Akhil Sharma on Writing the Darker Side of Indian Life
The Author of A Life of Adventure and Delight Talks to Dylan Foley
In 2000, a 29-year-old Indian-American writer and investment banker named Akhil Sharma put himself on the American literary map by publishing An Obedient Father, a grimly comic, sprawling novel set in India around the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Ghandi.
The novelist then received a book contract to write a seemingly straightforward autobiographical novel about the devastating pool accident that left Sharma’s brilliant teenage brother in a 30-year coma, which almost destroyed his immigrant family. Sharma quit his day job and went to work.
Sharma fell down a twelve-and-a-half year literary rabbit hole, where he wrote and rewrote, but rejected scene after scene. At one point, with 7,000 pages, he refused to publish a completed draft. His marriage suffered, as well.
In 2014, Sharma published Family Life, a 224-page novel about an immigrant family and their healthy son dealing with the comatose brother. The dark, witty novel won instant critical praise and sold well.
Three years later, Sharma is back with his first story collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, about both Indian life in New Delhi and America. Sharma’s complex stories explore the corruption at home, the sexual violence and repression pervasive in Indian society, and how taboos and social castes affect Indian life in America.
“I was so happy to be writing short stories,” said the 45-year-old Sharma in a telephone interview from the main branch of the New York Public Library in Manhattan, where he is at work on some new fiction. “Stories are something that one is capable of abandoning.”
In the new collection, Sharma shows off multiple writing styles. “Comparing the first story ‘Cosmopolitan’ to ‘The Well,’ those are written in such different styles,” said Sharma. “‘The Well’ feels much more gestural, the brush strokes are looser, much freer. In ‘If You Sing Like That for Me,’ you can feel the story moving across time, not being bound to anything.”
The stories span two decades of work, including three stories that inspired both An Obedient Father and Family Life. “I wanted to honor the old stories by publishing them,” said Sharma. “The novels came out of them and the novels evolved from them. In relation to each other, the stories make a lot of sense. They show the development of a writing sensibility and what didn’t develop.”
In “Cosmopolitan,” Gopal is a retired engineer in New Jersey in his late fifties, an Indian professional who came over in the 1970s for economic opportunity. He has been stripped of his family, with his daughter living in Germany and his wife abandoning him to follow her guru in India. He starts romancing the middle-aged woman next door using quiz questions from women’s magazines. Gopal is awkward, but tries.
“I don’t think of him as a superfluous man,” said Sharma. “That’s more like the character in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. He doesn’t have that self-hatred or rage. He thinks of himself as having no place in the world and he’s incredibly alone. He’s scared, lost and confused.”
In one story that inspired An Obedient Man, a junior gym teacher in his forties brings his son to a packed, raucous wedding party for the son of a powerful senior teacher. The men are linked by corruption, taking bribes and stealing from the government schools they work for to finance the major political parties, the Congress Party and the BJP. The junior gym teacher collects bribes for his boss. He disgraces himself at the party by getting drunk and confrontational.
“It isn’t possible to write about India without writing about corruption,” said Sharma. “These characters are living in society, so they must deal with corruption in some way.”
“The corruption is likely to infect family dynamics,” said Sharma. “If you are dishonest outside in the world, it makes you cynical. It makes you angry. It makes you feel powerless, especially people who live economically marginal existences. That’s how I think of it.”
The devastating story “You Are Happy?” tells of an alcoholic Indian woman living in Queens. She is a gimlet-eyed, and after two stiff drinks at parties asks blunt, unsettling questions. The story is narrated by her teenage son, who watches her downward spiral. When rehab fails, the woman is sent home to her family and dies of “dengue.” The son realizes that his mother was killed by her own relatives for disgracing the family.
“I was talking to a man in New Delhi, who was in AA,” said Sharma. “I asked him if there are women alcoholics, and he said ‘No, we kill them all.’ I don’t have numbers, but I do think honor killings are quite common. So much of this is not reported. In the more conservative areas of the country, it is more likely.”
While virginity is still often expected in unmarried young women in middle-class India, Sharma uses the story to explore the sexual servitude and violence of the rural villages.
“Bringing it to the countryside made it a very different story for me,” said Sharma. “What typically occurs in the fields is sexual assault. This is more gross because of all the crap in the fields. If you are a wealthy person or if you own the farm, there are all these young women you can have sex with.”
The son of the murdered woman realizes that his father in Queens has a girlfriend in his home village. The rural mistress calls his father on the cell phone he gave her after his wife has been killed.
“Some of these women become the girlfriends of wealthier men,” said Sharma. “It’s common. It’s known. I do know men who have these relationships.”
Sharma also explores the sexual quandaries that Indian expatriates experience in the United States. The title story opens with Gautama, an amoral 24-year-old PhD candidate getting busted for soliciting a prostitute. Gautama’s true joy is not the actual sex with escorts from Craigslist, but in bargaining them down when they show up at his door.
“For him, it is more an issue of power than sex,” said Sharma. “He wants power and agency.”
Gautama has an epileptic sister at home and worries that the family health history will ruin his chances of setting up a good marriage. He winds up getting involved with another Indian grad student. She is kinder and morally more upright than Gautama. “When Nirmala starts telling people that she and Gautama are together, it is a serious matter. It is like a declaration of love,” said Sharma. “In India, people will hear about it and it will have consequences with their relatives.”
In a hysterical scene over Skype, his parents are apoplectic that he is seriously involved with a woman, wiping out their chances to negotiate a lucrative dowry.
“Gautama begins seeing this woman, and it is a nice relationship and she is a good person,” said Sharma. “There is such pressure by his family for him to be a certain way. That warps personalities and relationships.
“All the stakes are very high,” said Sharma. “In Indian society, you can’t just date someone. It has to be much more serious than that. This feels very burdensome. Part of Gautama’s response is to say, ‘Let me get the hell away from this.’” The story has a euphoric and comic ending, when Gautama shows old habits are hard to break.
In 2014, Sharma went on a book tour to support Family Life. In a flurry of witty interviews , he promised he would never write about his family again, and said that he wished someone else had written the novel.
“Man, it was a horror, a true horror,” said Sharma in his interview with Lit Hub. “Writing the novel was a terrible mistake, like a bad relationship. You look back and you say, “What the hell, why was I involved in this? A friend once said to me, ‘I spent a year getting into a relationship and four years getting out of it.’ That was my response to Family Life.”
Six years into Sharma’s brutal odyssey, his editor looked at a completed draft and said that it was good enough to send to the copyediting department, to start the publishing process.
“I turned him down,” said Sharma, “because it wasn’t a very good book. It wasn’t a book that was readable. It worked as a book, but it didn’t tell a story that people would be willing to stay with. The book was too dark. If a book is too dark, it controls you.”
Sharma became obsessed with the fluency of the scenes in the novel. “The book took place over many years,” he said. “There isn’t a strong causality—an event occurs, but it doesn’t necessarily cause another event. You have to get people into a scene and out of a scene. The more visceral you make a scene, the more it matters and the more present a reader is, and he demands more.”
In his story “If You Sing Like That for Me,” a young woman named Anita is given an arranged marriage. She realizes that the marriage is a mistake, and in a single afternoon, her love for her new husband dissipates, and though they are together for 30 years, she knows she won’t love him again. Sharma later used Anita as the sexually abused daughter of the bag man in An Obedient Father. In that novel, Anita methodically destroys her father when he turns his sexual interest to his own granddaughter.
The idea of evaporating love came from Sharma’s own youthful sexual initiation. “When I was 15, I started sleeping with a married woman who was 40,” he said. “She was straight-up batshit crazy. I was pretty screwed up, as well.”
“At some point, the woman told me that she had only loved her husband once as much as she loved me,” said Sharma. “The conceit of the story came from that moment.”
“The woman that I slept with was very melodramatic,” said Sharma. “She’d talk to a stranger in a grocery store, then would say, ‘Have a good life.’ That sense of attaching meaning to everyone is normal for someone who is scared. For Anita, to attach meaning to things, that makes sense. The tendency to attach meaning came from that woman.”
In Sharma’s stories, his characters often follow their own paths. In “The Well,” the last story of the collection, a young Indian man working in New Jersey falls for a sensual American coworker. They start sleeping together, but she still dates other men. He intentionally gets her pregnant to try to force marriage on her. His parents get involved, but the lover is not having any of it.
“The stories evolve after I start them,” said Sharma. “I have some sense of what is going to happen, but not much. With ‘The Well,’ I was not certain if she was going to have an abortion or not. I wasn’t certain until the end, until I’d written most of it. People are so surprising. People who you’d think would get an abortion don’t.”
“My writing style may have gotten more sophisticated over the years,” said Sharma, “but the issues that mattered to me when I was 19 or 20 remain the same, like how to form relationships, what does it mean to be you, to have the bravery to say things. All of these things remain true to me.”