Indian-American author Akhil Sharma’s semi-autobiographical novel, Family Life
(2014), narrates the childhood of Ajay, an Indian boy who emigrates to America with his family. A year after their arrival in America, Ajay’s brother Birju sustains permanent brain damage, and his parents’ grief leaves Ajay feeling isolated and unloved. Sharma’s second novel, Family Life
was one of the New York Times
’s Best Books of 2014, described as “a moving story of displacement” by Kirkus Reviews
The novel opens with the narrator, Ajay Mishra, introducing himself. He is forty years old. His parents complain that he never visits them, making him think back on his early life.
He begins at the age of eight. With his beloved mother, Shuba, and his older brother, Birju, Ajay lives a life of fun and contentment in a poor but close community in Delhi. His father, Rajinder, is the breadwinner, so non-descript to Ajay that he wonders if he was assigned to the family by the government.
Rajinder is in love with the idea of the West and Western science, and he schemes to emigrate to America. He leaves first, a year later sending plane tickets so his family can join him in Queens, New York.
The luxuries of American life amaze the boys and their mother. Ajay struggles to adjust, finding that he cannot tell his white classmates apart. Birju settles in more easily: soon he has friends and even a girlfriend.
When he is twelve, Birju wins a place at the Bronx High School of Science, to his parents’ delight. That summer, while visiting his aunt in Arlington, Virginia, Birju has an accident at a swimming pool and becomes permanently brain damaged. He is blind, unable to talk, unable to move.
The Mishras become consumed in grieving Birju and caring for him. Every day the family prays for his recovery, setting up an altar in his Arlington hospital room.
Shuba wrestles with the insurance company to get Birju transferred to a nursing home in New Jersey, so the family can visit from their New York home. The nursing home is also near a Hindu temple. Shuba and Ajay continue to visit Birju every day.
It becomes clear that the home is not taking good care of Birju. On one occasion, they see that he has been overfed. On another, he has not been repositioned. When Shuba finds a pair of scissors lying in his bed, she decides to bring Birju home.
The community rallies around the Mishras. Shuba’s dedication to her son earns her the reputation of a saint, and local mothers send their children to receive Shuba’s blessing before important exams. Shuba entertains a series of Hindu pandits, searching for anything that will cure Birju. She refuses to believe that he cannot recover. Ajay dutifully helps his mother to bathe and feed his brother.
Rajinder cannot take comfort in the work of caring for Birju. Instead, he slides into alcoholism. He makes a valiant effort to quit, only to relapse. Eventually, his drinking causes him to black out and miss work. He checks himself into Bellevue for rehab. Ajay and Shuba visit him every day. When Rajinder starts going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Shuba insists that Ajay accompany him.
Ajay’s parents are so preoccupied with their grief for Birju that they neglect Ajay. To earn his parents’ attention, Ajay works extremely hard at school. His grades get better and better, but his parents aren’t interested. When Ajay finally tells his father that he is miserable, Rajinder replies that he contemplates suicide every day. Ajay cannot stop comparing himself to Birju—both the real Birju, vegetative in bed, and the imagined Birju, the Birju who should have been.
In tenth grade, Ajay finally gets a girlfriend, Minakshi. Her care and attention allow him slowly to gain some sense of self-worth. He begins to dream of leaving home, going to college, and escaping his family, while also feeling angry that this dream cannot be fulfilled at once.
Ajay earns a place at Princeton. He feels unable to take credit for his achievement, instead crediting his mother’s hard work and the pressure she has put on him.
Ajay excels at Princeton, and when he graduates, he is driven to earn money. He becomes an investment banker, in order to pay for Birju’s care. At first, Shuba is unwilling to accept Ajay’s help, but eventually, she hires round-the-clock care for Birju.
The end of the novel returns to the moment in which it began. Ajay is forty years old now. He is on a luxurious vacation in Mexico with his beautiful, brilliant girlfriend, Hema, a high-flying lawyer. The setting is dazzling and peaceful. Ajay knows he is happy, and yet he finds he cannot feel it. His happiness feels like a weight, and he doesn’t know where to put it. At this moment, Ajay finally acknowledges face-to-face that the grief, rage, and loneliness of his childhood have left him unable to experience happiness.