A master craftsman leaves his mark from the very first word as amply illustrated by author Akhil Sharma in his new book, A Life of Adventure and Delight.
The stories featured in this book range from the mundane to the meaningful. In the first story, Cosmopolitan, Gopal Maurya, an Indian settled in America, is devastated when his wife and grown-up daughter walk out of his life. He seeks to forge a romantic relationship with his (single) American neighbour.
In the story Surrounded by Sleep, a young boy is torn between concern for his older brother’s medical condition and his own childish desires. A young woman wakes up from sleep to the discovery that she is suddenly in love with her husband (having been indifferent to him for a long time) in If You Sing Like That for Me and in a A Life of Adventure and Delight, the promiscuous Gautama plays a game of amorous musical chairs.
The protagonist’s complex relationship with the older Manshu fuels the story We Didn’t Like Him, the chronic see-sawing between love and hate for the older relative ending on a note of ambiguity.
Arun Kumar marrying the quirky modern Namrita makes for a perky story in A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing while the story, You Are Happy?, about a young boy and his alcoholic mother pulls at the heart strings. In The Well, a young man obsesses about his office beauty.
While at first glance the plots might appear unexceptional, it is what the author does with them that hold one riveted. Sharma writes with the sparse precision of a surgeon; there is not a shred of excessive language or emotion, not the faintest glimmer of literary pyrotechnics.
And yet he conveys so much, the reader is able to visualise, touch, smell, and experience entire cultures. It is in the etching of characters that Sharma weaves his magic.
Age-related mindsets are exquisitely captured as Sharma writes about the young protagonist Ajay: “Ajay had thought of his parents as the same person: Mummydaddy. Now, when he saw his father praying stiffly or when his father failed to say hello to Birju in his hospital bed, Ajay sensed that his mother and father were quite different people.”
The parched heat of summer and the welcome arrival of the first rains is a recurrent theme as is the fascinating interplay between old age and youth, modernity and tradition. Fractured family relations make for another leitmotif.
If there is a grouse with this book it would be the exaggerated tilt to cater to Western sensibilities; summing Gwalior as “a wretched place where streets are narrow and crowded…” is doing grave injustice.
A sprinkling of easily comprehensive colloquial terms could have added authenticity to the prose in the India sections, words like “reward” never quite matching up to the piquant “bakshish”!
But nit-picking aside, this collection of eight stories is a connoisseur’s item. Sharma treads the shadow land between the spoken and unspoken, the real and imagined, the accepted and the forbidden with infinite grace. His writing is elusive, amorphous and magical with frequent open endings that compel the reader to interpret and negotiate the way out on his/her own.
While lesser writers may dwell on the important moments of their characters’ lives, Sharma chooses to inspect the pauses between these moments.