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It took Akhil Sharma* 13 years to write this semi-autobiographical novel. Like the character Ajay, whose thoughts we follow in the book, Sharma moved from India to the U.S. when he was eight years old, and his brother was then similarly injured in a swimming pool accident and spent 30 years in a coma.
A Tragedy that Changed Everything
This is a powerful, mesmerizing book, Ajay’s relentless, matter-of-fact honesty building up, via mostly short sentences and simple statements, to create his interior world as a reality we experience and understand, making us ache for him.
After his brother’s accident, the life of everyone in the family was subjugated to and shaped by the brother’s needs, even though he was brain-damaged and had no awareness at all. For the rest of Ajay’s childhood and adolescence and on into adulthood, the family dynamics revolved around the body that needed 24/7 care, at first in a nursing home — the family spent most of their hours there also — and then at home, which care the the local immigrant Indian community interpreted as a saintly act, going so far as to send their sons to be blessed by Ajay’s mother before they sat for their SATs or other important exams.
This long excerpt gives you an idea of Ajay’s voice and the unexpected ways he interprets what he sees. Here he’s relating accompanying his father to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, as a young teenager — he went along to make sure his father didn’t go out drinking instead of to the meeting. Ajay has been listening to attendees share their stories of how badly their lives have gone wrong.
I also got angrier and angrier at the thought that white people behaved in such ways and yet they were the ones who were important.
The meeting started at seven and ended at eight. When it finished, people stood around the room and held hands and said the Lord’s Prayer. My father and I joined in the hand-holding and tried repeating the words as they were spoken. Saying them, I felt that we were trying to pass as whites.
Immediately after this, we were surrounded by men who began giving my father scraps of paper with their phone numbers. I wondered what these people wanted from us. At the hospital, a nurse had brought us tubes of hand lotion and bottles of talcum powder and tried to get us to convert to Christianity. She had said that if we believed in Jesus Christ, Birju would get better in a minute. When she realized we were not going to convert, she took the hand lotion and talcum powder away.
Outside the church, I became giddy with relief. The wind was wet and cold. Walking across the parking lot, I laughed. “My God, I didn’t know white people had such problems.
“Who are these people?” I said. “Who does things like that? Where are they from? Do they live in Edison? When they were talking, I kept thinking, “Why do you have problems? You’re white. Even more terrible things should happen to you. You should suffer like Indians, like black people. That’ll teach you.’’ I said all this because I felt it. I also said it because I wanted my father to say he was nothing like the people in the meeting.
In the days that followed, my father and I went to A A meetings every night. The meetings occurred in small rooms in churches and in big ones. Some took place in a very large, glasswalled party space that was next to a fire department. During the AA meeting, people drew curtains over these walls.
At first my father was regularly surrounded by men giving him their phone numbers. Some also gave him books and mimeographed sheets with lists of where the AA meetings took place. Surrounded by these people, I would feel scared, feel that we would have to say yes we wanted help, when in reality we wanted to be left alone.
I began to recognize some of the people from the meetings. Many of them appeared not just alcoholic but also crazy…..
Often as I sat in these meetings I was disgusted. Even the people who said sensible things, the men and women who shouted down the man who began passing out anti-abortion pamphlets, irritated me. They had created problems for themselves and their families with their drinking and now had to come up with such an elaborate solution that their families also had to be involved.
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