By Chet Yarbrough
Family Life: A Novel
Narrated by: Vikas Adam
Akhil Sharma writes about his life as a young Indian immigrant that arrives in America with his family in the late 1970s. “Family Life” is the second book written by Sharma. One presumes the story is about a unique immigrant experience; interestingly, it is and it isn’t. “Family Life” is about family life. Every family has its joys and sorrows, but Sharma offers useful and universal ways of coping with unexpected events and family crises that occur in every family’s life.
Sharma calls the story a novel but it tracks his real life experience as an immigrant, a child, a brother, and a son, while growing up in America. Sharma’s novel seems written by a very young person. He began writing “Family Life” in his 30s; now in his 40s, after nearly 13 years of writing and re-writing, the book is published. Lines of the author are simple, as though coming from a child’s vocabulary. As the story progresses, one realizes this is a child speaking with an adult’s sensibility.
“Family Life” exemplifies childhood’s feelings of being an outsider. Undoubtedly, being an immigrant magnifies that feeling. The older brother of Sharma’s Indian’ family is challenged by the English language. Though the family knows English as a second language, when they come to America, the youngest family member is already eight years old. The older brother is pushed by his mother to improve his English, study hard, and take an entrance exam for an academically recognized high school in Queens, New York. The older brother qualifies for the school but before classes begin, his life is tragically interrupted. A swimming accident deprives the older brother of oxygen for three minutes. He becomes permanently disabled.
Ajay’s older brother is brain-damaged. His parents are devastated. Ajay’s father turns to alcohol to cope with his oldest son’s accident. Ajay’s mother holds the family together. Ajay’s mother becomes a warrior in battle with the hospital and nursing home that treats her older son for his injuries; i.e. every family, whether native or immigrant American, needs a warrior when disaster strikes. Ajay’s mother’s intransigence and shrewish habits are her way of coping with life; particularly, family crises.
Sharma makes the point that excelling in a discipline and finding friends are universal ways of coping with outsider feelings. Ajay, the hero of Sharma’s story, is the younger son. Ajay views his older brother somewhat jealously, both before and after the accident. Ajay identifies with his brother’s ability to excel academically but, like a child, views his accident as a way to escape the trials of life.
Any child going to school for their first time remembers feeling like an outsider. Ajay, as an eight year old boy, goes to his first American school and is bullied but finds it possible to cope by studying and excelling academically. That coping mechanism is not within every child’s capability but all children develop ways of coping with life’s hardships. Academic excellence through study and hard work is Ajay’s coping mechanism; athletics may be another’s, avoidance by skipping school, though foolish and self-defeating, is another option, and finally, there is friendship–drawn from gatherings of like-minded children (which can be good or bad depending on a gatherings purpose).
Sharma shows how caring about others is a universal human’ experience. Ajay is the author’s remembrance of family life. The older brother survives two years in medical facilities after the accident. The mother insists on bringing her older son home because affordable institutional’ nursing services are abysmal. Bad nursing home’ service rings a bell for anyone in America who has looked into long-term health care for loved ones. Unless one is wealthy, high quality care in a nursing home is not available. For the poor, nursing homes are a place that assuages family’ guilt and warehouses the indigent until they die.
Caring for a brain-damaged son or an alcoholic family member is a trial for any family. Ajay’s mother makes caring for her sons and haranguing her alcohol-riven husband as ways of coping with family life. Sharma notes that though Ajay’s family life is uniquely Indian, it is also universal. Every family is challenged by life. Being an outsider, alcoholism, a lost job, a son’s physical and mental disability, a mother’s obsessive behavior; i.e. all are part of Ajay’s family life, but many of those experiences are part of every family’s life.
Every human being chooses their own way of coping with life’s imperfectness and hardship. Ajay chooses academic excellence and becomes a successful stockbroker. His older brother chooses to take a risky dive into a concrete pool and interrupts a promising life. His father decides to immigrate to America but is overcome by alcoholism. His mother obsessively pushes her point-of-view; but cares for an invalid son, stays married to an alcoholic, and raises an accomplished American’ business man. All of it or pieces of it are part of what is called “Family Life”.
Now it is the Dreamers and the crises of DACA. How hard and difficult life is without family. How hurtful America’s immigration policy has become.