Family Life, the latest by Indian-American writer Akhil Sharma, chronicles one boy’s youth, from bright and vivid days in Delhi to rough, confusing years in the American school system. Perhaps the book’s strongest moments are those when Ajay, eight years old when he moves from Delhi to Queens, discovers for the first time grocery stores, elevators, post offices, highways, American-style. Sharma captures well the movie-star glamour of America through the eyes of young Delhi boys, and the reader shares Ajay’s heartbreak at discovering the cruelty of American schools and the silent sterility of even Queens’ streets.
The book took just a few days to read, but the story lingers. Sharma’s images – gritty, graphic, honest – stick in the reader’s mind long after the book’s close. Don’t be misled – though Sharma writes from the perspective of an Indian American, this is no work of Jhumpa Lahiri, with her winding stories, thick with detail and conversation, of the lives of Indian nationals. Sharma’s style is more spare, and more real.
The book struck a chord; I’ve been to India, and upon return I noticed what Ajay noticed: our country’s empty streets, the orderly lines of cars on the highway, the endless boxes of cereal and soap in the grocery store. I know how it feels to marvel at our country’s wealth, but what I admire most about Sharma’s prose is the way it captures the life of India, the vigor and color and joy that infuses each day. In comparison, Family Life makes clear, the United States seems almost inert – hyper-clean, devoid somehow of the pumping energy that saturates India.
Through Ajay’s eyes, we witness a tragedy; the rest of the book chronicles the years to follow. The descriptions of nursing homes, hospital beds, and helpless patients made me weep, for these sections are told with brutal humanity. No detail is spared, least of all details concerning bodily functions.Perhaps the weakest sections of the book come at the end; I read the last line, then looked for more. There is no clean ending, no bow tie to wrap things up, no moral lesson imposed. The narrator achieves monetary success, but there is no ultimate triumph. I left the book feeling empty, wanting more…but perhaps that was Sharma’s intention: to bring us from India to the United States, and then leave us to our devices, material or otherwise.