Sharma also pulls off the trick of showing that a collective political degradation is intertwined seamlessly with personal turpitude. Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial “emergency,” imposed twenty-five years ago, suspended civil rights and gave a free hand to an inner circle of politicos in Delhi. The emergency didn’t tamper only with democratic institutions; its depredations made more base our responses to those weaker than we are. Sharma’s novel bears the scars of that trauma and its aftermath on Karan, but also on his daughter: “Money would make everything negotiable…. The more years Indira Gandhi spent in office, the more my income grew, for more and more things fell under the government’s aegis and we civil servants were the gatekeepers. I bought a toaster, a blender, a refrigerator, and a television. Anita went through higher secondary and into college. She grew up shy and easily panicked, but there was nothing that marked her as damaged.”
If Kafka’s K. located power in the distant castle, Sharma shows us mercilessly that such castles are our homes, so to speak, in our bedrooms. In fact, when you overhear Ram Karan’s confessions about his political sins to his daughter each evening after the English news, you also realize that the political is a deflection from the interrogation of the personal. Karan understands this well: “I thought that providing her with something to rage about openly would be a way to keep us from the topic of what I had done to her.”
Incest has enjoyed a popular run in Indian fiction recently. An Obedient Father is perhaps the novel that, some might say, Arundhati Roy had wanted to write when she wrote The God of Small Things. It is certainly the novel that Raj Kamal Jha came close to writing when in The Blue Bedspread he plumbed the dark ambiguities of abuse and incest. Sharma’s novel is part of a brilliant coming of age in Indian fiction.
The dust jacket of the book informs us that its author is an investment banker who lives in Manhattan. He was born in India but grew up in Edison, New Jersey, studied at Princeton and later Stanford. He has won two O. Henry awards for his short fiction and worked as a scriptwriter for Steven Spielberg.What is most remarkable about this profile is not the youth (he’s 29) or even the impressive array of accomplishments; rather, it is the fact that a writer who has lived most of his life outside India is able to write about life in Delhi with such sensitivity and flair. The brothels of Delhi’s GB Road, the roads and shops of Kamla Nagar, the alleys of Old Delhi, in the changing light and temperature of the seasons, all come alive in this book’s pages. Even the evocation of Karan’s childhood in a village before India’s independence is exact and intriguing:
I remembered that when my mother and I waited by the side of the road for a bus, I would tell my mother to move back, not because I was worried about her safety, but because this was one of the few ways I had to show my love…. Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch’s nipples and watch it bite itself to death.
Does this sharpness of outline in the book, its confidence in its own voice and descriptions, put an end to the debate about the authenticity of Indian expatriate writers? An Obedient Father demonstrates that magical realism à la Salman Rushdie is not the indispensable tool of the Indian writer living abroad and, second, that unmagical realism à la Rohinton Mistry is insignificant if it does not scratch away at wounds that are covered over by the scabs of silence.
Unlike Rushdie and Mistry, both of whom have written about Indira Gandhi’s emergency, Sharma produces nothing that could have been culled from the pages of a newspaper. Neither magical nor dull, his writing transgresses the borders of earlier, celebrated fictions, and he makes connections that are both vivid and dislocating: “Every night I had dreams of humiliation, of people catching me with Anita. When I saw a rooster picking at a pile of dung, I wondered what he was eating. Around this time I also began imagining sucking the penises of powerful men.”
We learn early about Karan’s death, but there is little consolation in this. The ironies of the victimizer becoming a victim, at the novel’s end, are plainly discernible. Yet such ironies are overshadowed by the more gloomy evidence of damaged lives and their unsettled grief. And after Karan’s death, I missed his eye for detail. I could not let go of the thought that of all the people in the room when Anita informs her extended family of what happened in her past, Karan is the only one who notices that everyone, in their desire to help, had ignored Anita’s own desires. (Nabokov’s H.H. was similarly cognizant of deeper absences: “I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”)
I tried to think again about one of Karan’s earlier statements: “All the things that might mark me as unusual and explain what I did to Anita were present in other people.” Did I not see the signs in my own life?
I was returning to college one summer from my hometown in Bihar, India. The train stopped at Aligarh. We were running late and it was hot outside. I looked up from my reading when an old man appeared and began to claim in a loud voice that he was Jawaharlal Nehru. The train began to move. There were many new passengers, daily commuters with their bags and their loads of merchandise. Some of them began joking with the old man. The Aligarh passengers, all men, settled down to a game of cards. They asked the old man a question or two and then teased him. Like many others in the compartment, I was amused by this teasing.
The old man, sensing that he was being mocked, shouted louder; one of the men slapped him from the upper berth and told him to be quiet. The old man was wearing a white cotton cap, as Nehru did in photographs. The cap had been knocked down. The old man picked it up and turned on the others with filthy abuses.
This was all the provocation the men needed. All down the narrow pathway between the berths, violent blows rained on the old man, who swore and spat viciously. His head began to bleed. One man gave his rubber slipper to the old man and asked him to use it to sweep the floor. “Do that, Jawaharlal,” he said. When the old man tried to use the slipper to hit back, the man pulled his dhoti, leaving the old man naked from the waist down.
My fellow passengers, many of whom had been sitting till then, crowded around the old man and tore off his shirt. They kicked his genitals. Someone on a nearby berth asked that this be stopped, but this appeal had no effect.
There was a stink coming from the corner in which the old man had been pushed. As I said, it was very hot outside, and it was hot in the compartment too. I did not want to move. I thought of the old man when I got to my hostel and was preparing to sleep, but I don’t think I’ve thought of him for any length of time ever again till I was reading An Obedient Father. That memory of derangement and violence was evoked by the book, no doubt, but also evoked was the claustrophobia of our closed lives, our bitterness and the collective nakedness ringing with abuse.