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.