Akhil Sharma only recently accepted, on purely political grounds, the mantle of an immigrant writer. His reluctance to get boxed in, despite the fact that he migrated from India at age eight, lies in the conviction that his work answers to universal dilemmas and not just immigrant concerns. This change of stance is inevitable: the stories in his recent collection A Life of Adventure and Delight, like his earlier novels, are clearly the work of an Indian immigrant writer, bridging India and an immigrant world physically in America but not without its very Indian preoccupations and prejudices.
Sharma’s ample talent and focus on technical literary achievement are on full display here even if the themes of the stories tend to overlap, a fact more obvious in a collection than when they were published individually. A keen Hemingway student, he has achieved commendable lucidity in his prose, making a conscious effort to free the narrative from weighty metaphors or descriptions of sense, smell or feel. In fact, he seems to be writing from a distance, as if wielding a very long nib, with each sentence a clean, measured stroke. That enables him to keep an even, if at times impersonal, voice that neither rises in anger nor quivers in sadness.
Of the eight tales in this collection, “Surrounded by Sleep” stands out for its irony, its understated sadness and long shadows. This largely autobiographical story, later expanded by Sharma into his 2014 novel Family Life, explores how an immigrant family is eroded by the constant presence of tragedy when their elder son suffers irreversible brain-damage in a swimming pool accident. The nightly bargaining sessions by Ajay, the 10-year-old younger brother and Sharma’s alter ego, with a God resembling Clark Kent in cardigan and slacks (he finds dhoti-clad, flute-playing Krishna incongruous in the situation) are brilliantly sketched. Ajay wavers between praying for his brother’s recovery, or for 100 per cent on his math test, or for fame and wealth. Ultimately, he realises that “the world was always real, whether you were reading a book or sleeping, and that it eroded you everyday”.
Sharma again brings out the empty ritualism and petty corruption of daily religion in “We Didn’t Like Him”, which follows a neighbourhood bully who grows up into a cell phone-wielding, profit-seeking priest. The narrator’s harsh, angry act at the end, a climax to a life of antipathy, gives the story a clean, hard edge and resonates long after.
Not all the stories are successful. “Cosmopolitan” relates to an on-off affair between Gopal, a retired Indian immigrant, and his American neighbour, an ageing divorcee, weeks after his wife has walked out of the house for no apparent reason but the clichéd desire to go to a guru in India. One is never sure if Gopal is truly bereft — he doesn’t miss his family, yet sleeps disheveled in socks and underwear on the living room couch. He behaves inexplicably like a teenager, grabbing his neighbour — whose first name he doesn’t know — as soon as she is within clutching distance and reading back-issues of Cosmopolitan on how to be a good lover. The lady too cannot find anything better than the teenage perennial I-love-you-but-am-not-in-love-with-you with which to break off. Finally, Gopal understands the ravages of age on seeing his neighbour’s old and tired station wagon and concludes “This is who we are . . . dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on inside.” But this Fitzgeraldian flourish comes too late for the story to evoke the ragged sadness of an affair of convenience.
Sharma is clearly more comfortable writing about immigrant India than India itself, where his knowledge appears restricted to a certain time and place. He shows reasonable familiarity, in more than one story, with the well-known Sabzi Mandi area (its translation as “Old Vegetable Market” is clunky) as well as with the social norms and two-wheeler aspirations of the lower middle class. But he often falters on detail. A Delhi Municipality employee is hardly likely to serve unlimited whisky to sundry wedding guests as in “The Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, and certainly not at a time when marriage proposals were accompanied by black-and-white photos. There is still no flight that can get you from Delhi to America in 11 hours as in “You are Happy?” And in the late 1980s there were no Hindi-medium law schools that took in students straight after high school as claimed in “We Didn’t Like Him”.
But these are quibbles. Having freed himself from his personal trauma through a 12-year slog on his novel Family Life, Sharma also needs to free himself of the burden of the Indian setting. His considerable narrative prowess deserves full play in the wider world that he knows best, unashamedly immigrant and beyond.