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A peek into the workings of the human mind

Folio Prize-winning novelist Akhil Sharma’s anthology of short stories delves into the strange, yet familiar workings of the human mind

brunch Updated: Dec 30, 2017 22:36 IST
Shikha Kumar
In his anthology,  A Life of Adventure and Delight,  Akhil Sharma pulls you in with the strangeness of his stories and the hauntingly realistic depiction of the many quirks of human nature
In his anthology, A Life of Adventure and Delight, Akhil Sharma pulls you in with the strangeness of his stories and the hauntingly realistic depiction of the many quirks of human nature(Jack Llewellyn-Karski)

A young son watches helplessly as his mother slips into alcoholism. A middle-aged man whose wife abandons him for a spiritual quest finds himself in love with his American neighbour. A housewife in an arranged marriage wakes up in love with her husband, albeit only for a few hours. A college student in New York revels in the thrill of hiring prostitutes, only to leave his apartment before they arrive. In his anthology, A Life of Adventure and Delight, Akhil Sharma pulls you in with the strangeness of his stories and the hauntingly realistic depiction of the many quirks of human nature. The anthology comprises eight stories which have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review over the years.

Sharma was 19 years old when he wrote the story on the housewife in an arranged marriage, while his most recent one on the alcoholic mother was published in April this year. Consequently, says the 46-year-old, putting together this anthology was as much an attempt to find out what the stories revealed when placed next to each other, as much as it was about what they revealed over time. “I found it shocking to realise how little I had changed over the years and that took me aback. These characters have much in common – the deep need to love and to be loved, the deceit and unease they feel about being inside their own skin and how they attempt to solve their issues through ethics and morality. They’re difficult people but they have a very strong moral sense,” says the novelist, in a phone interview from New York.

Dysfunctionality in our lives

There’s a measured calm in Sharma’s voice, a sort of patience that probably comes from years of being persistent with your writing. His novel, Family Life (2014), took him over 12 years to write and went on to win the Folio Prize for fiction in 2015. The semi-autobiographical work traced Sharma’s own life after his family emigrated to the United States in the late ’70s, and the difficulties they faced after an accident left his brother severely brain damaged.

One of the stories in A Life Of Adventure and Delight is an abridged version of Family Life, and was first published in 2001. “The novel came from there. I write stories the same way I write novels. The idea is to create a compulsive need inside the reader to keep reading – to get them in and out of a story and yet for it to feel like a whole world,” he says.

“Society has biases that are dangerous... American society is unhealthy for people of colour”

The protagonists in Sharma’s stories are introspective and often inherently flawed. He busts the ‘happy immigrant’ narrative, instead bringing to fore their insecurities and sense of yearning. Depicting this dysfunctionality, he says, is not conscious. “People are problematic and if I’m going to be truthful, I need to represent them in that way. Human beings interest me. Men and women are in many ways the same; they have the same doubts, confusions, regrets and fears.”

The immigrant narrative

Sharma has often been vocal about rejecting the label of ‘immigrant writer’, but in a recent column for The Washington Post, said that he’s become willing to see himself as one in Trump’s America. “We live in a society, and society has biases that are dangerous and harmful. American society is unhealthy and dangerous for people of colour. Even though I’m sort of privileged – I’m a professor and live in New York – it’s important to recognise that other people are not as privileged. Part of recognising that is accepting these labels, but also saying that when we take on these labels, we allow ourselves to be judged in this manner,” he says.

The author says that he writes plainly, so it’s easier for the reader to connect with the story without language getting in the way. As a professor of creative writing at

Rutgers University, he says that budding writers should be willing to write badly. “Only if you do that will you get a chance to write well. When you write badly, you get to have a draft, which you can revise into something better. Also, don’t believe you can get away with things.”

Now working on his next novel, Sharma says he’s biased towards fiction for it’s about how people experience the world. “It feels so relevant. Non-fiction, because it’s committed to factual truth, has a harder time getting an emotional truth.” Fiction also allows him to depict humanity at its real best, something we witness in his characters. “Somebody once asked Tolstoy how he could write about so many different people and he said he isn’t writing about people, but about humanity. And that’s all I’m doing, writing about humanity. And humanity is never hunky dory.”

From HT Brunch, December 31, 2017

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