Author : Akhil Sharma
Price : Rs 499
Publisher : Penguin
“It’s the late 1970s. India has been wrenched by the Emergency. Like countless Indian children, Ajay and Birju are taken by their parents to America so they can have a better life. In New York, their flat is tiny, the students at their school racist. Like all striving Asian children, Ajay and Birju forge ahead, pushed on by their ambitious parents. But then everything changes. Birju has an accident that leaves him brain-damaged and the world around Ajay collapses. His father begins to drink, his mother takes to prayer, and it is Ajay who must now bear all the guilty weight of their love.
Dark, sardonic, written with biting wit and observation, Family Life is a superb portrait on one dysfunctional family that speaks to all families”.
Now that’s what the book’s inside jacket says. And here is what I say.
Ajay the protagonist and his elder brother Birju, leave along with their parents to the US. For the middle class family, it is search for greenbacks, although neither dad nor the mom is going to work in any area of great expertise. That makes the story that much more realistic.
The story moves on to talk about how Birju does well at school, gets a call from a college but a freak accident leaves him brain-damaged. It talks about the love-hate relationship between the brothers, the helpless situation that the family is faced when one of their children, a bright one at that is now a vegetable; of how the father drowns himself in liquor to perhaps (that’s unsaid in the novel) forget the situation, of how the mother, typical of many an Indian mother of that age, surrounds herself with self-styled saints and immerses herself in prayer.
There is a consistent under-current of understatements in the novel and since it is being told by someone who grows from being a 5 year old it also has a certain ring of childlike innocence. What is best about the book is that it doesn’t try to tie every loose end and seek to find an answer to every question. The ‘being-in-America’ is just a ringer. Had the scene been in India the story would not have lost any of its content.
The book was ten-years-in-the-making! It’s worth the wait.