The New York-based author chats with us about his latest book, A Life of Adventure and Delight, and how events from his personal life inspired his writing
Reflecting with Akhil Sharma: love, life and culture shock
“I don’t know if you find a home in exile, but you learn to be comfortable with yourself,” explains author Akhil Sharma. “And that’s the big issue for these characters.”
Sharma is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to promote his third book, a striking collection of short stories entitled A Life of Adventure and Delight. All eight stories have a setting in either India, Sharma’s native land, or America, his adopted homeland. When not dealing with culture-shocked Indians abroad, he writes about Indians floundering in their own country. “Oftentimes these are characters who are in foreign or uncomfortable situations, and don’t know how to behave.”
Sharma makes for a fascinating interviewee, whether expounding on his life or his work. Like many of his characters, he has experienced head-on cultural collisions, and been forced to move on and fit in. When he was eight, his family emigrated, trading New Delhi for New Jersey. “I remember coming to America and finding it overwhelming, and not fully understanding the language,” he says. He missed “cricket and companionship”, and sought comfort from books and became a voracious reader.
Does he have any recollections of the India he left behind? “I’m 46 now, and everything has changed, including memories of who I was. But I remember in India you didn’t turn on the lights during the day because electricity was expensive. And cars were rare where I grew up. I came to America and was stunned by the wealth.”
In his home country he was always surrounded by family. “You rarely had to step out of the world of people you knew. Within that world I was rambunctious. Outside of that world I was quite shy.”
In America, he became even more withdrawn. “For a few years I had a very hard time speaking.” Paradoxically, it was a visit back home that helped build his confidence. “I went to India for a couple of weeks, and somehow that cracked the ice. I was so full of life. Once I began talking, it was hard to stop. It was like being out of control.”
The new-found volubility didn’t always sit well with those around him. “Indians are a bit strange, in that there is this weird emphasis on modesty, politeness and demureness. Meekness is privileged over authenticity, over being honestly angry or expressing your desires.”
In the first story in Sharma’s collection, Cosmopolitan, an Indian-born character confesses that despite all the years he spent in America, he has not been able to truly “Americanise”. The author admits that he didn’t properly do so himself until he was well in his thirties.
“I think this was partly because I grew up in a family which was very conservative. They didn’t integrate culturally. They drew comfort from religion and received support from the Indian community.”
Sharma’s second novel, Family Life (2014), is a fictional account of his emigration and prolonged acclimatisation. But the crux of the book is the tragedy that befell his family, and which coloured Sharma’s childhood. His older brother, Anup, dived into a swimming pool, hit his head on the bottom, and was left permanently brain-damaged. Sharma changed the names and chronicled a family convulsed by the accident, consequently ground down by stress, alcohol and huckster-healers.
The book, which Sharma has called both a coming-of-age story and an immigrant story, went on to win the 2015 Folio Prize and the International Dublin Literary Award. But writing it was a struggle. It took over twelve years, and at one point weighed in at 7,000 pages. If Sharma was once unable to stop talking, here he was unable to stop writing. He eventually hacked it down into a readable, saleable form. “I knew it was done when I could read it all the way through without being disgusted.”
Family Life began as the short story Surrounded by Sleep, which is included in the new collection. It is no rough draft or aborted effort, rather a tightly focused self-contained drama that manages to be, by turn, tender, absurd and devastating. Ajay’s parents are “eroded” by the calamity. Ajay holds his breath and asks God to give the “unused breaths” to his brother.
Other stories are equally happy-sad or bittersweet. The un-Americanised Gopal is one of Sharma’s many lonely souls searching for love and connection, in his case with his neighbour. In a bid to understand her, he reads women’s magazines. Elsewhere, another gauche male looks to YouTube for guidance on kissing.
“My characters tend to be very odd people,” Sharma says. “It’s just the way I see the world. People are crazy!” He goes further than this in one story by having his narrator declare: “Many people are vile”.
Sharma’s vilest creation is the anti-hero-protagonist of his 2001 Delhi-set debut novel, An Obedient Father. Ram Karam is a corrupt civil servant who drowns himself in drink, and abuses his own daughter. When I ask if he wants the reader to be repulsed by Ram, Sharma’s reply is deliberate and succinct: “I want to hold the reader by the back of the neck so that they can’t look away”.
That first novel invited comparison with Dostoevsky. Meanwhile, Sharma’s stories have been described as Chekhovian. His prose is lucid, unadorned, stripped of extraneous detail; and yet, beneath that seeming simplicity lurk hidden depths. This has led some critics to veer away from Russian role-models and cite Raymond Carver as a primary influence. Sharma disagrees.
“Things can get said in stories, but in Carver, things are left unsaid. And my characters are compulsively talking. Also with Carver, whenever there is a deep, strong emotion, the camera doesn’t focus in. That sense of scrutinising is present in my work in a way it is not in Carver.”
The author learned to write as a teenager “by reading a lot with the idea of imitating, mastering an awareness of form”. For a period, he immersed himself in Hemingway, but could only glean so much inspiration. “I read him closely, trying to understand him. But it’s hard to understand a writer unless you believe what he or she believes. And a lot of what Hemingway believed was gibberish, like his attitude towards women, or this idea of building everything in relation to death. Mostly, life has nothing to do with death – we are just muddling along thinking small thoughts.”
Sharma honed his craft at Princeton where, while studying public policy, he attended courses in creative writing taught by Paul Auster and Toni Morrison. After further studies at Harvard Law School, he embarked on a career in investment banking – but made time to write. “I’d always written,” he clarifies. “The banking was the aberration.” After his first book was published, he turned to writing full-time.
His stories are the work of a committed author. The naïve and blundering boys prove endearing and entertaining, as do the men who resemble Gopal’s battered station wagon: “dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on inside”.
However, two standout stories revolve around captivating women. In the chilling You Are Happy?, an alcoholic mother brings shame on her family, so she is sent from America to India to be killed. In If You Sing Like That for Me, the wife in an arranged marriage looks back on the few hours that she was in love with her husband.
“My belief is that in India, we start out with arranged marriages and hopefully they turn into love marriages,” he says with a grin.
Sharma had a tough start in the United States, enduring not only shyness and alienation, but also racial abuse. Are today’s immigrants made to feel more welcome in Trump’s America? “No. The stuff that people would keep quiet, they are now making more obvious.”
Even in his home city, that multi-ethnic melting-pot, New York? “I was walking down the street in Midtown Manhattan and this convertible Rolls-Royce went by, driven by a guy who looked Middle Eastern. There were these men in suits, and one turned to his friend and said: ‘Look, Ahmed is driving his daddy’s Rolls’. There is such a nastiness that has been unleashed by Trump. These are rare incidents, but they are polluting the environment.”
It seems too facile to throw one of Sharma’s story titles at him – “You are happy?” – so instead I try a quote from a story. “A life is like a house. One has to plan carefully where all the furniture will go.” Has he done so? Is his house in order?
“No,” he says. “My house is a mess. I am still trying to figure out how to furnish it.”