By Paul Rankin. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16).
In Akhil Sharma’s collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton), we meet a sequence of remarkable characters in the throes of profound dislocation.
Five of the eight stories take place in the United States, while the remaining three occur in India. All, however, focus on characters struggling to preserve cultural roots and traditions even as they feel themselves getting swept along by the forces of modernity and westernization. These struggles produce narratives which are by degrees horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious.
In the opening scene of the opening story, for instance, we meet Gopal Maurya, recently abandoned by his daughter (Gita) and wife (Anita) and sleeping on a couch in the living room. Having banished himself from his own bed “in a burst of self-hate,” he’s resolved “to avoid comforting himself with any illusions that his life was normal.”
The absent women provide immediate backdrop for Gopal’s despair; together they also function more broadly, as a controlling metaphor which informs the dramatic tensions throughout and creates a coherence and unity that may collections lack.
Gita has become fully westernized; Anita has returned to India where she met a guru, achieved enlightenment, and moved into an ashram to sweep floors and pray. Left behind, cut off from every familiar thing, Gopal fantasizes about “calling an ambulance so that he could be touched.”
When his neighbor Mrs. Shaw comes over to borrow the lawnmower, he attempts “to extend their time together” by tangling “her in conversation.” Through she won’t even accept a drink–“Orange juice, apple juice, or grape, pineapple, guava. I also have some tropical punch”–Gopal clumsily pursues her, visiting a hair stylist rather than his “usual barber” and reading articles in popular magazines like Cosmopolitan for advice about what makes a good lover. Along the way, Gopal also fights to preserve his tenuous connection to the past by becoming involved in the Indian Cultural Association.
Each subsequent story centers on the particular desires and frustrations of its individual protagonist, but each explores similar themes of conflicted longing. In the wake of a recent tragedy, a young boy prays daily before a traditional Hindu altar at the same time he attempts to make sense of his loss by identifying with iconic western superheroes like Batman and Superman for whom personal catastrophe became the catalyst that reveled their true greatness.
A temple pandit places his cellphone on the cushion beside him while performing sacred burial rights and when, “Periodically it would ring, and he would gesture for (the others) to keep singing while he answered…with one hand played the harmonium with the other.”
A doctoral student at NYU uses the internet to hire prostitutes while maintaining the conviction that “any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her was in some way depraved and foul, and also unintelligent.”
A young woman, living abroad in America, soothes the pain of isolation by drinking more and more until “the drink overtook her,” at which point her husband “sends her back to her parents” knowing they “will kill her, because the shame of having an alcoholic as a daughter…is staggering.”
These stories are poignant, gripping, and subtly profound in their investigation of the moral complexities confronting all citizens of an increasingly globalized society. Each stands alone in its own right. At the same time, largely because of how deftly Sharma weaves these common threads of alienation and dislocation throughout, the sum is far greater than its parts.
Paul Rankin holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, works as a freelance writer and editor, and is on the verge of finishing his first novel. He lives in Jackson with his family.