Summary portrays the life of Ajay Mishra (modelled

Summary
of Family Life

Family Life is a semi-autobiographical novel by Akhil
Sharma. This is Akhil Sharma’s second novel, which cost him years of hardship
and emotional stress to write. It was published in 2014 and was released
to widespread critical acclaim.  The
New York Times described the novel as “deeply unnerving and
gorgeously tender at its core.” David Sedaris noted that “every
page is alive and surprising, proof of Sharma’s huge, unique talent.” The
novel won him the 2015 Folio Prize for fiction and 2016 International
Dublin Literary Award. Family Life
portrays the life of Ajay Mishra (modelled upon Akhil Sharma himself) as he
struggles to grow within a family shattered by loss and disoriented by a recent
move from India to America. It is equally the story of Ajay’s parents, whose
response to grief renders them unable to find the space in which to cherish and
raise him.

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The book opens in Delhi, India in the late 1970s where
eight-year-old Ajay and his older brother Birju who is twelve, are anxiously
awaiting their move to America. Their departure is such a big deal that
townspeople gather around just to have a look at their aeroplane tickets. Mr
Rajinder Mishra so much craves the glamour of Western science that he regularly
gets his urine tested in a laboratory. Reflecting on the superfluous nature of
his father Ajay wonders if he’s been assigned to them by the government. Ajay
is eight when the story begins, and Sharma relates the saga from his viewpoint,
adopting a child’s sharp perception and simple language.

Upon
arriving at their new home in Queens, they’re hardly able to grasp what Ajay
describes as “the wealth of America”. Everything from the size of the libraries
to the frequency of the television programming astonishes them. In America, everything
seems miraculous from hot water flowing from a tap to a wall-to-wall carpet in
their new apartment.  When Ajay presses a
button in an elevator, he says, “I felt powerful that it had to obey me.” When
Mr Mishra offers his sons fifty cents for every library book they read, Ajay
wonders if his father has turned too American — an Indian dad would have
threatened to beat them for not reading.

            In
America, Mr Mishra works as a clerk in a government agency while Mrs Mishra
(Shuba) is content as a garment factory worker. After
Ajay’s older brother Birju is accepted to a prestigious Bronx high school, this
innocent and excited family feels secure in its future. After all, Birju’s
education eventually lead to a career as a doctor. Like a typical Indian
family, they open the school’s acceptance letter at the temple, on their knees
before an idol of the Hindu god, Ram. While trying to differentiate between
Indian and American temples, Ajay says, “In India, though, temples also smelled
of flowers, of sweat from the crowds, of spoilage from the milk used to bathe
the idols. Here, along with the smell of incense, there was only a faint odour
of mildew. Because the temple smelled so simple, it seemed fake.

Tragically, just before Birju is about to begin at his
new high school, he has an accident. He hits his head in a swimming pool and
stays unconscious underwater for three minutes, leading to severe brain damage
that lasts throughout his life. He is now blind. He can’t talk or walk anymore.
He has suffered catastrophic head injuries and gets confined to death-in-life.
The golden future is replaced by a terrible nothingness –– not only for Birju
himself but for his parents and brother also. When the 10-year-old Ajay first
learns of the accident, unaware of its gravity, he casually speculates that if
Birju were dead, “I would get to be the only son.” This accident changes the
entire dynamic of the Mishra family. All the excitement of American television
or a library is now replaced by descriptions of seizures and suffering. The
resulting brain damage leaves the boy in need of expensive, round-the-clock
care. A dreadful feeling starts to take over the novel, and all the naïve
hopefulness just disappears. Ajay tries to arouse sympathy in his bored classmates
by devising cringe-worthy stories of Birju’s pre-accident powers, “My brother
was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he
chased it and caught it before it hit the ground”.

Years pass and Birju’s condition remains unchanged. The
family is so much torn with grief that on one cheerless Christmas Day, Ajay
erupts, sobbing to his parents that he too deserves something, for enduring —
at least some pizza. “I am so sad,” Ajay confides to his father that evening.
“You’re sad?” his father responds; “I want to hang myself every day” (Sharma
131).  Medicine and science do little for
Birju. Mr Mishra becomes an alcoholic, in part owing to the new stresses
brought about by Birju’s medical needs while mother turns to increasingly
desperate and pointless measures to cure her son. They began to fight
frequently and in their grief and suffering, they turn their gaze away from
Ajay and don’t care for his nourishment and we see how Mrs Mishra’s
unwillingness to absorb the reality of her son’s condition eventually makes her
unreachable — not just to Ajay and her husband but to herself. 

The Mishras are surrounded by other Indian families, all
striving for success in America. Mrs Mishra’s devotion to her maimed son is
interpreted by the community as saintly and she is adored. Talk of Mrs Mishra’s
special powers spreads quickly. Some parents even bring their children to be
blessed by her. One woman drags in her son whose stopped being vegetarian so he
can witness what being Indian really means. Mrs Mishra insists that Birju is in
a coma because the phrase “brain damage” would confirm he will not
improve. So she seeks cures from pundits who visit her son’s bedside. She
employs a series of miracle workers to wake Birju. One bathes him in turmeric.
Another sits by him and recites things like, “My name is Birju. . . My
ambition is to be a surgeon.”

Meanwhile, Ajay begins to feel some pressure to be the
academic star, something he succeeds in by graduating first in his high school
class—he eventually attends Princeton, studies economics and becomes an
investment banker. As the Mishras watch their second son’s ascension into an
alien world of wealth and status, Shuba whispers to Birju: “Your brother can
eat pain. He can sit all day at his desk and eat pain.” Along the way, Ajay
becomes enamoured with Ernest Hemingway and begins to write short stories about
his family life in the reportorial and flat style of the author he so admires—a
style Sharma also adheres to in the writing of his novel. Storytelling remains
a therapeutic outlet for Ajay towards the end of the novel.