Akhil Sharma’s 14-year-old brother met with a catastrophic accident in America soon after the family had emigrated from Delhi in the seventies and it is this event that lies at the core of Family Life. Sharma chooses the fictional form but this is possibly a mechanism employed to keep the writer at some distance from a story so fraught with pain. Even Ajay, the young protagonist developing his own early interest in reading, describes his preference for “books where things were not as complicated and unsatisfying as real life.”
It is doubly affecting that we see the events through the eyes of a child, bewildered by the experience of immigration and then by the huge tragic event that overwhelms his family, sweeping them all along in its angry path.
Birju is the older of the two brothers and it is from him that great things are expected. However, soon after gaining admission to the prestigious Bronx School of Science, he cracks his head on the bottom of a swimming pool which renders him brain-dead. Reminiscent of the repeating line ‘Things can change in a day’ from A God of Small Things, Ajay is continually astonished by how those three minutes transform his family’s life which now swerves sharply away from the wonders of running hot water and glass doors that swing open in welcome, to the soulless corridors of hospitals and nursing homes and the machinations of lawyers and heartless insurance companies.
As they weigh in with new responsibilities of bathing and feeding their teenage son, we get a unsentimental picture of the world of disability and full-time care; the father giving his son his first shave, the little brother having to ‘wash Birju’s ass with a bar of soap’, the entertainment to be had in pretending Birju can retort to affectionate insults.
Sharma is also admirably honest in his portrayal of Birju and Ajay’s parents in the book who, though worshipped as saints by the superstitious Indian community, struggle constantly with the burden that has been so unexpectedly placed on them. There is doubtless a kind of heroism in their decision to take Birju home and make him the pivot of their lives but Sharma allows us to come to our own conclusions about the wisdom of their actions, especially in charting without a trace of self-pity their inability to look beyond the son they lost to the one they still have. In fact, the title of the book almost seems contradictory to its content as we witness this small family nearly lose its grip on life, the father becoming an alcoholic and the mother turning sharp-tongued and bitter even to those who attempt to help.
It is hard to imagine that a book so sad could be infused with humour but the despair is constantly leavened by Ajay’s deadpan observations and here it is helpful that we see things from the child’s point-of-view. We also get a searing portrayal of the guilt felt by the sibling left unharmed who must constantly feel the weight of measuring up to parents barely able to see him anymore. The terrible culpability ‘for my good luck of being OK’, as Ajay puts it.
This is a book written with child-like simplicity, lacking completely in the usual novelistic flourishes and verbiage. In developing a fondness for the writings of Hemingway, Ajay notes, ‘I understood from what I had read that the plainness of the writing was supposed to let the reader form his own response.’Well, that is exactly what Sharma does. I could not have been more moved by this simple account of a life that should have been. And I recognised the sentiments expressed by Ajay towards the end of the book: “That spring I was continually aware that if the accident had not occurred, Birju would be graduating from college, that he would be applying to medical schools. The awareness was like a physical sensitivity, like when your back is hurting and you are careful all the time how you take a step.”
All-encompassing as the experience of disability may be, its constant reminders of the really important things are one of its unique strengths. While the book does reveal this over and again, I felt dissatisfied nonetheless with its surprising last page. By this time Ajay has gained everything possible within the great American Dream—indeed all that Birju should have done and all that can possibly make up for his misfortune. Sibling-guilt is a powerful thing but I really wanted to reach into the book and tell Ajay that at some point it was okay to stop grieving.