Only extraordinary writers can write a gripping novel without a neat plot. Akhil Sharma’s slim novel (228 pages in the hardbound edition that I got – it would be just half of that if formatted a la the old Penguin pocket edition) tells the story of the Mishra family in America. Everything is going fine for this newly migrated family when tragedy strikes in the form of an accident that the elder son, Birju, meets with. The accident renders Birju practically lifeless: severely brain-damaged. The novel shows how this tragedy affects the other three family members. The story is told by the younger son, Ajay, who is eight years old at the beginning of the novel.
Ajay grows up seeing his father becoming an alcoholic and mother struggling to cope with the hardships. Ajay has a grudge somewhere within him about mother’s fondness for the comatose Birju. What makes the novel marvellous is the way the novelist expresses the feelings, emotions and attitudes of his characters. See, for example, how Ajay tells us about his mother’s attachment to Birju: “Her (mother’s) belief that Birju could get better made me feel that she didn’t love us, that she valued believing something ridiculous over taking care of us, that she was willing to let us be hurt so she could have her hope.”
This is what Ajay tells us about his father’s alcoholism: “When he went upstairs to drink, I saw him choosing to be happy. It was, in my eyes, a mark of sophistication to find a way to be happy in a difficult situation.”
The novel has nothing much by way of a plot. The comatose body of Birju hovers over the entire novel like a brooding, oppressive spirit. The body brings in all kinds of visitors too: sympathisers, admirers of the ability of the Mishras to absorb their suffering, miracle-workers, quacks... When Mr Mehta, one self-proclaimed miracle-worker gives up after much effort to bring Birju back to normal life, fails to turn up any more and conveys the message through his irritated wife that he was not well, Mrs Mishra bursts out: “Indians are that way. They are cowards. Instead of admitting they made a mistake, they would rather lie and try to blame you.”
The book can be of particular interest to alcoholics (of any degree) as it throws much insight into the mind of an alcoholic. See what Ajay, the narrator, tells us about Ernest Hemingway in the context of his (Ajay’s) father’s alcoholism: “Hemingway had been an alcoholic and his characters often drank too much. Their drinking appeared false, though, because there were no consequences. It was like how cartoon characters fall off cliffs without being injured. Spotting this lie in Hemingway made me feel superior to him, and this bit of superiority led me to feel anger and contempt and being angry was pleasurable.” I wonder why the sentences played an Irish jig in my mind for a long time. Is it because I am a quasi-cartoon character myself who keeps falling off cliffs without being injured (not significantly, at least)? Or is it because it is yet another part of the novel that highlights the quintessential absurdity of life, an absurdity that is at once comic and painful?
The novel can enchant you. I found it seductive, as seductive as life is, as seductive as life’s pitfalls are.