Growing Up, Broken: Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life”

This essay contains spoilers. I heard Akhil speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, the source of all quotes attributed to him.

What does it family lifemean to grow up in a home struck by tragedy, the effects of which linger long after the tragedy itself? This is the theme of Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life,” a bleak and poignant fictionalized memoir.

Soon after Ajay’s family (Akhil is fictionalized as Ajay), moves from India to the United States in the 1970s, tragedy strikes when Birju, Ajay’s elder brother, is brain-damaged in a swimming accident. How does the family cope, and not cope, is what this book is about. While his father starts drinking to drown his sorrow, his mother continues to keep the faith that Birju would get better, and looks for God-men and miracle workers to cure her son. In the middle is Ajay, a little boy who’s world is broken, and who’s parents don’t have the emotional wherewithal to parent him.

Akhil spoke about what it was like to write this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year. “I shattered my youth against this book,” he said, “I was 30 when I started writing and 42 when I finished. I may not have written it if I knew it would take so long.”

In this decade that Akhil took to write this book, he showed up to write for five hours every day. Whether or not he wrote, he sat at his desk in a little cubby with a computer, a stopwatch, and his thoughts.

In a remarkable feat of empathy, he wrote the book from the perspective of his father, his mother, his elder brother Birju, and himself, as he sought to piece together his shattered childhood. Ultimately, he wrote “Family Life” in his own voice as a young boy growing up.

Some of the most touching parts of the book deal with Ajay’s attempts as a child to make sense of the tragedy, his sense of survivor’s guilt, and his reality of taking up adult responsibilities much before his time.

In a moving passage, Ajay describes how he felt crossing the swimming pool where Birju had hurt himself irreparably:

I wondered what had happened to the pool’s unlucky water after the accident. Had it been drained? Probably it had not. All summer long, people must have swum in the pool and sat on its sides, splashing their feet in the water, and not known that my brother had lain for three minutes on its concrete bottom one August afternoon.

Just a nine or ten-year old, Ajay does not know that this tragedy will influence his life for decades to come. When his parents move Birju back home from the nursing home, Ajay is crushed under the weight of helping his parents take care of Birju, who needs to be bathed, clothed, and fed.

How much of the physical horrors resulting from the accident and its aftermath should he share with the readers was a question Akhil grappled with. He chose to narrate only some of the horrors: readers would not be able to bear the full extent of the blows. He narrates the horrors in such a matter-of-fact way, the reader can choose to speed through; stopping will mean feeling and those feelings are devastating.

In addition to the physical horrors, Ajay and his family also suffer deep emotional wounds. Ajay’s survivor’s guilt is poignantly captured in this passage:

Brother-life,” I said, using a phrase because it was melodramatic and because by saying something melodramatic, I could make myself sound ridiculous, like a child, and so not to be blamed for my good luck of being OK, “my English teacher wanted us to write a paragraph on what we did during the summer. I didn’t have a pencil. What kind of a fool am I?”

As I spoke I had the feeling that I was being watched. I had the sense that some man was looking at me and this man knew I was not very good and yet I had received so much of the family’s luck.

In their codependent household, happiness remains out of reach, and for Ajay, separating from his family, especially from his mother, to find happiness seems like a betrayal.

Not only was I luckier than my brother, but I was also more fortunate than my mother. I wanted to shriek. While a part of me was glad I wasn’t like my brother, no part of me wished to be more fortunate than my mother. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to be apart from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her.

When he got into Princeton and thought about starting “his own” life, Akhil did not want to be ok, because he knew his parents wouldn’t be ok. His happiness was inter-twined with his family’s happiness and being happy was always tinged with guilt.

In a poignant scene, Ajay talks about his first girlfriend, and how he just wants to keep talking with her, confiding in her, and unburdening to her. It is painfully clear then that Ajay has not spoken since the accident.

Does this pain, an amalgam of the tragedy, the neglect, the parentification, ever go away? “(If you’ve had) difficulties with family, it doesn’t get over. It goes on and on and on,” says Akhil.

As painful as it was for Akhil to process and write, this book, he says, is a love letter to his family.  It is about piecing together his broken heart, and being able to see the broken hearts of his family. It is about expanding the two-dimensional view of his experience as a child, and seeing it in three dimensions.

As a teenager, Akhil had wondered, how he could write “to earn a good lifestyle” as he pored over the biographies and the works of Hemingway. The interviewer asked him if he had made the money that you wanted, found the happiness he desired. “Money, yes,” Akhil answered ” (Am I) happy, I don’t know. I have a satisfying life, I’m not sure a happy life.”

Having examined the pieces of his shattered childhood, Akhil says “Whatever happened, happened. What do you do today to be happy? How can I be of service to others?”

Writing this book has been his act of service. Akhil helps his readers to embrace their own pain and find comfort in the book. As little Ajay describes his experience reading:

Vanishing into a book, I felt held.

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