Sunny Leone and kerosene stove rotis in Akhil Sharma's new book
Sharma's new collection of short stories, A Life of Adventure and Delight, has characters that are the oddest of oddballs.
- Total Shares
A young woman who marries her inconsequential husband out of laziness and then proceeds to dream of running away. A young boy whose mother ends up an alcoholic in America. A retired AT&T employee whose wife has left him for an ashram and whose daughter has gone off to live with her German boyfriend. And Ajay and Birju, from A Family Life, once again with sadness, as Ajay prays to God to deliver his brother from the coma he has slipped into.
The author of the exquisite A Family Life recreates life in seventies America and India, with just a few detours into the age of Google. His characters, if they live in America, still marvel at the stocked shelves and the vast malls. And if they live in India, they still deal with peeling walls, kerosene stoves, and candlelit kitchens, a shortage economy that seems a million years away now.
They are also, hauntingly lonely. Gopal, recently abandoned by his wife and daughter, is desperate to make contact with some human, even volunteering for a community he doesn't care about, and convincing himself he loves someone, Helen, a divorcee he barely knows.
Anita, always suffering in comparison with her smarter sister, is overcome by her own mundane existence, but too fearful to do anything about it. And Gautama, from the no-hope city of Gwalior, all the way into college in America, only really wants to have sex with as many women as possible before being forced to marry the woman his family wants.
They are all half-formed individuals with slight stories, inconsequential, invisible, unimportant. But they're the vast multitude that make life. His pivotal story, the ironically titled A Life of Adventure and Delight, has Anita living a life that is anything but as she endures her marriage to Rajinder.
A Life of Adventure and Delight, by Akhil Sharma; Penguin Random House.
Sharma writes of the death of low expectations poignantly:
"The neutrality of Rajinder’s features, across the restaurant table from me, reassured me that we would not meet after that dinner. It was not that I expected to marry someone particularly handsome. I was neither pretty nor talented, and my family was not rich. But I could not imagine spending my life with someone so anonymous. If asked, I would have been unable to tell what kind of man I wanted to marry, whether he should be handsome and funny. I was not even certain I wanted to marry, though at times I thought marriage would make me less lonely.
"What I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different, someone other than the person I was. Rajinder did not appear to be such a man, and although the fact that we were meeting meant that our families approved of each other, I still felt safe. Twice before, my parents had sat on either side of me as I met men found through the matrimonial section of the Sunday Times of India. One received a job offer in Bombay, and Ma and Pitaji did not want to send me that far away with someone they could not be sure of. The other, who was very handsome and drove a motorcycle, had lied about his income. I was glad that he had lied, for what could such a handsome man find in me?''
This is a generation whose parents measured distance in Kos and counted change in annas; whose children in America would be satisfied with a pizza and candy after throwing a tantrum. Where people still had answering machines. Where STD booths were still good business.
For someone who left India in the '70s, Sharma has a remarkable grasp over the smallness often prevalent in small-town India. As he writes about Gwalior:
"Gautama was from Gwalior, a small city in Madhya Pradesh, one of those wretched places where the streets are narrow and crowded and where shopkeepers in the central market sell illegal postcards of suttees sitting on bonfires. When a merchant sold one to you, he’d touch the card to his forehead as if he wanted a last blessing before letting the goddess leave. Gautama was an ordinary middle-class boy. He knew he would have to get married one day, and he hoped to have as much sex as possible before then, but he also believed that any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her, was in some way depraved and foul and also unintelligent. He wished he could have sex with Sunny Leone."
Funny and sad. Comic and poignant. Sharma's here to stay.