Sunday, July 16, 2017

They are happy? On Akhil Sharma’s short stories about trapped people

[Did this review for Scroll]

An obvious trap when reviewing a short-story collection is to obsessively trace common themes and links between pieces that might represent very different aspects of a writer’s creative life. But the characters and predicaments in Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight often lend themselves to such analysis. Reading one of my favourite stories in this book, it struck me that its title – the deceptively simple “You are Happy?” – would work just as well for most of the other pieces.

In one passage in this story about a boy watching his mother fall into alcoholism and desolation, Sharma’s quiet, no-frills prose builds a litany of horrors. Lakshman’s mother must be taken to a detox centre after a nightmarish few days where she stayed in bed with her liquor and refused to get up even to go to the toilet, using a bucket next to the bed instead. Vomit lines her chin; she is led, dazed and half-dressed, to the bathroom. This is a very bleak day for the family, yet the paragraph about the drive to the centre begins “It was a bright Sunday morning” and goes on to describe Lakshman’s relief when he sees sunlight reflecting off the glass windows of the shops they pass.

“The flashes of light were like blasts of music. The occasional person walking across a road seemed like life going on, like life was always going to go on and so somewhere there was the possibility of things being different and happiness existing.”

The possibility of things being different, of happiness existing not too far out of reach… these words are reminiscent of a scene from another story, “If You Sing Like That for Me”, where a woman named Anita who stumbled into an arranged marriage – before she fully realized what was happening – mulls her discontent with her husband. He is a good man, but “what I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different, someone other than the person I was”. Someone like her sister, perhaps, who seems to have become a gentler, happier person after her own wedding.

Many of these pieces are about people who are either trapped in difficult situations or at an important crossroads. In “Cosmopolitan”, the middle-aged Gopal is adrift – minus the safety nets of work or steady relationships – after his wife leaves him. On the verge of becoming a sociopathic recluse who stays permanently at home, watching TV and bursting into giggles when he hears news of bombings in far-off countries, his senses are reawakened by the possibility of a relationship with his American neighbour. And in Sharma’s hands, what might have been an unremarkable little tale grows into a comedy of sexual etiquette and the expectations game. It is never too late to learn new things, Gopal finds, but it is also very easy to misread other people – or to deceive yourself.

Again, in keeping with the small ways in which these characters seem to call out to each from within the confines of their separate stories, Gopal put me in mind of the narrator-protagonist of “If You Sing Like That for Me” – telling us her story at a point where she has already been in a loveless marriage for decades, seemingly resigned that this is all her life amounted to. But what if Anita were to get another, unexpected chance? How would her response compare to Gopal’s, and would society afford her the same freedoms?

Frequently, we meet characters who are tied to traditional ways even as they try to be citizens of a changing world. (Some of the protagonists are Indians living in America.) In “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, a woman is startled when her new daughter-in-law boldly asks for shampoo when there is only soap in the house; she recalls her own days as a compliant bride and wonders if something is wrong with the girl’s mind. Later, though, she reflects that what she had thought was insanity might just be candour, and a small shift occurs in the terms of engagement. In “The Well”, the protagonist’s cultural references are mostly non-Indian (as a boy he has a crush on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Mrs Muir in The Ghost and Mrs Muir), but when his girlfriend gets pregnant, he self-consciously tries to do the “right thing” (even though the girl has no wish to get married), and tells his mother “I love her” in a Hindi conversation that sounds fake and melodramatic to his own ears.

Sharma is very good at unexpected little touches that creep up on the reader: a seemingly normal encounter giving way to something darker, patches of humour in a situation that is far from inherently funny. In “Surrounded by Sleep”, the life of 10-year-old Ajay and his family abruptly changes when his elder brother has a swimming-pool accident and is rendered vegetative. In one passage that is both comical and poignant, the efforts of Ajay’s mother to please God are likened to the boy performing somersaults to amuse his aunt; while the mother prays to more conventional Gods, Ajay turns to Superman. But droll as these scenes are, they don’t detract from the basic sadness of the situation: not just the tragedy of a family having lost a healthy child to a freak accident, but also the tragedy of a younger child – naturally self-centred and restless – whose life has come to a standstill; who must feel like he himself is living at the bottom of the pool where his brother spent three minutes, in a place where everything happens in slow motion.

I particularly liked the little asides and detours, such as the coda that closes “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, where a middle-aged man – whose son has just got married – watches a young boy singing on a bus. Passages like these prioritize the creation of mood over plot, and there are many quietly observant moments in this vein. A couple who have just started dating negotiate some awkwardness while dining at a restaurant that is temporarily allowing customers to pay whatever they think is fair (while the manager keeps a suspicious eye on the opportunistic Indian diners). During a fight between his parents, a boy starts hopping about and acting like a cartoon character, “as if we were on a TV show and people were laughing at my cuteness”. When Anita’s sister says of their father, “If he wants to die, wonderful […] but why is he making it difficult for us?”, Anita is shocked – not by the apparent callousness but by the directness and honesty, which makes her realise that her own sentimentality may have been a lie.


Given that these stories mainly follow the “show, don’t tell” mode – allowing the gradual accumulation of events to reveal things about the characters and their inner worlds – the weaker bits are the ones where information is explicitly provided or underlined. And some of this may have to do with the need to spell things out about a culture that isn’t familiar to the readership. (These pieces were originally published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review.)

I’m usually wary of the allegations of “exoticising” that get directed at non-resident Indian authors – too often, these are built on defensiveness and hurt feelings rather than an engagement with the actual writing or an attempt to understand another perspective. But it still feels heavy-handed when the omniscient narrator of “You are Happy?” informs us that “In India, on farms, pretty young women are as common as rabbits. It is easy to have sex with girls who are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.” Or when the otherwise subtle “A Life of Adventure and Delight” throws in this bit of exposition:

Gautam 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.”

In a more minor key, why spell “Defence Colony” (the south Delhi neighborhood, and a proper noun) as “Defense Colony”? Or repeatedly use “lentils” when “daal” would have done perfectly well? (Especially given that the author uses “roti” in a similar context, and even has a woman address her father as “Pitaji” in a sentence that must have been spoken in Hindi but is conveyed to us in English.)

These are small irritants, though, and they don’t take much away from the universal appeal of these stories, full of attention to detail, gentle humour, and insights into how strangely people might behave when circumstances overwhelm them. And when happiness becomes hard to grasp or define.


[An excerpt from "Cosmopolitan" is here]

No comments:

Post a Comment