Akhil Sharma talks about Family Life, the novel based on how life went on after his brother suffered brain damage in an accident.

After a series of unsatisfactory email exchanges, we decide to talk on the phone. It’s about 7:00 am in New York and Akhil Sharma is getting ready to board a train to Washington D.C.

He has about an hour, he says, but I am so used to being in a state of total disarray an hour before any departure that I dare not linger. Akhil, however, is calm and patient and we have what is one of the most difficult and yet wonderful conversations I have had with a writer in a while.

Akhil’s deservedly acclaimed Family Life must have been an extremely demanding book to write but it is also a difficult book for me to ask questions about. I feel guilty, as if I were probing too intimately, or picking at old wounds. Akhil sounds unaffected, cheerful even. He is charming, disarming and earnest in a way that has now become old-fashioned.

Family Life is the story of Akhil’s brother becoming brain damaged after a swimming pool accident and how the family copes with the enormous tragedy.

One of the first questions I ask, rather hesitantly, is whether it was difficult for him to write a book in which his parents don’t necessarily come across as very heroic or as flatteringly portrayed.

He responds, “When you love someone, you love them completely. There are things about me that I am ashamed of, but when I can share these with others and they still love you, it’s wonderful. When someone is ill or something goes wrong at home, we all end up behaving a little bit badly. We all know how difficult it is, how complicated it is to look after someone who is ill. This book is my way of loving my family completely. Of saying, I can see you and you are deserving of love.”

The book’s theme of one family coping with tragedy is largely universal but I wonder if the fact of the Sharmas being an immigrant family necessarily makes the story very different. Akhil talks of how an immigrant family is a bit more in danger because it does not know how to handle issues like insurance companies and hospitals.

“Also, immigrants often define themselves in opposition to the larger society around them. This might cause them to be stubborn in a way that they would not be in their own country.” In the book, Akhil’s family decides they need to take care of their son themselves because they are ‘Indian’. In fact, the father keeps anger alive by insisting that the lifeguard did not give his son mouth-to-mouth resuscitation because he was brown. It’s easier when you have someone to blame, the book implies, than to accept that their son was a victim of pure chance.

I keep thinking of how very difficult it must have been to write a book such as this. Akhil acknowledges the pain but talks of the great benefits. “It helped me understand my past. It helped me feel greater compassion for my parents. It led me to seek a more joyful way of living.” Interestingly, he says he wrote it because he thought it would be “interesting material”, not to exorcise the past. “The good that came out of it was an additional benefit.” 

And what about the pain that must lie in describing a near one’s physical disability? “I found that I had to tone down the reality a little bit,” he says. “We lived with the disability every single day, every moment. I could not allow it to become so obvious, so powerful to the reader.”

The book uses the device of removing the ‘sensorium’, a process Akhil describes: “A writer makes a scene feel real by using all the senses, by describing sound, smell, sight, texture. I discovered that if I could remove sound, smell, texture, I could make the narrative read faster because the scene would be less compelling. After I had thinned out reality this way, I added exposition and introspection to make the narrative have the feel of reality.”

Reading the book, I realise it’s not just sensory realities but all excess emotion that has been pruned. Akhil says he did this because “when you are in a very difficult situation, the whole experience is so emotional, so overwhelming that you have to respond to it indirectly; you cannot linger too much. There are moments of deep emotion — as when the little boy goes to the bus stop to meet his mother after the accident and says ‘I have already cried’ — where you want to be very careful, where you cannot say too much. In an earlier draft, I had much more emotion, consistently. But I found that it was actually less moving to the reader.”

I tell him that his sparse, dispassionate prose reminded me of Coetzee. Was he inspired by him? “Not directly,” says Akhil, “He was not a conscious influence. We are interested in the same thing; we are part of the same tradition, fellow travellers, but he is not an influence.”

Twelve and a half years. That’s an enormous amount of time to spend on a book. And in several interviews, Akhil has spoken of how he wishes he had not spent this huge part of his life on the book. It seems a sad thing to say; were the years wasted?

“Not a waste; it’s just a trade that I would not have made. My brother’s accident made me a different, better person, but I wish it had not happened. I am glad that this book has had so much response, has helped so many people but, for me, the cost has been tremendous. I wish I had not written it; that someone else had.”

The idea of ‘helping’ others recurs often. I am a little surprised, but Akhil reiterates the thought.

“When my brother died two years ago, my parents wanted to help others, to do good, they wanted something good to come out of it. I felt the same way. My motivation for this book was different from that for my first book. Then, I wanted to write a good book. With this, I wanted to help others.”

“There is no point for this book to exist if it cannot help others. Yes, the book is technically very good but I don’t care how great a work of art it is. All I care about is that it can offer comfort to others.”

Before we end, I tell him I will mail the link to the interview.

“I prefer not to read my interviews or reviews,” he says, “the highs are much higher, the lows are much lower. It’s like being drunk.”