Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Family Life by Akhil Sharma

I've been bogged down by a hectic work schedule and sick babies for the last couple of weeks, but amid the sleep deprivation, messy apartment and seasonal allergies, I was able to read an incredible book that I must urge you all to read ASAP. It's the kind of novel that really gets under your skin and stays with you... maybe even changes your perspective on life.

Beautifully and simply written, Family Life by Akhil Sharma is truly a masterpiece. The story is autobiographical, of a lower middle class immigrant family with two young boys that emigrates to the United States with heavy hearts and big dreams. At first, they are all eager and desperate to go to America. Their departure is a big deal by Indian standards -- the whole town gathers to gawk at their airplane tickets, and rumors of the good life in America spread quickly. "Americans clean themselves with paper, not water,"says a classmate. Ajay replies, "That's nothing. On an airplane, the stewardess has to give you whatever you ask for. I'm going to ask for a baby tiger."

The parents are sweet and innocent, but demanding of their children. As they all navigate the cultural differences and try to find a sense of belonging in America, their sons - Birju and Ajay, are gradually adapting. Birju finds assimilating a bit easier, succeeding in school, making friends, even securing a girlfriend. For Ajay, things are a bit harder. He is homesick for India, and struggles to adapt in school. The nuances of the immigrant experience are depicted just perfectly on these pages - with a combination of humor and pain, you will cringe, you will laugh. Until the accident that changes everything.

While the Mishras are celebrating Birju's acceptance into Bronx High School of Science and day dreaming of their golden future ahead, Birju hits his head while diving into a swimming pool and suffers severe brain damage. He and his family are left with nothing. His mother turns to desperate and heartbreaking attempts to revive her older son, his father becomes severely depressed and becomes and alcoholic, and Ajay is confused, neglected, alone. This family's entire life circles around the 24/7 care of Birju, who will always be unresponsive. The whole book proceeds to unravel the three minutes that Birju was under water, and how those three minutes changed all their lives. There is no more hope or happiness, only anger and pain. Still, the writing is so lovely, so heavy - that I had to stop and look away many times to just breathe. It's Sharma's amazing writing that left me breathless.

Our narrator, young and naive Ajay, is the one who enraptures the audience and absorbs you into this story, despite the endless tragedy. The way he describes bathing his brother, or his conversations with God, or his discovery of Hemingway, or that he "used to think my father had been assigned to us by the government” - all of it is both heartwarming and heartwrenching. Ajay's voice is clear and authentic, he is so lovable that it makes this terribly depressing book somewhat miraculous. He tells us that “we have to keep trusting God. We can’t just trust God when he’s doing what we want. We have to trust him even when things are not as we would like them.” In the end, Ajay is the only one who can lift himself away from all the misery -- but even when he becomes a successful young man, vacationing on a beach with a beautiful woman, he can't seem to leave behind Birju. And neither can we.

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