Ever since our very First Annual Fiction Issue, back in 2006, Akhil Sharma has been one of our "great white whales." We have been trying to publish his work since he released his debut novel, An Obedient Father. In short, An Obedient Father is a story about a young girl in India and her father, a civil servant, who rapes her. But the book's great surprise, astonishment even, is how he managed to add a humurous aspect to it. For example, the book opens with a description of a government function in India where one clerk is asked to demonstrate his martial arts skill and he obliges by attacking a sign, with a volley of punches and kicks.
But Akhil's next novel is more personal, more brilliant, more tender, more sad, more hard-won, and more honest. If you're the betting type, put money on it: National Book Award, Pulitzer, and the Book Critic Circle-thingy. Akhil's in the running for a hat trick. I gave him a call to talk about his new novel.
VICE: Can you tell me the basic premise behind your new novel?
Akhil Sharma: It's about my brother Anup and how we dealt with his accident in the swimming pool, which created a cascade of problems like seizures and pneumonia. Once Anup's situation stabilized, my family decided to take him from the nursing home and bring him to the house and take care of him themselves. Now that we were away from institutions, we felt that we needed to try all sorts of crackpot ways to get my brother to wake up—wake up as if he were asleep, instead of destroyed. We did this partially because the hospital and nursing home had refused to let us try these cures and loyalty seemed to require that we try everything. We also did this because my mother continued to hope that Anup would recover.
All the people who came to wake my brother were nuts. Most of them were ordinary people: dentists, engineers, candy shop owners. They would do such things as shout at my brother or try to make him drink water as he lay flat on his back. I am not sure what the reasoning was. These were people who claimed that God had appeared to them in a dream and said that they should go wake my brother. I was 12 then and even as a child I knew these were vain people, that it was vanity that made them want to perform a miracle. I also remember that when these people visited us, I felt proud that my family was so important that strangers would come visit.
I still feel twisted up talking about this. Everything I described was funny and ridiculous and yet there was so much love in what my mother was doing. Also, I recognized this love and I did not want her to act on it because I knew that what she was doing by letting these people in our house was crazy and I wanted my mother to be sane and realistic.
What do your parents think of the book?
Neither of my parents have read the book. Honestly, I don't want them to read it. I think the book makes them appear rather irresponsible and I don't want them to be hurt by this representation. When we are sad and tormented, we often do things which are not the best for us and our loved ones in the long run. I think showing what my family was like might make them feel hurt or embarrassed and they might not see how much I love them.
Is there a portrayal of alcoholism in the novel?
Yes. Alcoholism and drug addiction is a serious problem within the Indian community and it's something that we don't talk about. Often, when confronted with it, we Indians try to excommunicate the addict and his or her family. We say that alcoholics are not really Indians. It is like how Jews claim that alcoholism isn't a big problem within the Jewish community. Another effect of alcoholism is that the family of the addict withdraws from the community due to shame. At one point, the novel had another hundred pages or so of a plot involving the father trying to work with Indian alcoholics and get them sober.
Akhil Sharma's second novel, Family Life, will be published in April by W.W. Norton & Company. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for an excerpt of Akhil's work in the March issue of VICE.