"A heart is such a heavy thing that we're always looking to give it away," a boy sings in one of the eight stories that make up Akhil Sharma's haunting new collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight. The world of these oddly compelling tales, arranged in a sequence to suggest emotional continuities, resonates with the mood of this lyric. For if the shadow of melancholy crosses these pages, there are also redeeming flashes of tender irony and wry humour that bring welcome relief to the gathering gloom.
A keen perception of sadness, without any cloying sentimentality, is Sharma's signature style. Those who are familiar with his second novel, Family Life, have already had a glimpse of his unsparing genius. Twelve agonising years in the making, it tells the story of an Indian family in the US devastated by a freak accident that befalls their eldest son. Based on a real-life incident that left Sharma's own brother bedridden and in the care of ageing parents until his death at the age of 40, it reconstructs several comfortless years, where life seems to overwhelm the impulse to fictionalise.
Curiously, an abridged version of the novel comes back into this collection again, perhaps because it was first published in the form of a shorter story in The New Yorker, but it doesn't feel dissonant to the overall unity of the volume. Moving between Indians struggling to settle in the US and those fighting other battles back home, Sharma's stories seem to be linked by some of the defining crises of desi life: a crippling sense of guilt (mostly induced by the sheer lack of feeling any guilt at all), emotional blackmail, usually from the parents, directed through gestures small and large, and an abiding fear of obscurity, while ignoring the promise of stability that a regular life holds forth. "What a good man, I thought, and was frightened," as a newly-married woman says about her husband in one story, "for that was not enough".
A variation of her anxiety runs through several of the characters in the collection. In the opening story, a middle-aged Indian man finds himself single after 30 years of marriage when his wife decides not to come back from a visit to India. Her grown-up daughter now lives on her own with a boyfriend. Her husband she had married many years ago not out of love. No wonder she feels more at home in a spiritual retreat in India.
The quandary Gopal finds himself in, after years of a householder's existence, is precisely articulated by Sharma: the awkward attempts at breaking his celibacy, the exact shade of confusion over sleeping with a white woman who may not be in love with him, every quivering human dilemma is outlined down to the last heart-wrenching detail.
In another story, the protagonist is borderline obsessed with a distant cousin he utterly deplores but cannot come to spite. Selfish to the core and a leech, the man fills the narrator with revulsion — but also with the sorry awareness that he "did not have the courage to take revenge" when he finds the object of his loathing at his most vulnerable. If Sharma is singularly relentless is documenting the depths of human depravity, he is equally reluctant to allow his readers a firm moral lens to judge his characters through. With each twist of the plot, he makes it ever more difficult for the reader to align their empathy, or even to clearly decide their feelings, towards anyone.
Particularly complex are the men, their inscrutable terrors and long years of internalised prejudice obscuring every good sense or filling them with misplaced self-confidence. The second half of the volume chronicles four such men in different stages of awakening or ruin (as the case may be). A PhD student in the US, riveted by sex-workers, fails to find comfort in the ordinary; a young man in Delhi, oppressed by a patriarchal father, discovers lightness after an arranged marriage with a plump girl; a boy lives in mortal terror of his alcoholic mother and his father's misdemeanours; and another man pays a sharp price for his selfishness and delusional hope.
In spite of the wildly shocking themes, Sharma's prose remains a study in quiet control, an affirmation that fiction speaks most eloquently about the horrors of life when it operates at its most understated.
A Life of Adventure and Delight is published by Penguin Random House, Rs 599, hardcover.
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