Hamish Hamilton. First published 2014.
The story of a first generation Indian-American family - yes, yet another sub-continental immigrant's tale. But not 'Ho hum'. It is extremely well-written, though the story, perhaps semi-autobiographical, is not anything special. The narrator, Ajay Mishra, is a young boy, growing up from about seven to about seventeen. The family is middle-middle class North Indian (usually considered representative of all of India), from Delhi. His father immigrates from a clerical job in India to a clerical job in New Jersey, and takes his family along with him. His first son Birju, elder to Ajay by a few years, does well in school, as Asian immigrants are expected to. On the verge of entering a school that will set him up on the path to American upper middle class prosperity, he suffers an accident that renders him a vegetable. The happy family starts to break up under the pressure of trying to find the money, the love and the energy to look after him and, simultaneously, live normal lives. Ajay takes over the mantle of achiever, and enters Princeton, but not before learning to cope with a increasingly drunken father, and a more and more shrewish mother.
The writing, as I said, is smooth and brilliant. Sharply observed details of immigrant family life fill the pages, but are subtle and do not thrust themselves upon the reader. There almost none of the false notes one usually finds in such writing, writing that talks about Indian culture to a Western audience. The social and behavioural differences are not exoticized, or subjected to parenthetical explanations, except very occasionally. Almost every page has some sentence or phrase that makes one appreciate Sharma's writing prowess. There is humour, some pathos, melancholy, and finally, satisfaction - satisfaction that despite the apparent odds, Ajay is able to access the American dream. Descriptions of the horrors associated with taking care of a patient like Birju are unsentimentally given. Likewise his father's drinking habit and his mother's reaction to it are observed with clear, unclouded eyes.
Let me end with a more or less randomly chosen quote to illustrate what I have written above.
I stood at the foot of the bed. Birju's pubic hair was shaved to stubble. His stomach was a dome, and his G-tube, bound in a figure eight, resembled a ribbon on the side of a girl's head. 'Brother,' I said, 'I have never met anyone as lazy as you. Making people bathe you'.
My mother, finishing with the towel, straightened herself. 'Tell him, "I'm not lazy. I'm a king"'.
My father slipped his arms through Birju's underarms. He pulled him up until Birju was half sitting. My father grinned. He leaned down and said into Birju's ear. 'Why are you so heavy? Are you getting up at night and eating? You are, aren't you? Admit it. I see crumbs on your chin.'