“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.”
The following is an excerpt from Family Life, Akhil Sharma’s semi-autobiographical new novel published this month from W.W. Norton. Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. More than 12 years in the making, Sharma’s second novel is the story of a boy and his family whose lives are transformed after a terrible accident. It is a portrait of individuals struggling to live through grief, at once driven apart from the people they love the most and pulled back together.
Sharma joins AAWW this Wednesday, April 9, for a reading and conversation with Renato Rosaldo.
Birju was lying on his exercise bed. It was the first day of seventh grade and I had just come home. I saw my brother and began screaming. “Hello, fatty! Hello, smelly! Who have you been bothering today?” I was standing in the doorway that my father and I rolled Birju through each morning. I was grinning. “Do you think of anybody but yourself?” I shouted. “In my life I have never met anyone so selfish.” It was a gray day. The chandelier was lit. Birju was wearing thin cotton pajamas. He was puffing spit, his eyes rolled back as if he were trying to remember something. “Smelly! Smelly!” I shouted. I didn’t know why I was screaming. I felt possessed.
I walked up to the exercise bed. I took the washcloth that lay on Birju’s chest and wiped his mouth and chin. The cloth caught on his stubble, and I had the feeling that I was hurting him. “All day you do nothing,” I scolded. “All day you lie here and fart.” A fear like cold seeped into me. “I have to go to school. I have to study and take tests.” The more I talked, the more scared I got. It was as if my own voice was pumping fear into me.
Sitting in a folding chair with my elbows on the bed, I heard my voice growing shrill. “Birju brother, you are lucky not to go to school. In seventh grade, we walk from class to class. It isn’t like elementary school where you stay in one room and teachers come to you.” As I said this, I became aware that while for me, time passing meant new schools and new teachers, for Birju, it meant wearing thin cotton pajamas and then flannel ones. I became so afraid I hopped up.
I climbed into the exercise bed. I lay down next to Birju. I slipped an arm under his shoulders. Birju’s breath smelled of vomit. He smacked his lips. He still looked lost in thought. Till that day, perhaps because Birju had been mostly in the hospital and nursing home and these had seemed temporary, some part of me had seen the difference between our lives as also temporary. Now, going to school and coming back home and seeing him, no part of me could deny how much luckier I was than my brother.
“Brother-life,” I said, using the 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 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 that this man knew I was not very good and yet I had received so much of my family’s luck. I began speaking in an even more childish voice. “I have homework. It’s the first day of school, and I have homework. I wish I were back in first grade.” As I spoke, I remembered Arlington. I remembered lying on my mattress and talking to God. The fact that nothing had changed, that Birju was still the way he was, that we still needed him to be OK to be OK ourselves, made me feel like I was being gripped and slowly crushed. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get good marks without having to work? Brother-life, tomorrow you go to school and I’ll stay home. I took a lunch box to school. In seventh grade, you don’t take lunch boxes. Boys made fun of me.”
Talking, talking, talking, I slowly began to get calmer.
The next morning, as I walked down the street to the corner where the school bus stopped, I pictured Birju the way I had left him, in his quiet, dim room, snoring on his back, his mouth open. I saw my mother, too. She was in the laundry room, stuffing the washing machine with the sheets and pillowcases from last night. 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 be apart from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her.
At school, the guilt and sadness were like wearing clothes still damp from the wash. Whenever I moved, I felt as though I were touching something icy. In history class, I sat in the first desk of the fourth row. I learned that Andrew Jackson was called “Old Hickory.” My knowing this meant that I had gained something, that I was being made rich while my mother and brother remained poor.
In school, there were twenty Indians among the five hundred or so students. Three or four of them spoke without accents and bought lunch or brought American-style sandwiches. The rest of us sat at the same long table in the cafeteria, the girls at one end and the boys at another. The white and black children abused us. Boys would walk past us and call, “Shit! I smell shit!” In my guilt and shame, I wanted to fight, to be nothing like myself. I shouted insults. “I fucked your mother in the ass. That’s what you’re smelling.”
Once, a boy leaned over my shoulder and demanded to know what I was eating. I said I was eating snake. The boy believed me. He began shouting, “snake”. A crowd gathered around me. I felt boys pressing against my back. Other boys stood on the benches of the long tables.
The vice principal, a short white-haired man, appeared. “What are you eating?” he demanded.
“Okra,” I said.
“Come with me.” He led me through the crowd, pushing the boys out of his way. He took me to detention hall, a room with white cinder block walls.
The recent immigrants at the lunch table found me annoying. They saw me as a troublemaker for responding to the insults. To them, I was a show-off for not keeping quiet. This was true to an extent. Part of my motivation for fighting was that I did not want to be like the recent immigrants and so I was deliberately trying to be different. There were other ways that I was a show-off too. I often reminded the boys I sat with that I was in more advanced-level classes than they were. Sitting with these children, a part of me was surprised that not all Indians were smart.
Often in the evening, my mother and I would leave the house and go for walks. As we went down sidewalks, cars would drive past us and people would shout curses; haji, Gandhi, sand nigger. The first time this happened, I, for some reason, thought my mother would not understand that we were being cursed and so I told her that these were people I knew from school, that they were calling out to me in greeting. My mother nodded as if she believed me.
I began not wanting to go on these evening walks. When we did go, I carried stones in my pocket.
Weeks passed. The weather got colder. The days tipped backward into darkness. Some evenings our house and street appeared dark while the sky was light. In October the trees shed their leaves, and our house stood undefended on its lawn.
The worst thing about our new life with Birju was worrying about money. Now that I was going to school and the miracle workers had mostly stopped coming, we needed to hire a full-time nurse’s aide during the day. We decided not to use the agency because the agency charged almost twelve dollars an hour and we thought we could get someone much cheaper. My father put advertisements in the local newspaper. The ads said that pay was based on experience.
A Filipino aide with long black hair came to be interviewed. She stood by the exercise bed. When she learned how much my mother intended to pay, she shouted, “Why not you tell me on the phone? Why you make me drive so long? You do this to a black, she burn your house down.”
My heart jumped when she shouted at us. At the same time, I felt that it was OK to be shouted at as long as we did not spend the extra money.
The cold weather affected our plumbing. Some of our water came from a well. When the white washing machine shook and churned, the dim laundry room filled with a marshy smell.
In the kitchen one night, standing at the stove, my mother yelled, “I don’t care how much it costs.”
“You don’t care because you don’t pay the bills,” my father yelled back.
“What are we going to do now?”
“You were the one to say buy the house. We’ve gotten cheated.” The kitchen was very bright. My father said the new plumbing might cost five thousand dollars. The room hung reflected in the windows. My father started crying. I was stunned. What did it mean to spend five thousand dollars? The house had cost eighty-four thousand. I wondered if, in America, one could return a house the same way that one could return a belt to a store.
We also worried about the insurance. The insurance company said no to everything. They said no to the Isocal formula. They said no to the disposable blue pads that we put under Birju for when he soiled himself. They said no to the nurse’s aides. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, my father sat at the kitchen table and filled out insurance forms. On the table were rubber-banded stacks of letters, a stapler, his checkbook, and a yellow legal pad on which he wrote letters to the insurance company. My mother and I always kept very quiet while my father did this work.
One very cold night in November, our front doorbell rang. We opened the door, and a jowly man was standing outside. Behind him was a tall boy in a long winter coat. We had met the man at temple, but we didn’t know him well. We invited them in.
In the kitchen, the man stood wearing his ski jacket and in his stocking feet. The SAT was that weekend, and he asked my mother to bless his son. “Put your hand on his head, and it will be done.” He spoke in a jolly tone, which was intended to make him seem simpleminded, someone with whom there was no point in arguing.
My mother looked surprised. She remained standing even though the polite thing would have been to sit so the man would know that we wanted him to stay. “Ji, what use is this?” she said. When people visited our house, they often asked my parents to bless their children. This was just out of politeness, though. I too often touched people’s feet to show respect. What the man was doing was different. He was asking for a blessing so that something specific would occur and this felt closer to us being treated like we were holy.
“You may not believe in yourself, but the whole world believes in you.” Again, there was a deliberate simplemindedness to how the man was speaking.
It is common among Indians to look at someone who is suffering and sacrificing and think that that person is noble and holy. Also, seeking blessings before exams is ordinary. In America, even parents who might define themselves as agnostic show up at temple before the SAT.
Being treated as holy felt dangerous, like we were risking God’s anger.
The man gestured to his son. The boy, the shell of his coat squeaking, hurried to my mother. He kneeled. Did they actually believe my mother’s blessing had power, or was it like how we allowed the miracle workers to try their cures?
My mother put her hands on the boy’s head. She looked tired. “God give you everything you want.”
The next night, a couple visited with their son. They knew us better and came to the back door.
After the test results were released, the man who had sounded simpleminded approached us at temple and thanked my mother. He did this despite the fact that his son had not done especially well.
News of my mother’s blessings spread. There was an SAT in November, another in January, and a third in March. With each there was an increase in people coming for blessings. Some were middle-class people, and they spoke casually to my mother, as if to a friend. They were obviously only bringing their children as a form of insurance, making sure they did everything they could to take care of them. Others—those who didn’t know us or were lower class—were more formal. The poorest and least educated of these would go into Birju’s room and touch his pale, swollen, inward-turned feet, as if the sacrifices being made for him had turned him into an idol.
My mother continued to appear uncomfortable when asked to bless a boy or girl. She would lean back when she blessed, as if trying to be far away from what she was doing. She would also speak quickly and under her breath. Usually she borrowed the formulas that older people use at weddings. “Live a thousand years. Be healthy and happy.” And this too was a way of making the blessing into something ordinary.
A few of the women who came for blessings returned regularly. They came several times a week and had tea. Sometimes, if they found milk or juice on sale, they would bring cartons of these. The women were deferential to my mother, calling her “elder sister” or using the formal, plural you in Hindi. My mother was formal in return, afraid, I think, of intimacy because intimacy might lead to the women spending more time in the house and learning of my father’s drinking.
In my mind I called these visitors “the women with problems.” They wouldn’t have thought of themselves this way. Having spent most of their lives in India, where a bad marriage is often accepted as a part of life and where depression and mental illness are described as a person being moody, they saw these things as just life. Unhappy, though, and sometimes embarrassed that their lives were not as perfect as in the movies or as one was expected to pretend them to be at temple, they wanted to talk to someone. My mother, because she was considered holy, was also seen as someone who would be compassionate and whose very presence might be calming.
Several women visited because their sons were eating meat and they wanted them to be vegetarian. These women were usually lower class since middle-class people, thinking their children would be accepted into America, were more willing to let them behave like Americans. Often the visits were slightly ridiculous. Once, Mrs. Disai, short, dark skinned, oval faced, entered our kitchen walking beside her son who was sixteen or seventeen, tall, broad shouldered, muscular. There were not that many children older than I was back then. I saw Mukul and thought of Birju. I wondered why Mukul was all right and my brother wasn’t, and I began resenting him.
“Confess to Shuba auntie,” Mrs. Disai said, seated at the kitchen table. “Tell her everything.” Mukul said nothing. He was at the head of the table. He was wearing cologne, which seemed overly glamorous. The sort of person who wore cologne was bound to have a girlfriend and so not focus on his studies. “Talk, talk,” his mother said. “Reveal your shame.”
“Why should I be ashamed?” he said.
“He has fallen into bad company,” Mrs. Disai explained. “His friends are all Spanish. We came here before other Indians. We were here even before Mr. Narayan. We used to drive with Mr. Narayan to New York to buy groceries. Back then, the only boys who would welcome Mukul were the Spanish and the blacks.”
My mother sat with her back to the window. She tried to get Mukul to change. “Why do you need to eat meat?” she asked. “Don’t hens love their little chicks?”
“Look at how big you are,” Mrs. Disai demanded. “You’re already a buffalo.”
“Gandhiji ate meat, too,” my mother said, nodding and sounding understanding. “It’s in his autobiography. He did it only once. You, too, can put meat in the past.”
Mukul stared at the table and sighed.
“He wants to be like the blacks, like the Spanish. Why don’t you get divorced? Steal? Then you will be like them. Then you’ll be happy.”
“Listen to your mother,” my mother said. “Don’t break her heart.”
“Say something,” Mrs. Disai shouted. “Do you have any brains? Do you want me to die?”
“You won’t die,” Mukul said. He had a rumbling voice. To me, he seemed too relaxed and too accepting of himself.
“And you’ll live forever if you eat Chicken McNuggets?”
Mukul let out a long breath.
“Come look at what we do for you,” she hissed.
The three stood up from the table and walked toward Birju’s room. I had been watching quietly from near the stove. Now I hurried after because this was my time to show off.
Once the three of them were lined up by the exercise bed, I climbed on. I placed one of Birju’s feet against my shoulder and began leaning forward and then rocking back. The stretching was part of Birju’s physical therapy.
“This is love, animal,” Mrs. Disai scolded. “And you won’t do one thing for me.”
Before they left, she stood in the kitchen and made her son put his hand on her head and swear not to eat meat.
Excerpted from Family Life: A Novel by Akhil Sharma. Copyright © 2014 by Akhil Sharma. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.