Diasporic experiences can be extremely challenging and testing at the least, and Akhil Sharma’s life, represented in his novel Family Life, is no exception. The semi-autobiographical novel illustrates the hardships faced by an Indian family after moving to the United States and soon after, almost losing one of their sons to an accident that changed all of their lives. The novel, however, focuses mostly on Ajay, and how his life slowly transforms as we read the story from his perspective.
Being a member of the Indian diaspora myself, the empathetic connection between Ajay and myself allowed me to understand and relate to the ever changing relationship between him and his parents, and how that shaped Ajay as a person in his future, for better or for worse. One of the crucial relationships that are focused on in Family Life is the relationship between Ajay and his parents. Throughout the novel, this relationship constantly develops and impacts Ajay in various ways, eventually shaping him to become the person he does by the end of the novel.
Ajay’s relationship with his mother and father is different at first, but it eventually converges until Ajay feels the same way towards both his parents. During their early days after moving to the United States, Ajay always felt that his father had transformed into a person who thought highly of himself, and therefore, did not have focus too much on his own family besides earning money for the house. On the other hand, Ajay believed his mother to be more loving and caring towards his brother Birju, whom Ajay was slowly becoming jealous of.
In both parents’ cases, Ajay felt neglected, and Birju’s acceptance to the Bronx High School of Science, and later his accident, only helped this neglect grow as it further diverted the attention of his parents from himself to his brother. Even after excelling in school and his studies, Ajay’s parents were always too focused on Birju’s care. After Ajay’s father began drinking, both Ajay and his mother’s connection with him grew weaker. However, as ironic as it may be, Ajay’s father’s drinking helps bring their family together as they all try to work in harmony to bring Ajay’s father back to sobriety.
Although this stage in the novel is short, it creates a heavy impact due to the rare moments of joy that Ajay is shown to feel, for example when he plays cards with his parents late at night. It shows that no matter how difficult times may get, family is always something that one has to resort to. By the end of the novel, Ajay’s relationship with both his parents is distant, as he begins to focus on his future, careers, and love interests. The final chapter of the novel beautifully summarizes the relationship between the three. “On my mother’s sixtieth birthday, I gave her a check for a quarter of a million dollars.
For a few days, she didn’t cash it. She showed it to her friends. Then my parents began to have a nurse and a nurse’s aide twenty four hours a day. One afternoon when I came to their house, found them sitting in lawn chairs in the backyard. I stood in the kitchen and watched them from a window” (Sharma 216). This final paragraph that connects the three in the novel beautifully concludes their story, as it shows that while Ajay’s mother is proud of her son and his accomplishments, Ajay has abled them to live a leisurely life that they can live in peace.
Since the novel tells the story of a young Indian boy and the hardships he faced after moving to the United States, I could not help but relate to Family Life. I moved to California after beginning college, and have been living here for almost three years. Although the difficulties I faced are nowhere near the hardships Ajay faces in his novel, I can empathize with many of the experiences he has, specifically those with his parents. Many of the early difficulties Ajay experiences in his school life were relatable.
Ajay states “Often, standing in the corner of the asphalt yard, I would think, There has been a mistake. I am not the sort of boy who is pushed around. I am good at cricket. I am good at marbles” (Sharma35). Ajay’s capabilities that were appreciated and held significance back in India held no meaning in a country where cricket and marbles were obsolete activities. Similarly, many of my talents and interests that I brought with me from my home country were not shared by American communities.
While I would eagerly wait for a cricket match between Indian and Pakistan, my American friends would not have a clue about the historical rivalry in sports between the two nations. Similar to the distanced relationship Ajay has with his parents, my connection with my parents has been frail due to the fact that they still reside in India, while I study on the other side of the world. They remain busy with their business in India, which often does not give them time to interact with me. The large difference between Ajay and myself would be the feeling of neglect.
While Ajay felt that his parents did not give him enough attention and love, I understand that my parents work hard and remain busy for me and my wellbeing. Another empathetic connection I had was not with Ajay but with Birju. A few weeks before beginning college, I had contracted the bacteria that causes Typhoid, and was hospitalized for a few weeks. Similar to Birju’s case, I was helpless and could not aid my parents in any manner, while I watched them care for me and pay large hospital bills.
By the time the infection had gone, I could not help but feel disheartened about all the money and time that was invested into me by my parents, despite them being my parents. Both Ajay and Birju, despite Birju’s lack of dialogue or interaction in the story, lived lives and experienced many moments that I could and still can empathize with. Similar to how Ajay’s relationship with his parents helped shape him, my relationship with my parents helped me to become a stronger and more independent individual.
Akhil Sharma’s semi-autobiography allowed me to greatly empathize with many of the experiences and emotions faced and felt by the novel protagonist, Ajay. Although my experiences were not on the same level as those of Ajay’s, the slight similarities allowed me to gain a deeper understanding for his character and the relationships he builds with his parents. Family Life as a novel is significant to the Indian diaspora around the world, and it provides and empathetic experience for them that not all readers would understand.