Summaryof Family LifeFamily Life is a semi-autobiographical novel by AkhilSharma. This is Akhil Sharma’s second novel, which cost him years of hardshipand emotional stress to write. It was published in 2014 and was releasedto widespread critical acclaim. TheNew York Times described the novel as “deeply unnerving andgorgeously tender at its core.
” David Sedaris noted that “everypage is alive and surprising, proof of Sharma’s huge, unique talent.” Thenovel won him the 2015 Folio Prize for fiction and 2016 InternationalDublin Literary Award. Family Lifeportrays the life of Ajay Mishra (modelled upon Akhil Sharma himself) as hestruggles to grow within a family shattered by loss and disoriented by a recentmove from India to America. It is equally the story of Ajay’s parents, whoseresponse to grief renders them unable to find the space in which to cherish andraise him. The book opens in Delhi, India in the late 1970s whereeight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju who is twelve, are anxiouslyawaiting their move to America. Their departure is such a big deal thattownspeople gather around just to have a look at their aeroplane tickets. MrRajinder Mishra so much craves the glamour of Western science that he regularlygets his urine tested in a laboratory.
Reflecting on the superfluous nature ofhis father Ajay wonders if he’s been assigned to them by the government. Ajayis eight when the story begins, and Sharma relates the saga from his viewpoint,adopting a child’s sharp perception and simple language. Uponarriving at their new home in Queens, they’re hardly able to grasp what Ajaydescribes as “the wealth of America”.
Everything from the size of the librariesto the frequency of the television programming astonishes them. In America, everythingseems miraculous from hot water flowing from a tap to a wall-to-wall carpet intheir new apartment. When Ajay presses abutton in an elevator, he says, “I felt powerful that it had to obey me.
” WhenMr Mishra offers his sons fifty cents for every library book they read, Ajaywonders if his father has turned too American — an Indian dad would havethreatened to beat them for not reading. InAmerica, Mr Mishra works as a clerk in a government agency while Mrs Mishra(Shuba) is content as a garment factory worker. AfterAjay’s older brother Birju is accepted to a prestigious Bronx high school, thisinnocent and excited family feels secure in its future.
After all, Birju’seducation eventually lead to a career as a doctor. Like a typical Indianfamily, they open the school’s acceptance letter at the temple, on their kneesbefore an idol of the Hindu god, Ram. While trying to differentiate betweenIndian and American temples, Ajay says, “In India, though, temples also smelledof flowers, of sweat from the crowds, of spoilage from the milk used to bathethe idols. Here, along with the smell of incense, there was only a faint odourof mildew. Because the temple smelled so simple, it seemed fake.Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at hisnew high school, he has an accident. He hits his head in a swimming pool andstays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damagethat lasts throughout his life. He is now blind.
He can’t talk or walk anymore.He has suffered catastrophic head injuries and gets confined to death-in-life.The golden future is replaced by a terrible nothingness –– not only for Birjuhimself but for his parents and brother also. When the 10-year-old Ajay firstlearns of the accident, unaware of its gravity, he casually speculates that ifBirju were dead, “I would get to be the only son.
” This accident changes theentire dynamic of the Mishra family. All the excitement of American televisionor a library is now replaced by descriptions of seizures and suffering. Theresulting brain damage leaves the boy in need of expensive, round-the-clockcare.
A dreadful feeling starts to take over the novel, and all the naïvehopefulness just disappears. Ajay tries to arouse sympathy in his bored classmatesby devising cringe-worthy stories of Birju’s pre-accident powers, “My brotherwas a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and hechased it and caught it before it hit the ground”.Years pass and Birju’s condition remains unchanged. Thefamily is so much torn with grief that on one cheerless Christmas Day, Ajayerupts, sobbing to his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring —at least some pizza.
“I am so sad,” Ajay confides to his father that evening.”You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day” (Sharma131). Medicine and science do little forBirju. Mr Mishra becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stressesbrought about by Birju’s medical needs while mother turns to increasinglydesperate and pointless measures to cure her son. They began to fightfrequently and in their grief and suffering, they turn their gaze away fromAjay and don’t care for his nourishment and we see how Mrs Mishra’sunwillingness to absorb the reality of her son’s condition eventually makes herunreachable — not just to Ajay and her husband but to herself. The Mishras are surrounded by other Indian families, allstriving for success in America. Mrs Mishra’s devotion to her maimed son isinterpreted by the community as saintly and she is adored.
Talk of Mrs Mishra’sspecial powers spreads quickly. Some parents even bring their children to beblessed by her. One woman drags in her son whose stopped being vegetarian so hecan witness what being Indian really means. Mrs Mishra insists that Birju is ina coma because the phrase “brain damage” would confirm he will notimprove. So she seeks cures from pundits who visit her son’s bedside. Sheemploys a series of miracle workers to wake Birju. One bathes him in turmeric.
Another sits by him and recites things like, “My name is Birju. . .
Myambition is to be a surgeon.”Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be theacademic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high schoolclass—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes aninvestment banker. As the Mishras watch their second son’s ascension into analien world of wealth and status, Shuba whispers to Birju: “Your brother caneat pain. He can sit all day at his desk and eat pain.” Along the way, Ajaybecomes enamoured with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories abouthis family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—astyle Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel.
Storytelling remainsa therapeutic outlet for Ajay towards the end of the novel.