Akhil Sharma.

Akhil Sharma.

Akhil Sharma, the author of the best-seller, “An Obedient Father,” speaks with Diane about his latest novel, which tells the story of the Mishra family as it moves from Delhi to Queens in the late 1970s while making their way in a new country and coping with a wrenching tragedy. Sharma discusses on blurring the boundary between fiction and memoir.

Guests

  • Akhil Sharma author of the award-winning novel, "An Obedient Father"

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Akhil Sharma has been called a supernova in the galaxy of young, talented Indian writers. The award-winning author has a new novel, one that mirrors events in his own life. It tells the story of a young family moving from Delhi to Queens in the late 1970s, how they make their way in a new country and cope with a life-altering tragedy. It's titled "Family Life." And Akhil Sharma joins me in the studio to talk about his new book and learning the boundaries between fiction and memoir.

  • 11:07:36

    MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join us. 800-433-8850. Send us an email to drshow@wamu.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. I'm so pleased to have you here.

  • 11:07:53

    MR. AKHIL SHARMAI'm very glad to be here.

  • 11:07:54

    REHMThank you. This novel centers around a family who come from Delhi and have great plans, great dreams. And yet there is a tragedy at the center of the novel. I wonder how similar that tragedy in this fictional version is similar to what happened in your own life?

  • 11:08:29

    SHARMAIt's incredibly similar. When I was writing the book, I oftentimes had the choice between using a fictional detail and something from my actual life. And I would choose details from my actual life. Part of the motivation for that was, you know, I -- my poor brother died about two years ago and I'm afraid of him vanishing, of him getting lost, you know, the way that ordinary people get lost. And I'm afraid of my parent's sacrifice getting lost. And I hoped with this book to memorialize that, to preserve it in some way.

  • 11:09:13

    REHMBut you chose fiction as opposed to a memoir.

  • 11:09:19

    SHARMAI did. I find, you know, I'm -- I know how to write fiction. I don't know how to write nonfiction. And so I don't know if I can generate the emotional intensity in a book which is nonfiction. That is, if I were to write nonfiction, I wouldn't be comfortable using dialog, just because, you know, the dialog, you know, I can't remember what people said 30 years ago. I would also feel required, if I were writing nonfiction, to deal with some sort of objective truth instead of the truth of my own life or my own point of view. That is, I would feel obligated to include things in the book which were important but which don't interest me artistically.

  • 11:10:05

    SHARMAThat is, I would -- much of my childhood was boring. And I don't want to write about boredom. And so for all these different reasons, I thought I could generate a greater intensity of emotion and a greater intensity of what it actually was like when we were going through this.

  • 11:10:23

    REHMAt what age did you and your family come to this country? How old were you?

  • 11:10:29

    SHARMAI was eight years old.

  • 11:10:31

    REHMAnd your brother?

  • 11:10:32

    SHARMAHe was 12.

  • 11:10:33

    REHMAnd he was so excited to come.

  • 11:10:38

    SHARMAWe were all excited. I think we were intimidated. We were intimidated by America and the change. But it was magical, you know? America's a great country, you know, a great country in every way. The -- for us, I mean, we were most excited by things like watching "Love Boat," you know. I loved it.

  • 11:10:59

    SHARMAI mean, I loved ice cream. I loved getting to drink orange juice and Coke. So these were the -- for me, the things that were exciting. I think for my brother, because he was older and was the vessel of my family's ambitions, there was this real sense that in America you can do anything. You know, if you're smart and very hard working and have other bits of luck, you can do almost anything. And he had wanted to be a surgeon. In India it would have been very difficult for him, just because of the nature of opportunities in India. And so he felt that, at last, here everything was clear. You know, the path had been opened up for him.

  • 11:11:37

    REHMHmm. How did your family manage to come here?

  • 11:11:42

    SHARMAMy father applied to -- for a visa to immigrate right after 1965, which is when the immigration laws were liberalized. And then he waited about 10 years. And when he got his -- when they approved him, you know, he immediately flew over. And he was living -- he lived in America for a year, saved money, and then flew the rest of us over.

  • 11:12:04

    REHMOh, I see. And what was his profession?

  • 11:12:08

    SHARMAHe was an accountant in India. In America, my father worked basically as a clerk for various things, like a cashier in a bank and then a clerk for the New York State Insurance department. He was -- the day of my -- he had gone and filled out the forms to take his CPA Exams on the very day. He went and filled these forms out and then when he came home he got a phone call saying that this accident had occurred for my brother. And so he -- all of his energy was devoted to taking care of him. So he never took those exams.

  • 11:12:45

    REHMDescribe the accident as it occurs in the fictional presentation of your novel, "Family Life."

  • 11:12:57

    SHARMAThe brother, there are two brothers, the old brother goes to a swimming pool one day. He dives into the pool, strikes his head on the bottom of the pool, and it stuns him -- the blow stuns him. And he remains underwater for about three minutes. And when he is pulled out, the oxygen deprivation has caused massive brain damage. So he has lost his ability to walk or to talk. He's lost his ability to do even involuntary things like roll over in his sleep. He's gone blind, because the corneas are destroyed from oxygen deprivation. He spends two years in hospitals. And then the family, for various reasons, decide to buy a house and move him there themselves and take care of him.

  • 11:13:52

    REHMHow does the fictional differ from what actually happened?

  • 11:13:59

    SHARMAThere's slight tweaks. So, in the book, the second hospital is described as a nursing home, just to make clear -- just to help for the reader seeing a distinction between the two places. But they're both technically hospitals. The -- you know, very -- details, certain details are changed. Like I stayed for a year in Virginia right after the accident versus a half a year. So certain details to make the transitions between sections clearer.

  • 11:14:34

    REHMSo your brother, at what age?

  • 11:14:39

    SHARMAHe was 14 at that point, and I was 10.

  • 11:14:42

    REHMAnd he dove into a community pool.

  • 11:14:45

    SHARMAIn the pool for an apartment building.

  • 11:14:47

    REHMI see. And lifeguards?

  • 11:14:51

    SHARMAThere were lifeguards but they didn't act quickly enough.

  • 11:14:58

    REHMThey didn't see him?

  • 11:15:00

    SHARMAI'm -- you know, my father would tell all sorts of weird stories. And my father is -- my father is somebody who gets angry and then tells lies. And these are -- these are lies that are very upsetting. They were upsetting for me to listen to. So my father would claim -- and I don't believe this is true -- my father would claim that he was -- my brother was pulled out and now, not taken care of because he was Indian, you know?

  • 11:15:33

    SHARMAMy father would claim that. This is not true. As far as I know, this is not true. But my father would say that because when you're very unhappy and you're very angry, you need to find -- it's comforting to find somebody to empty your anger on to. And so he would find -- he would build up this thing. So this is not true what he said. But that's what he would say to us.

  • 11:15:55

    REHMBut your brother, when he dove...

  • 11:15:58

    SHARMAMm-hmm.

  • 11:15:59

    REHM...did stay underwater...

  • 11:16:01

    SHARMAExactly.

  • 11:16:02

    REHM...for three minutes.

  • 11:16:03

    SHARMAYes.

  • 11:16:04

    REHMAnd when he was brought out, was he given mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?

  • 11:16:11

    SHARMAI think not quickly enough.

  • 11:16:14

    REHMAnd in that three moments underwater, all the damage occurred. Could it have been mitigated?

  • 11:16:27

    SHARMAYes, certainly. The -- what occurs is, you know, when you've been in water -- when the water enters your lungs, your lungs peel away from the inside of the chest cavity. They're not, you know, they're not fused to the chest cavity. They stick, you know, with almost like a mucus. So he was pulled out. So there was a collapsing of the lungs. But even then, things can be done that can make things better, that can make things easier. And those things, if they had been done more quickly, better, he -- things might have been very different.

  • 11:17:05

    REHMHmm. And he had just been accepted at Bronx High School.

  • 11:17:12

    SHARMAAt the Bronx High School of Science. You know, this was my parent's dream. And it was his dream. It was a very, very -- it's very difficult to get into these magnet schools in New York. And it's especially difficult if your English is quite poor. But he did so well in his math and sciences, that he got in. And then, you know, then he had this accident. And my mother kept -- my mother believed that my brother would get better. And so every year she would write a letter to the school and ask for a deferment.

  • 11:17:45

    REHMAh. For how many years did she do that?

  • 11:17:50

    SHARMAI believe for three -- three or four.

  • 11:17:53

    REHMAnd yet, it continued.

  • 11:17:56

    SHARMAIt continued. So my brother -- my brother's -- he lived for 30 years after the accident, 2 of those years in hospitals and then 28 years in my parent's house. And my parents really just -- they cherished him. They really took care of him. He never had a bedsore, you know, in those 28 years. And even very rich people who are in these situations get bedsores. You know, so it was amazing what they did.

  • 11:18:29

    REHMAkhil Sharma, his new book is a novel. It's titled "Family Life." Do join us. 800-433-8850. I look forward to speaking with you.

  • 11:20:01

    REHMAnd welcome back. Akhil Sharma is with me. He is a prize-winning writer. And he has written a new novel. It's titled family life and based on actual experiences that happened within his own family when they moved from Delhi to New York, living in the Bronx when his older brother has a life-changing -- for the entire family, a life-changing accident.

  • 11:20:44

    REHMIn the book, the younger brother really feels so obligated to be helpful and yet feels abandoned at the same time.

  • 11:21:04

    SHARMAYou know, this is my experience. I mean, that when something terrible happens to your family you draw in and you think, what can we do to help this other person, to the person in the greatest need. I remember when I was a little kid right after the accident, I would hold my breath and ask God to give my breaths to my brother, Dean. And I think that that's a common -- that's a very common response.

  • 11:21:32

    SHARMAAt a certain point though, after a year or two years or five years or ten years of deprivation of depriving yourself, you begin to feel unhappy. You know, you have your needs and these are the needs of any human being to be loved and to be valued. And when you're deprived of it and when in some ways you participated in saying -- in making yourself minor in terms of making yourself small so that nobody would have to focus on you, then suddenly to ask for attention feels almost unfair. It feels almost like a lie.

  • 11:22:08

    REHMWould you read for us from the book?

  • 11:22:12

    SHARMACertainly. This is from the very beginning. As far back as I can remember, my parents have bothered each other. In India we lived in two concrete rooms in the roof of a house. The bathroom stood separate from the living quarters. The sink was attached to one of the exterior walls. Each night my father would stand before the sink, the sky above him full of stars, and brush his teeth until his gums bled. Then he would spit the blood into the sink and turn to my mother and say, death, (word?) death. No matter what we do we will all die.

  • 11:22:45

    SHARMAYes, yes, beat drums, my mother said once, tell the newspapers to make sure everyone knows this thing you have discovered. Like many people of her generation who was born before independence, my mother viewed gloom as unpatriotic. To complain was to show that you are not willing to accept difficulties, that you are not willing to do the hard work that was needed to build the country.

  • 11:23:05

    SHARMAMy father was only two years older than my mother. Unlike her, he saw dishonesty and selfishness everywhere. Not only did he see these things but he believed that everybody else did too and that people were deliberately not acknowledging what they saw. My mother's irritation at his spitting blood he interpreted as hypocrisy.

  • 11:23:24

    SHARMAOne of the other reasons I think I wrote this book as a novel is a part of me is afraid of sympathy. You know, a part of me feels that I'm not deserving of it. And by writing a novel it's a way of creating something formal and asking to be judged based on those formal constraints, the constraints of fiction, and so not relying on the power of the subject matter to affect the reader. I think that was another motivation behind choosing to write it as a novel.

  • 11:23:58

    REHMYou are afraid of the sympathy that would come to you had you written this as a memoir?

  • 11:24:08

    SHARMAI think a part of me feels I am undeserving of sympathy. And so by converting this thing into fiction is a way of putting the thing that receives attention at arm's length. If I can write a book that is a novel that works the way that a novel works -- you know, like for example, the humor in this book or the way that physical grossness like the gums bleeding next to the stars -- sky full of stars, if I'm doing the things that fiction demands that we do, that we bring enormous amounts of life into a small space, if I receive admiration for that or respect for that then I feel okay, you know. Because it's somehow at arm's length from me.

  • 11:25:01

    SHARMABut if I were to receive sympathy for me, a part of me would be -- my first response is to not believe it. You know, the -- and it's hard for me to even believe when people show admiration for the work I do. I was -- as part -- you know, this book was reviewed on the cover of the New York Times. And I went to meet Pamela Paul, the editor of the book review. And when we finished, you know, she was praising me and she said, well, Akhil, this is brilliant. This is a brilliant book. And my first thought was, I can lie too.

  • 11:25:37

    SHARMABecause I feel that I grew up surrounded by such dangers, people attacking me, that it is best to view everybody as dishonest. And it was only when I -- that was my thought and then I thought -- and then my response to my own thought was, Akhil, take this in, you know. Take this in. These are good things, you know.

  • 11:25:57

    REHMYes. In other words, when she said, this is brilliant, if you had uttered words back to her you might have said, no it's not.

  • 11:26:13

    SHARMAOr almost anger. You know, that to say I can lie too is almost anger. And I think it's a very childish thing. Like when I was young and parents would offer -- or people who came by would offer love and sympathy, a part of me would say, why don't you take me away from here? My life is such a torment. Take me away.

  • 11:26:36

    REHMAt the same time, there is a portion in the novel when AJ, the younger brother who has helped his mother and father so extensively, makes the top grade in the class along with, I think, eight other boys. And comes home and says to his mother something like, mom here's what I did. And she puts him down.

  • 11:27:15

    SHARMAYeah, you know, that happened to me. Like I remember coming home and being ranked first in my class. And, you know, I think a weird dynamic occurs in the family when there's so much illness. You know, somebody has to become a scapegoat. And, you know, when we're unhappy we need ways to vent our anger. And we often -- the person who is least able to defend themselves is oftentimes the poor guy who gets it. So I remember coming home and telling that to my mother and my mother dismissing it. So...

  • 11:27:51

    REHMAnd you felt...

  • 11:27:53

    SHARMAA part of me felt that this was true. Why was I making a big deal of something so stupid?

  • 11:27:58

    REHMSo that carries on into your conversation with the editor at the New York Times book review.

  • 11:28:06

    SHARMAIt does. These things don't end. I mean, they -- the very, very deep things appear not to end. What can end is being aware of these things and being able to talk against it or being -- you know, making choices that lead you towards happiness instead of affirming your unhappiness.

  • 11:28:28

    REHMAJ wants to become a writer and begins to study the work. -- well first, the writings about Ernest Hemingway. He reads volume after volume, essay after essay in regard to Hemingway's work before he begins to read Hemingway's work itself. Did you do the same?

  • 11:29:02

    SHARMAI did. For me what occurred was when I was young I used to lie all the time about books I had read. You know, claim I had read these things when I had not. And one day I read a biography of Ernest Hemingway and largely so that I could then lie more effectively as to what I had read.

  • 11:29:22

    SHARMASo I read this biography and it amazed me that this man had gotten to travel around, that he had gotten to be in France and Spain. And he had done this without being an engineer or a doctor, which is what I had thought I would end up doing. And I thought, maybe I could be a writer too. And so I began -- you know, I just viewed it as, how can I write something that would be okay, that would be good enough?

  • 11:29:43

    SHARMAAnd so I began reading -- I wasn't interested in him as a writer. I was interested in learning how to write, so I began -- I went to the library and I got every book that I could about him.

  • 11:29:52

    REHMBut why Hemingway?

  • 11:29:57

    SHARMAI think partially because it was a fortuitous accident. I think that one of the reasons why I felt I could imitate him versus somebody like Faulkner is at least the biography said that he was simple enough. So that was the motivation, like, you know, I think I would've had a very hard time trying to imitate somebody who was complicated on the surface. So that was the -- I think that was the motivation.

  • 11:30:25

    SHARMAAnd then when I began to read him I learned that he was dealing with things that were very similar to mine -- my issues, which is that he was writing about exotic locations and writing about exotic cultures and trying to make them ordinary and familiar. And I found that very helpful. It was after I won the PEN/Hemingway Prize -- the person who gave it to me was one of his children -- and I found it -- you know, I found it again sort of only in America. You know, only in America can these sort of things occur. And by that point, you know, I was much more sophisticated. I knew a lot more about the difficulties of that family.

  • 11:31:07

    REHMBut did you feel deserving?

  • 11:31:13

    SHARMANot deserving but if some bit of luck is going to fall, I'm glad it falls on me. Like when I learned that I would get on the cover of the New York Times book review, my response was not happiness but relief that at least one more disappointment has been avoided. So...

  • 11:31:35

    REHMNow in the novel, this young man who is so ill, in one hospital, before his mother insists that the money given after the accident in damages be used to at least put a down payment on a home in Virginia, you all find that young man in the hospital having been neglected on his side barely able to do anything. That must have been so difficult.

  • 11:32:31

    SHARMAIt's amazing how, you know, you love your family. I mean, you know, you just -- you would do anything for them. And for other people, even though they're competent and even though they're considerate people, they can't love as much as you love. And so they're not as careful as you would be. So for example, oftentimes my brother, because he couldn't roll over at night on his own, had to be turned from side to side every two hours. And sometimes the nurses aids would forget.

  • 11:33:07

    SHARMAI know that when -- many times we couldn't afford nurses aids and so my parents would stay up all night. You know, they would sleep on little cots or benches in my brother's room with an alarm clock that would go off every two hours. And then they would get up and turn him from side to side.

  • 11:33:25

    REHMAnd they did that for 30 years.

  • 11:33:29

    SHARMAThey did that for 28 years and, yes...

  • 11:33:32

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." All right. Let's open the phones and your comments, your questions for Akhil Sharma on his new book, "Family Life." Let's go first to Danielle in Baltimore, Md. Hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:34:00

    DANIELLEThank you. I had to touch my chest as I listen to you. I had to put my hand over my heart. And I have a comment. You had made a comment about how only in America -- I think I've heard you say that a couple of times -- could this happen, and that kind of threads into my question for you. Because I didn't hear the very, very beginning of the program, but as I started listening I was compelled to ask you, what you feel that the timing of the accident -- what you feel that held for your family and for all of us.

  • 11:34:46

    DANIELLEWhat is it that you've come to -- and I think maybe I'm answering my question as I'm asking you -- but as you've written the book I can feel how important that was for you individually. But I would say -- only in America, I would say only anywhere what you have lived and what you have taken the time to share with all of us to me is only in the heart. Only in, like only -- I think the title is so appropriately named. And I just want to ask you what you, in your heart and in your soul, feel about the timing of this accident?

  • 11:35:33

    SHARMAYou know, the -- when I look back upon it, it seems ironic. You know, it seems for me, because of the way that I see things, it seems falsely dramatic to have this very good thing occur followed by this very bad thing. The -- but something else you said about, you know, the -- sort of the heartfelt nature of this book, for me unlike my first novel, which I'm proud of, the difference between that novel and this one is that I want this book to be very useful.

  • 11:36:07

    SHARMAThat is, you know, I want -- whereas with my first book I wanted to write a book that was good. But this book I wanted a book that can offer comfort, you know, that can talk about the very difficult things in life but can offer comfort.

  • 11:36:22

    REHMI think that's a great way to put it. I think our caller Danielle also points to the fact that it is the human heart that does react, no matter where one is, whether one is in America or one is in India or one is in Russia. The human heart reaches a point where there is so much sympathy or empathy. But then at some point begins to say, I feel neglected. I feel as though I have lost in the process. Akhil Sharma. His PEN/Hemingway award was given for his book "An Obedient Father." We're talking about his latest novel "Family Life." Short break and right back.

  • 11:39:59

    REHMIf you've just joined us, prize-winning author Akhil Sharma is with me. He has written a truly beautiful book. It's titled, "Family Life," about a family from India moving here to the United States, wanting, hoping to achieve everything imaginable for, not only themselves, but their children, two young boys, one 14, one 8.

  • 11:40:37

    REHMAnd sadly, one of the boys has a tragic accident that leaves him totally, totally paralyzed and dependent for the rest of his short life. His parents care for him. And, Akhil, what I am so impressed with is you talked earlier about your love of writing and your dedication to learning about how to write by studying Hemingway and his writing.

  • 11:41:22

    REHMYour sentences are so accessible. Not only as written words, but they penetrate the heart. And I think it is because they are in the style of Hemingway. They're brief, they're interesting, they're sharp and we know exactly where we're going as we're reading. Was there a deliberate attempt on your part to write in the style of Hemingway?

  • 11:42:08

    SHARMAFor a very long time it was. And then there are certain things that Hemingway does not do which I am very interested in. So most of Hemingway's characters are good people. And they're not terribly flawed, partially because if you begin to write so cleanly about people who are behaving badly they come off as psychopaths. So my style had to vary in response to my subject matter, in terms of writing about flawed people.

  • 11:42:42

    SHARMAWhat I want -- when I write, what I want is for what you describe. That is you can take in the words, the scene, but you take I all the emotions behind it. You know, you can see these human beings and what motivates them and that they're flawed. And yet, you can't avoid the fact that they're human beings, that you recognize them. You know, you can't only love the loveable. You know you have to learn to love the people who are difficult.

  • 11:43:14

    SHARMAAnd I think fiction allows us to be a little bit braver than we are in our own lives. You know, in our own lives we get tired, we get irritated. In fiction we can love a little bit more wholeheartedly. And so maybe we can bring that back into our own life.

  • 11:43:30

    REHMI want to ask you about A.J. and his dropping notes in young girls' hair and lockers, saying, "I love you." Did you do that?

  • 11:43:46

    SHARMAI did a variation of that. I did a variation. Just the need for being shy and not knowing how to do it, you know, how to reach out. And being afraid of being rejected. And then I was reading a Chekhov story and he has a character doing the same thing. So it seems like, you know, this is something that little boys have done forever.

  • 11:44:09

    REHMAnd A.J. does get a response, finally, from a young girl. And they begin a very sweet and tender relationship, except that while he is in this relationship with one little girl, he drops another note into yet another girl's hair. He is, in effect, unfaithful to the first little girl.

  • 11:44:49

    SHARMAI -- yes. I think one of the things that occurs when you are used to thinking of yourself as unlovable is that it's hard to take in somebody else's affection. And so what you can take in is not -- what you begin to seek then is not so much affection as attention. And so that's what motivates him. He begins pursuing another girl because he doesn't know -- he can't be comforted by affection. He finds that to be indigestible.

  • 11:45:25

    REHMWhat did you go on to do?

  • 11:45:29

    SHARMAYou mean after? So after I finished writing this book -- I mean, after I finished high school?

  • 11:45:36

    REHMHigh school.

  • 11:45:37

    SHARMAI went to Princeton. After Princeton I got a fellowship and I went to Stanford. I was there for a little while. And then I went to law school at Harvard. I graduated and then I became an investment banker.

  • 11:45:53

    REHMAn investment banker. How odd.

  • 11:45:59

    SHARMAIt's, you know, if you're -- for me, a lot of what I was pursuing was safety. Safety and so money, at least when you're young, you can conflate with safety. And so, you know, I made so much money. I made so much money, which was wonderful. And money I -- people also conflate with status. I remember when I was a banker, walking into stores and I don't know how the sales people senses it, but I seemed to be radiating, just like heat waves, money.

  • 11:46:39

    SHARMAAnd how they would just run to me to offer me things. And it was interesting. You know, it was an interesting thing, but if you are unable to take in positive things -- I saw it for what it was, which was an exchange, a financial exchange. It brought me very little comfort.

  • 11:47:00

    REHMSo…

  • 11:47:02

    SHARMAAnd so I quit being a banker. You know, the -- Abraham Lincoln said that he didn't wish for admiration. He wished to be deserving of admiration. And I think the same thing is true for me. I -- it is easy to buy admiration or to have admiration thrust upon you if you have a lot of money.

  • 11:47:24

    SHARMAYou know, Gogol said that people can't help but flatter millionaires. And what I wanted to do was something worthy, something that matters to me. And something that would be helpful to people. And so I did this thing, which I can do well.

  • 11:47:44

    REHMWhen did you marry?

  • 11:47:46

    SHARMAI married in 2001.

  • 11:47:49

    REHMAnd was that before or after you left banking?

  • 11:47:53

    SHARMAIt was before I left banking. And soon after I left it -- my wife oftentimes teases me that she had married a banker and ended up with a writer.

  • 11:48:07

    REHMAnd do you have children?

  • 11:48:08

    SHARMAWe do not.

  • 11:48:10

    REHMAll right. Here is an email from Carol, who says, "Were your parents religious? Did it help them in caring for your brother? Did religion help you in any way?"

  • 11:48:27

    SHARMAIt helped my parents tremendously. And my parents are extremely pious, that is they -- first thing they do, they wake up and they pray. Then they take their -- they bathe and then they pray again. Then they'll pray in the afternoon, the evening and at night. So about five times a day. And these are full rituals that they will do. There's an altar in their bedroom where they burn incense each time they pray.

  • 11:48:53

    SHARMAAnd there's so much incense being burnt that they've taped sheets of aluminum foil on the ceiling so that the smoke from the incense won't stain the ceiling. And for them it was tremendously comforting to see this, to pray and to do all of these things. It affirmed them in doing what they were doing, which I don't think is what religion should do. Religion should teach you humility, is how I perceive it.

  • 11:49:18

    SHARMAWhereas for them, it taught them -- it encouraged them to follow along on their path. So it gave them a lot of strength. It encouraged them to do weird and destructive things, such as they began to have these miracle workers come to the house. I mean these are cooks, candy shop owners, accountants, who would come and they would say that God had appeared to them in a dream and come up with a cure. And really weird behavior that they would do. And my mother, for her, this was a way of showing God her faith.

  • 11:49:53

    SHARMAYou know, in Hinduism, if you show your faith long enough God will eventually be humbled and will have to grant you your wish. And so my mother did not so much believe in these people, in these miracle workers, as she believed that this was a way of displaying her faith.

  • 11:50:12

    REHMDid your father actually become an alcoholic?

  • 11:50:16

    SHARMANo. My father is not an alcoholic?

  • 11:50:18

    REHMIn the book…

  • 11:50:20

    SHARMAIn the book, yes.

  • 11:50:22

    REHMIn the novel…

  • 11:50:23

    SHARMAExactly.

  • 11:50:23

    REHM…he is.

  • 11:50:23

    SHARMAExactly.

  • 11:50:23

    REHMAnd your father was never an alcoholic.

  • 11:50:25

    SHARMANo, no.

  • 11:50:28

    REHMI'm glad to know that. That must have made your own life somewhat less easier than that of the fictional A.J.

  • 11:50:37

    SHARMAIt does. It was a way -- his alcoholism was a way of showing the father being absent. You know, because my father was absent. He was depressed and unhappy. And so, again, depression and unhappiness is hard to represent in fiction.

  • 11:50:56

    REHMSo to do it through alcoholism…

  • 11:51:00

    SHARMAIs a way to give an external forum, a dramatized forum to that absence.

  • 11:51:04

    REHMAll right. And let's go now to George, in Richmond, Va. You're on the air. George, are you there? I guess not. Let's go to Teresa, in Raleigh, N.C. Hi there.

  • 11:51:29

    TERESAHi.

  • 11:51:31

    REHMGo right ahead, please.

  • 11:51:34

    TERESAOkay. Thank you. First, my comment is that initially, this author said that he -- excuse me not pronouncing his name correctly -- but he said that he did not wish for sympathy. And having heard him this whole time speaking I just want to communicate that I think it would be very difficult to write something this brave and this honest and this humble without receiving some sympathy and love for it. And I certainly feel that toward him and wanted to communicate that.

  • 11:52:12

    TERESAThat even though he may not wish for it, it most certainly, humanly needs to be a response of those of us who read this kind of story. There could be no other response for those of us, recipients to, you know, to feel. So I do feel great warmth and even love towards this man. Also wanted to say -- my question is, I wonder if his having witnessed such suffering, up close and personally and, you know, sort of powerlessly, if he feels that this has condemned to forever think that he is undeserving? And I certainly hope not. I hope that in this process of writing he'll get beyond that. But I wondered if he'd comment on that.

  • 11:53:00

    REHMThank you so much for your call. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Akhil?

  • 11:53:08

    SHARMAThe -- first of all, thank you very much for your compassion. You know, I understand that it is -- it's -- I find it easy to offer compassion and to offer love. To receive compassion and love, however, makes me want to turn away. And I know that this is my problem, you know. That why should I deprive myself of this good thing. You know, and why should I deprive myself of this human connection. It is something that I work hard at. But these are my first -- that's my first response.

  • 11:53:47

    SHARMAAm I -- you know, I feel that when I do good things I -- when I help somebody I feel, not -- my self-esteem goes up. And so then I become more able to say I am deserving of this thing. But it's a little bit, you know, and that's okay. You know. It motivates me to try to be a good person. I don't have that steady sense of being deserving that some people have. Chekov said that he wanted to -- Chekov's parents were serfs, and he said that he wanted to squeeze every drop of serf blood out of him.

  • 11:54:27

    SHARMABy which he meant that he didn't want to think like a slave, think in terms of fear. And I want to act like somebody who had an ideal childhood. You know, I want to just act that way because I think, one, I can lead a better life and two, I can bring more goodness into life.

  • 11:54:44

    REHMAnd a final email. "Given how much families are constituted by secrets that bind members together, I wonder how you have negotiated the telling of this story, which is autobiographical, with members of your family." The emailer, Kami, says she'd appreciate having you talk about that.

  • 11:55:15

    SHARMAYou know, when I wrote -- when I began writing this novel, I told my mother that I was doing it. And she said, "Akhil, just make me look good." And then when I told my father that the galleys were ready, that these proofs were ready and asked him if he wanted to read it he said, "Why? I was there." So I think -- I hope they don't read it, you know. I feel that the book is full of compassion for them. I think it also represents them truthfully. It's difficult, though, to be represented truthfully.

  • 11:55:46

    SHARMAI know that even I would feel bad if I were represented in my variety, in my weird pettinesses, you know. And so it makes -- it might make them uncomfortable. And I don't see what there is to gain from it. You know, all it will do is confuse them about the tremendous love I have for them.

  • 11:56:08

    REHMSo the book is there in their home?

  • 11:56:12

    SHARMAIt is there. I hope they have not read it.

  • 11:56:18

    REHMJust to have it there.

  • 11:56:21

    SHARMAYou know, it's an object that they wanted.

  • 11:56:26

    REHMHere is the last email, "What a delight to listen to your gentle voice and humble spirit. Do you believe in the writing of this book you can now move past this tragedy to find peace?"

  • 11:56:48

    SHARMAYou know, I hope, first of all, as an artist, to never write about this thing again because it took so much out of me.

  • 11:56:54

    REHMIt took you 12 years to write this book.

  • 11:56:58

    SHARMATwelve and a half years. I wrote 7,000 pages and this is like 200. The -- I don't know, I think what it taught me, looking at happiness for that long, was that I need to just be happy. You know, life is too short.

  • 11:57:12

    REHMYou need to move on and I think you have succeeded. Akhil Sharma. His book is titled, "Family Life." Congratulations.

  • 11:57:26

    SHARMAThank you.

  • 11:57:27

    REHMThank you for being here. And thanks all for listening. I'll be off for the next few days, back with you next Tuesday. Thanks for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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