All iIllustrations by Armando Veve. Excerpt © Akhil Sharma. Family Life will be published by W.W. Norton & Company on April 7, 2014.
Family Life is the second novel by Akhil Sharma. His first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway Award. He was a recipient of the Whiting prize and was one of the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40.”
We are honored and humbled to be able to publish an excerpt from Family Life. It is based on something that really happened to Sharma and his family. Shortly after they came to America from India, Sharma’s older brother hit his head on the bottom of a swimming pool. He was below the surface for three minutes. He was brain damaged.
This is the kind of story few writers could ever tell, because few would remember or dare to see themselves in the moments after the tragedy. Sharma’s narrator recounts his habit, as a boy, after the accident, of having long conversations with God, whom he envisioned in gray wool trousers, collared shirts, and crew-neck sweaters. He asks God, “How famous will I be?” He also renders the mundanity of caring for his brother, the tedium and the indignity. How he manages to make this funny, we don’t know.
Anyone who has been touched by great personal loss will recognize the truth of this account, and the acuity and mercilessness of the writer who would reveal himself and his family in this way. Of course, this is fiction and not memoir—these are characters and not people. But in Family Life, Sharma reminds us of the power of the writer who gives shape to the chaos of life. If it were in our power we would say, “Here are the National Book Award and the Pulitzer, Akhil.” As it is we can only entreat you, if you trust us at all, if you have ever thought we had a good sensibility, to go and buy this book. Family Life, Akhil Sharma. Buy it, tweet it, Facebook it—let’s do this thing.
Akhil recently joined us on the VICE Podcast to discuss his novel and the line between fiction and memoir. Check it out here.
My parents had moved to Metuchen because it was one of the few towns in New Jersey that had a temple. A month or so after we arrived, my mother combed my hair and took me with her to see the pundit. It was a Tuesday night, one of three evenings when he sat at the temple, another converted church with the musty American smell and a refrigerator in the back of the large idol-lined chamber for the ceremonial milk and bananas.
My mother explained our situation to the pundit. “Birju is in a coma,” she said, though Birju’s eyes were open and he was not in a coma, but was brain damaged. “The doctors say that they don’t know what can happen. He could wake tomorrow.” I wondered why she was saying this. I guessed that it must be because people are more likely to help if they think there is hope. If there isn’t any, they might try to avoid us, because who wants to be around someone depressing? “I go every morning to the nursing home. His father comes in the evening. I am so glad there is a temple in town.”
The pundit stood before us, leaning slightly forward. He was a handsome man in his thirties, tall, broad shouldered, with a thick mustache. It was strange to come to a pundit for help. This was not what one would have done in India. In India, pundits are not counselors or spiritual leaders, but functionaries, performers of rituals, the equivalent of low-level government clerks who put stamps on papers and who always have their hands out for a bribe. My mother used to speak of pundits with disgust. “Nobody had ever seen the back of a pundit’s hands,” she would say. Once, she told a joke about a pundit who fell into a deep hole. People reached down into it and said, “Give us your hand,” but the pundit sat in the hole pouting, his arms crossed. An old man pushed himself to the front of the crowd. He said, “Is this any way to talk to a pundit?” He reached into the hole and said, “Take my hand.” Immediately, the pundit grabbed it.
I felt contempt for the pundit because he was a pundit. I also felt contempt for him because he was not a real one. Mr. Narayan was an engineer who volunteered at the temple. In the seventies through the mid-eighties, when most of us prayed in one another’s homes, even communities that had managed to buy or build a temple could not afford to pay a pundit, and so the pundits tended to be volunteers, usually especially pious men who, because of their piety and because of a reputation for virtue, were asked if they would be willing to lead ceremonies and sit in the temple on certain nights. In India, it was unheard of for a pundit to visit parishioners who were sick, or to offer help to families in trouble. These volunteer pundits, though, perhaps because they were just very decent people, behaved like the Christian pastors in the hospital.
A few days later, Mr. Narayan came to visit us in Birju’s room. It was a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon. It had been important to get him to come during the day so that my father would not be drunk. Mr. Narayan sat in a chair along the side of the hospital bed. He did not seem to care that Birju had his eyes open and so was not in a coma—perhaps the word coma did not mean something specific to him? Mr. Narayan sat up straight with his hands in his lap. It was strange to have him there. I had grown so used to our being alone with Birju that I had begun to feel that my brother was no longer real to the outside world. Yet Mr. Narayan’s presence made Birju feel more ordinary—the fact that seeing Birju did not cause everything to change for Mr. Narayan made it seem like what had happened was not being understood.
Mr. Narayan had a bright, modest smile. He appeared eager to please and nodded at everything my parents said. His friendliness irritated me. “Why should I be proud of what I am doing?” my father said. “I am not glad to be doing it. I hate doing it.” Mr. Narayan nodded, as if this frankness showed virtue and he was agreeing not with the statement but with the honesty.
My mother, who was standing behind my father’s chair, would not let him say this unchallenged. “Whatever you say, I am happy I’m here to take care of my son. What if I were dead and there was nobody to care for Birju? Thank God I have breath in me so I can love him.”
The pundit had us invited to a Ramayan Path in somebody’s house. The steps leading up to the front door were covered in slippers and sandals and sneakers. Inside, too, the foyer was swimming in shoes and sandals. To our left was the living room. It was empty of furniture. White sheets were spread over the floor, and a man near the altar at the front sat reading from the Ramayana in his lap.
It had been a long time since we were around so many people.
“What are we going to do?” my father murmured, looking down as he stepped on the back of his loafers to pop them off.
“We’re going to meet people,” my mother hissed.
We went into the room to our right. This was jammed with guests and also sofas standing on their ends. There were so many people that I could only mostly see stomachs and waists. Walking through the crowd, nervous, I felt that the men and women around me were not living real lives, that my family, because it was suffering so intensely, was living a life that was more real than these people’s, whose lives were silly like a TV show.
My mother and I and my father ended up in the kitchen. Here the light was diffuse because of the steam from the pots boiling on the stove. Our hostess, a large Punjabi woman, came up to us. She had a ponytail and was wearing the baggy shirt and pantaloons of a salwar kameez.
“Ah, Mrs. Mishra,” she said, taking my mother’s small hands in her large ones, “your story is like a fairy tale.”
I liked this flattery. Still, I felt that our torment was being diminished by being compared to something unreal.
“Brother-in-law, thank you for coming. When I tell people your story, they are amazed.” Mrs. Kohli pressed her hands together before her. My father stammered a namaste.
Mrs. Kohli introduced us to a woman standing nearby. The woman was in pants and a shiny silk blouse. This meant either that she was lower class, since she was not dressed appropriately for a religious ceremony, or she was very educated and did not have to be like other people. “Her son is in the nursing home,” Mrs. Kohli told the woman.
“My son had an accident in a swimming pool,” my mother said. “He’s in a coma.” She said this shyly, as if she were sharing something precious. I became irritated. I thought, No. Birju is not in a coma. He is brain damaged. He is destroyed.
“Can he not talk at all?” the woman asked.
“No,” my mother said. Admitting this, she looked embarrassed.
“If you are in a room with him and sitting next to him, will he not know it?”
“There is no coma,” my father said. “He is not asleep. Our son has his eyes open. He can’t walk or talk. My wife says this coma thing because she thinks this sounds better.”
Mrs. Kohli smiled. She nodded her head proudly. “See? A parent’s love knows no shore.”
My father said, “I’m going to go sit down.”
Mrs. Kohli took us to meet other women. Again, my mother said that Birju was in a coma. These women, too, kept asking whether Birju really could not talk at all.
About an hour or so after we arrived, the reading of the Ramayana was nearing its end. Women sat cross-legged with their heads covered as if they were in temple. My mother and I sat together. My father sat nearby, his head bowed, looking down at the white sheet.
Usually, the host or hostess is the one who reads the end of the Ramayana. Mrs. Kohli came walking through the crowd, stepping carefully past knees. She reached my mother and me. Looking at my mother, she said, “Please come. Read the last verses.”
“Ji, that is for you to do.” My mother appeared at a loss, like someone trying to refuse an expensive gift from someone she hardly knew.
We began receiving invitations to people’s houses, usually in connection with some religious ceremony. When we went, we were treated very respectfully, especially my mother. As soon as she entered a house, she was surrounded by women. It was as if we represented something—love of family, sacrificing for others. I, too, began to say that Birju was in a coma. This seemed what people wanted to hear. Once I told a man that Birju was brain damaged, that there was no hope, and he looked down at me and smiled and nodded like I was saying something other than what I actually was.
People visited us at the nursing home. Mostly these were couples with children. Often, it appeared, they hoped to teach their children a lesson. Once a man scolded his five-year-old daughter in front of us. “See what we do for you? Would an American do what Aunti and Uncle are doing? An American would say, ‘You have to stand on your own two feet. You live your life, and I will live mine.’ This is what we Indians do. We love our children too much. Go touch Birju brother’s feet.” The girl went slowly, hesitantly, to the hospital bed. Birju was wearing white socks. His feet were lying on a sheepskin, and because their tendons had shrunk, they turned inwards and almost met.
We also had men visit who said they could make Birju normal. These were men who worked as travel agents, candy-shop owners, engineers. A few came with their wives. Most came alone. Once, a mathematician who taught at a university visited. He had a horseshoe of hair around his scalp and a little narrow mustache. He sat by Birju with his hands on his stomach, his legs stretched before him, and he began quietly to lecture on Hindu scripture. He chuckled as he spoke, as if he were surprised by his own intelligence. Some of the words he used were English, and he used these when he wanted to show that he recognized science. “Ji, this akashvani, obviously this is a radio.” He said “obviously” in English. “Many things,” he said in English, “which Westerners say they invented, we had thousands of years ago. Aeroplanes. Television.” Then he switched to Hindi. “There is proof. It is not like I am just saying this.” He said this and laughed. He picked his nose, examined the snot, and flicked it beneath Birju’s bed.
I was used to people saying Indians had invented most things. I had heard such claims many times before. A few men that visited said God had appeared to them in a dream and told them how to wake Birju. Others said that they had learned a cure from a saint in India.
I did not like these “miracle workers.” It seemed to me that they wanted to try their so-called cures on Birju because doing so would make them feel that they were at the center of important things. Still, there was comfort in having visitors. I dreaded the moment of their departure, when my parents and I would be alone again with Birju. When people left, the loneliness came so quickly that it was as if a window had been opened and cold air had rushed in.
Ordinary people, people who were calm, cheerful, and polite, also visited. They invited us to their homes for dinner. In some ways my mother liked them more. With her suspicious nature, she saw melodrama as a way of covering things up. But the melodramatic people said more extreme things. They gave us more attention.
My parents began to speak of buying a house where they could take care of Birju themselves.
“Even if we found a good nursing home, I would have to go there every day,” my mother said.
Mr. Narayan sat by Birju’s bed. It was a weekend afternoon. “Living with him sounds very hard,” he said meekly.
“It isn’t fair for Birju’s mother to have to come every day,” my father said. He was standing and drinking tea. “How long can she do this? She has to have a life, too.”
Mr. Narayan didn’t answer. He was quiet for a moment, and he looked like he was concentrating earnestly, trying to comprehend something that was beyond him. When he spoke, he sounded hesitant. “Still, it sounds very hard.”
“If we don’t come every day,” my mother said, “he will get bed sores, he will get infections, he’ll die. We have no choice. Either we do everything, or we do nothing.”
A few days later, after prayers at temple, Mr. Narayan introduced us to a real estate agent. Mr. Gupta was tall, muscular, handsome. He had a ring on every finger, and to me, because I assumed they were worn for luck, he looked superstitious, as business people tend to be. Mr. Narayan said that Mr. Gupta would help us and not charge a commission. Mr. Gupta said, “It would be a blessing for me if I can be of help.”
At this generosity, my mother began telling him how terrible our life was. “I get so scared every morning,” she said. “When I walk into the nursing home, I think, What am I going to discover today?” My mother did not normally complain to strangers, but perhaps she assumed that somebody willing to do us such a favor must feel a great deal of sympathy and so she could be honest.
Mr. Gupta stood silently, politely before us.
“Thank you,” my father said.
A few days later, we went with Mr. Gupta to look at houses. Mr. Gupta owned a blue Mercedes sedan. None of us had ever sat in a Mercedes before. This was exciting.
My father got into the front passenger seat, and my mother and I got in the back. It was a Saturday afternoon in spring.
As we drove, apropos of nothing, my father said, “Mr. Gupta, the tastiest food I’ve ever eaten was cooked over dung fire.”
Mr. Gupta didn’t say anything. He stared ahead as he drove slowly, his hands near the top of the steering wheel.
“I think there is something about dung that makes flavors sweet.”
My father looked at Mr. Gupta as if he wanted a reaction. There was an eagerness to his face, and I could tell that he felt important because he was riding in a Mercedes and was going to spend thousands of dollars.
“I think so, too,” Mr. Gupta finally said, switching on the turn signal. “I’ve told my children this. ‘Dung!’ they say. ‘Eeew!’”
“I like simple things. Simple things are sufficient. A roti, some pickle, maybe a dry subji. That is enough.”
“The best things are simple,” Mr. Gupta agreed. “I don’t like rich things with cheese. You have to stay up half the night digesting.”
“Happiness can only be found inside oneself. It can’t be found on the outside in expensive things. You hear that, Ajay?”
My mother stared out the window.
“Did you hear?”
“I worry about India,” my father said to Mr. Gupta.
“Why is that, Mr. Mishra?”
“Even the smallest things people don’t do. Mahatma Gandhi advised, after you relieve yourself, just cover it with a little dirt so the flies don’t spread disease. Does anybody do that? That’s the kind of people India has.”
“I hate to say it, but it’s true.” Mr. Gupta said this without emotion. To me he appeared to be agreeing because this was the polite thing to do.
My father kept talking. “It’s not so much that we are better than whites, but that the people who come from India to America are the best Indians.”
We visited several houses that day. It was strange to go into bathrooms and to think that a white man had stood in the tub, that the dirt and smell of meat that had covered the white man had been rinsed into the tub. It was strange to walk on carpets and to think that the bare feet of white people had walked over them. I kept expecting to find a Playboy magazine on a coffee table.
After that first Saturday, we began visiting houses for sale every weekend. One afternoon, we were in a house whose owner had already moved away. He had left behind his furniture. I stood in the kitchen. It had a sliding glass door. My parents were outside on the small back lawn. I could see them talking to Mr. Gupta but couldn’t hear them. The kitchen was completely furnished. There was a table, a toaster oven, a coffeemaker, a wooden block with knives in it. Standing there I had the sudden realization that probably we would never go back to India, that probably we would live in America forever. The realization disturbed me. I suddenly saw that one day I would be nothing like who I was right then. This was like sensing my own death.
I had not told anyone at school about Birju. I had been afraid that if I did, they would misunderstand in the same way that the women at the Ramayan Path had misunderstood, and then their confusion would make me feel that what had happened to Birju was so unimportant that it could be misunderstood.
One morning, while the teacher was taking attendance, I leaned over my desk toward Jeff, the boy who sat in front of me. “Hey,” I hissed. “I have a brother. When I said I didn’t have a brother, I was lying.” Jeff turned around. He had a pale oval face, sandy hair, and a nose that came to a point. “My brother’s name is Birju. Birju. My brother is fifteen, almost sixteen. He had an accident in a swimming pool. He jumped into a pool and bumped his head on the bottom and was underwater for three minutes. He became brain damaged. He’s in a nursing home near Menlo Park Mall. This happened nearly two years ago. It happened in August. Not last August, the August before.” I said all of this in a rush, terrified, almost before I knew what I was saying. “I’m sorry I lied to you.”
For a moment Jeff looked at me silently. Then he nodded. “That’s all right,” he said. “Just don’t do it again.” He turned away to face the front of the class.
Mr. Esposito called Jeff’s name. Jeff raised his arm and said, “Here.” Mr. Esposito then called my name and I too raised my arm.
As attendance continued, I looked at the back of Jeff’s head. Beneath his light brown hair was very white skin. My heart was racing. I wanted Jeff to turn around and express pity. Attendance ended. Mr. Esposito asked us to take out our social studies textbook. The children around me began doing so. I leaned over my desk once more. “My brother was very smart,” I said. “He had gotten into the Bronx High School of Science. The Bronx High School of Science is one of the best schools in the country.”
Jeff nodded. The back of his head went up and down.
Above the blackboard was a banner with capital and lowercase letters side-by-side: AaBbCc. Big brother, little brother.
I sat back in my chair. I had decided to tell Jeff because I was so unhappy, because everything was terrible, and because I had thought that if I told him about Birju, he would pity me and become my friend. Now I had the feeling that I had wasted something.
After school, I stood on the sidewalk and waited for my mother. She picked me up in our station wagon. At the nursing home, the door to Birju’s room was open with the blinds raised and the lights on. We left them that way so that Birju would be easier to see from the corridor, in case something went wrong.
My mother entered Birju’s room. She yelled, “Hello, lazy! Hello, smelly!”
Birju jerked in place. The springs of the bed squeaked.
“Fatso!” I shouted as I walked in behind her, and Birju jerked once more.
“Look at what your brother calls you,” my mother said. She pulled Birju up by the shoulders and slid a second pillow under his head.
“Fatty! Fatty!” I cried.
“Tell him, ‘I’m no fatty.’”
Birju was chewing his mustache. His face was swollen and almost square from medication. “Fatty, fatty,” I said. I smiled and wagged my head. Pretending to be younger than I was, too young to notice Birju’s gruesomeness, always seemed the proper way to behave.
My mother spread a newspaper over Birju’s chest. Sitting sidesaddle on the bed, she began feeding him pureed bananas using a long spoon that was coated in rubber. “Yum, yum,” she said as she pressed the spoon to Birju’s mouth. Birju smacked his lips, took the mush into his mouth, and then puffed it onto the newspaper.
I saw this and thought, Even a baby swallows what it likes. Immediately, cool guilt slid over me like a cloud’s shadow.
I was at the school playground the next morning, waiting for the starting bell, when Jeff came up to me. He had a book bag dangling from one shoulder and both hands in his back pockets. He said, “Have you ever asked your brother to blink once for yes and twice for no?”
One of the reasons I had not told anyone was because I was afraid of questions like this. “I have. It doesn’t work.” Even when I had tried this in the hospital, with nobody else around, I had known that it would have no effect.
“Have you ever shouted ‘Fire!’ and run away and then seen if he would get up?”
“No,” I murmured.
Jeff stared. “That might work.”
“I’ll try.” I was quiet for a little while. Jeff remained standing before me. I said, “My brother was a genius. He took French for two weeks and after that he could speak it perfectly.”
Jeff nodded. He looked serious, like he was being given a secret mission.
The school doors opened. Jeff and I went inside together.
At lunch I sat down across from him and his best friend, Michael Bu, a Chinese boy with a round face and sharp little teeth like a fish. “Can your brother not talk at all,” Michael asked, “or does he sound retarded?”
My face became hot. I had considered asking Jeff not to tell anyone about Birju, but it had seemed too much to ask. “Not at all.”
“What does he look like?” Michael asked.
I put a tater tot in my mouth and pointed a finger at my lips.
“What’s wrong with your brother?” Mario asked. Mario was sitting next to Michael. Mario was very tall and wide. He had fuzz on his upper lip. Once, when the class sang, “You Are My Sunshine,” he had cried. The children sometimes mocked him by singing the song.
“He had an accident in a swimming pool and became brain damaged.”
“Does he open his eyes?” Mario asked.
Jeff said, “I saw a television show where a woman sees a murder and goes unconscious.”
I pursed my lips to appear serious. “That happens.”
“How does he eat?” Jeff asked.
I began to feel attacked.
“There is a tube in his stomach.” I told them about the Isocal formula and the gastrointestinal tube. I said, “My brother was a great basketball player. He played two games and immediately got so good that he began beating people. When he played, people came to watch.” By lying, I felt that I had placed a finger on a balance that was tilting too far to one side.
Within a few days, everybody in class had heard about Birju. Still, boys and girls came up to me during recess to ask whether I had a brother, as if the secret could be revealed again.
Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant that Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was extraordinary. Birju, I said, had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory.
Sometimes I didn’t tell these lies, but only imagined them. I concocted an ideal brother. I took the fact that Birju had told our parents that I was being bullied and turned this into him being a karate expert who had protected me by beating up various boys. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju and when I was in his room kiss his hands and cheeks. They also cultivated rage at the loss, the way my father’s claims of racism cultivated it for him.
A part of me was anxious about the lies I told. I was afraid of being caught or doubted. Also, making up these stories seemed to serve as evidence that Birju had not been good enough for what happened to him to count as terrible. Each morning I woke up on the sofa thinking of the lies I had told. Often I didn’t want to go to school.
At some point, I became aware that Jeff no longer believed my lies. Yet when I came up to him on the playground before school, loyalty demanded that I keep lying. “Birju solved a math problem that professors hadn’t been able to solve for years,” or, “My brother was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground.” One morning, when I stood outside school and told Jeff a lie, he stepped back and rolled his eyes.
In May, we put down our deposit on a house and told the nursing home that we were taking Birju away. The evening of that day, once we had finished dinner, my father put on his shoes to leave.
“You don’t need to go,” my mother said, still sitting on the floor. She said it quietly.
“Stop bothering me.”
After he was gone, I put the dishes in the sink, threw the newspaper in the trash can, and sat down on the sofa with a stack of Time magazines I had borrowed from the school library. I read Time as training, because it was boring and because I needed to be able to do boring things now that we would be caring for Birju. I read an article about the sound quality of LP records compared to that of CDs. I read a book review of a rich person’s biography. Supposedly the rich man was so cheap that he wouldn’t order desserts at restaurants because restaurants provided sweets for free at the ends of dinners. I wondered what kinds of restaurants these were.
My mother came and sat down at the other end of the sofa with her bag of sewing. Around ten, there was scratching at the door, metal on metal. We had heard this once before. That time my father had turned on the lights and stood by the door. He had shouted, “Who is it?” and kicked the door until the burglar went away.
Now, my mother stood by the door. “Who’s there?” she demanded.
There was a chuckle in the hallway. It sounded like my father. My mother yanked open the door. He was crouched in the hallway, trying to fit his key into the keyhole.
He came into the apartment. He walked toward the sofa and half fell onto it.
“Get me some water,” my father said. I went to the sink and poured him a glass.
My mother said, “Come lie down.” She helped him up and led him to the mattress behind the sofa. I brought the glass and my mother took it from my hand.
A few days later, on Friday night at temple, many different people came and tried to touch my parents’ feet. The news had spread that we were taking Birju out of the nursing home.
“Get up. Get up,” my mother said to a woman bending down before her.
My father said, more roughly, “There is no reason for this.”
At school, I told Jeff that I had seen a swami cause a rope to levitate, and then the swami had climbed the rope and vanished into the sky. I told Jeff that I had seen a swami who was thirsty knock on a wall, and the wall spout water.
One day at lunch I told Jeff and Michael Bu a fairy tale that my grandfather had told me and I claimed that it had happened to my uncle. I told them that one of my uncles in India could speak the language of birds. This uncle had overheard two crows discussing a murder. As I told the story, I leaned forward over the lunch table, feeling the usual panic in my face. “My uncle went to the police station to tell them. The policemen he talked to thought that the only person who could know what my uncle was saying was the murderer, and so they arrested him.”
Michael asked, “Do Indian crows speak the same language as American crows?”
The question baffled me. I sat there silently for a moment. Then, not knowing how to reply, I answered, “Chow wow, eat dog lo mein.”
Jeff and Michael began to show their dislike openly. It was now June and hot. In the mornings, when I would try to join them in some ordinary conversation, such as last night’s episode of The A-Team, they would turn their backs on me and keep talking. Once, I came up to them on the playground, and they just walked away. When I walked after them, they went faster and began laughing.
One lunch period, I sat down across from Jeff and Michael in the cafeteria and said, “We’re starting to move the furniture that we’ve bought. We’ll move to our house right after school ends, and then Birju will be brought a few days later.”
Jeff and Michael went on with their conversation.
“I’m going to take French next year,” Michael said, keeping his eyes directly on Jeff.
“I’m going to take French, too,” I said. “My brother studied French.” I remembered Birju calling me monsieur and how funny it had sounded.
“Spanish is more useful,” Jeff said, looking at Michael.
“France is a more important country than Spain,” I answered.
“Do you hear something? I don’t hear anything,” Michael said.
“The Spanish teacher seems nicer,” said Jeff.
I said, “On Saturday mornings, nurses’ aides come to Birju’s room and shave his crotch. They do this because of Birju’s urinary catheter. The catheter looks like a condom. To keep it from slipping off, they have to tape it. They don’t want the tape to get caught in the hair.” Jeff and Michael stared at me. They appeared shocked.
“When they do that,” Michael said, “does your brother’s dick get hard?”
Speaking calmly, like I was talking about some ordinary thing, I said, “Birju’s G-tube needs to be changed every six weeks. It needs to be changed or he gets infections. The G-tube is actually two tubes next to each other. The G-tube goes in here.” I pressed two fingers to the right side of my stomach. “One tube is thin and longer than the other and has a balloon at the end. Once both tubes are in Birju’s stomach, the doctor fills the balloon with water. This keeps the tubes from sliding out. The thick tube is what the food goes through. To change Birju’s tube, the doctor takes the water out of the balloon and slides out the tubes.” Jeff and Michael were staring at me, and my voice got higher and higher as I told this awful truth. “When the doctor puts in the new tube, the tube sometimes misses the hole in the stomach. It scratches the outside of the stomach.” I lifted up the two fingers I had been holding against my side. I bent them into a hook and scratched the air. “Sometimes the outside of the stomach starts bleeding.”
Later, during science class, with the lights off because Mrs. Salt was showing a video, I leaned all the way over my desk till my lips were right next to Jeff’s ear. I whispered, “Birju had some X-rays recently, and we discovered that he had broken three ribs a while ago. Maybe some aide dropped him off the bed one night and didn’t tell anyone. For months we moved him and exercised him when he had broken ribs.” Speaking the truth made me feel powerful.
The next morning, I went up to Michael on the playground. He was talking to a boy, and without saying hello, I said, “The patients at the nursing home are always getting sick, and the antibiotics give them diarrhea.” Michael stared at me, confused. “Sometimes this happens at night, and the nurse’s aide doesn’t clean the person. There are acids in the shit, and if the person isn’t cleaned till morning, the acids cut the skin right here.” I was wearing shorts, and I used both hands to rub the insides of my thighs.
“You’re a freak,” Michael said.
“It’s the truth,” I answered. To say the horrible truth and to know that I had seen awful things made me feel that I was strong and Michael was weak.
Fifteen minutes later, inside my classroom, all of us stood by our desks and said the Pledge of Allegiance. I stood with my hand over my heart, and Jeff did the same thing two feet in front of me.
Once the pledge was done, before we took our seats, I told Jeff about the naked girl. “She’s down the hall from my brother. She’s eighteen or nineteen. Her boyfriend strangled her, and when he thought she was dead, he put her in a closet. She didn’t die. She became brain damaged.” Jeff turned around and glared. “Nobody comes to see her, so she’s almost always naked. They only dress you at the nursing home if they think you’ll have visitors. Otherwise, it’s too much work because the people who live there are always soiling themselves. Sometimes the door to her room is open. Her pussy has black hair. The hair looks like ants.”
I finished speaking. Jeff didn’t say anything. I had been nervous and I became even more so. I put a hand on my desk and tried leaning casually against it. Jeff punched me in the middle of my chest. I felt as if a wave had gone over me. I stumbled backward and fell.
Mr. Esposito skipped lightly across the room. He grabbed Jeff’s wrist. Jeff’s hand was still clenched. Mr. Esposito shook Jeff’s wrist till the fist opened.
I pushed myself onto my knees and stood. “I fell,” I said.
That Saturday my father and I went to Jeff’s house, a blue ranch-style home with vinyl siding and cement steps that rose up to a cement platform and a screen door. Behind this was a blue wooden door.
The door opened, and there stood a tall, slender woman in black jeans.
“I’m Rajinder Mishra,” my father said. I had brought my father there because I felt that perhaps Jeff did not appreciate how terrible it was to have Birju the way he was, and if somebody else told him about Birju, he might then perhaps become sympathetic. I had told my father that Jeff did not believe that I had a brother in a nursing home and that it was important that he understand. “Ajay,” my father said, glancing down, “is a friend of Jeff’s.”
I held up two Superman comic books. Returning these was the excuse for visiting. “They’re Jeff’s.”
Jeff’s mother led us into a kitchen with blue counters and cupboards. Several brown grocery bags sat on the counters near the refrigerator. Mrs. Miles shouted, “Jeff!” She then asked my father if he would like some coffee.
“Could I have water?” My father’s lips were white and chapped from the dehydration of his drinking.
Jeff’s mother poured him a glass, and my father drank it quickly.
Mrs. Miles opened the refrigerator and began emptying the grocery bags into it. My father and I stood silently side by side. After a moment, my father said, “Your son has been very kind to Ajay.” Mrs. Miles looked over her shoulder and smiled.
My father put his hand on the back of my neck. I sensed that he was about to talk about Birju, and I regretted having brought him.
“My other son, Ajay’s older brother, had an accident in a swimming pool and was severely brain damaged two years ago. Two years this August.”
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Miles said. She closed the refrigerator door and turned toward us. She had blue eyes and a strong, masculine jaw. She looked serious and handsome.
“We had only been in America two years when it happened. Ajay is sensitive. Your son has been a good friend.”
“Jeff’s a sweetheart,” Mrs. Miles said.
“Ajay’s sensitive, and it’s difficult for him to make friends.”
Mrs. Miles opened her mouth to say something. Jeff came into the kitchen. He was wearing gray sweatpants and a white undershirt. There was a diagonal crease on one cheek as if he had been lying on it. Jeff saw us, paused mid-step, rolled his eyes, and kept moving forward.
I tugged my father’s hand and said, “We have to go.”
“We brought your comics,” my father said, smiling and pointing to where they lay on the counter. “I was just telling your mother about Ajay’s older brother. Ajay’s older brother had an accident in a swimming pool and is brain damaged.”
Jeff went to the grocery bags and, standing on his toes, peered into one.
I tugged at my father again.
We left the house.
Outside it was hot and humid. We walked back toward our apartment through the town’s nice neighborhood. The houses that lined the road were large and set back, some behind tall oaks.
“He’s stupid not to believe you.”
I didn’t say anything. I peered at the trees and the houses beyond them. I wanted my father to not talk.
“People are stupid, crazy,” he said. “A woman came up to me at temple and said, ‘I wouldn’t mind my son being sick if I got a lot of money like you.’” He raised his voice. “Vineeta buaji said we were being emotional. That’s why we were taking Birju out of the nursing home. I said, ‘If I’m not emotional about my own son, who am I going to be emotional about?’”
We came to a red traffic light and stopped. “You have to ignore people like that Jeff boy. Expecting sympathy from somebody like that is like expecting sympathy from dirt.”