BOOK EXCERPT

Family Life: The ‘Indian’ novel shortlisted for the £40,000-Folio Prize

An excerpt from a portrait about a dysfunctional family with a brain-damaged child, narrated by the other son.

It is the late 1970s. India has been wrenched by the Emergency. Like countless Indian children, Ajay and Birju are taken by their parents to America so they can have a better life. In New York, their flat is tiny, the students at their school racist. Like all striving Asian children, Ajay and Birju forge ahead, pushed on by their ambitious parents. But then everything changes. Birju has an accident that leaves him brain-damaged, and the world around Ajay collapses. His father begins to drink, his mother takes to prayer, and it is Ajay who must now bear all the guilty weight of their love.

~

I was at the school playground the next morning, waiting for the starting bell, when Jeff came up to me. He had a book bag dangling from one shoulder and both hands in his back pockets. He said, “Have you ever asked your brother to blink once for yes and twice for no?”

One of the reasons I had not told anyone was because I was afraid of questions like this. “I have. It doesn’t work.” Even as I had tried this in the hospital, with nobody else around, I had known that it would have no effect.

"Have you ever shouted ‘Fire!’ and run away and then seen if he would get up?”

“No,” I murmured.

Jeff stared. “That might work.”

“I’ll try.” I was quiet for a little while. Jeff remained standing before me. I said, “My brother was a genius. He took French for two weeks and after that he could speak it perfectly.”

Jeff nodded. He looked serious, like he was being given a secret mission.

The school doors opened. Jeff and I went inside together.

At lunch I sat down across from him and his best friend, Michael Bu, a Chinese boy with a round face and sharp little teeth like a fish. “Can your brother not talk at all,” Michael asked, “or does he sound retarded?”

My face became hot. I had considered asking Jeff not to tell anyone about Birju, but it had seemed too much to ask. “Not at all.”

“What does he look like?” Michael asked.

I put a tater tot in my mouth and pointed a finger at my lips.

“What’s wrong with your brother?” Mario asked. Mario was sitting next to Michael. Mario was very tall and wide. He had fuzz on his upper lip. Once, when the class sang, “You Are My Sunshine,” he had cried. The children sometimes mocked him by singing the song.

“He had an accident in a swimming pool and became brain damaged.”

“Does he open his eyes?” Mario asked.

“Yes.”

Jeff said, “I saw a television show where a woman sees a murder and goes unconscious.”

I pursed my lips to appear serious. “That happens.”

“How does he eat?” Jeff asked.

I began to feel attacked.

“There is a tube in his stomach.” I told them about the Isocal formula and the gastrointestinal tube. I said, “My brother was a great basketball player. He played two games and immediately got so good that he began beating people. When he played, people came to watch.” By lying, I felt that I had placed a finger on a balance that was tilting too far to one side.

Within a few days, everybody in class had heard about Birju. Still, boys and girls came up to me during recess and asked eagerly whether I had a brother, as if the secret could be revealed once more.

Whenever I told someone about Birju, I felt compelled to lie about his wonderfulness. Because we had received so little money in the settlement, which meant that Birju was an ordinary boy, lying seemed the only way to explain that what had happened to him was awful, was the worst thing in the world. Birju, I said, had rescued a woman trapped in a burning car. Birju had had a great talent for music and a photographic memory.

Sometimes I didn’t tell these lies, but only imagined them. I concocted an ideal brother. I took the fact that Birju had told our parents that I was being bullied and turned this into him being a karate expert who had protected me by beating up various boys. These fantasies felt real. They excited me. They made me love Birju and when I was in his room kiss his hands and cheeks. They also cultivated rage at the loss, the way my father’s claims of racism cultivated it for him.

A part of me was anxious about the lies I told. I was afraid of being caught or doubted. Also, making up these stories seemed to serve as evidence that Birju had not been good enough for what happened to him to count as terrible. Each morning I woke on the sofa thinking of the lies I had told. Often I didn’t want to go to school.

At some point, I became aware that Jeff no longer believed my lies. Yet when I came up to him on the playground before school, loyalty demanded that I keep lying. “Birju solved a math problem that professors hadn’t been able to solve for years,” or, “My brother was a very fast runner. Once, he threw a ball straight ahead of him, and he chased it and caught it before it hit the ground.” One morning, when I stood outside school and told Jeff a lie, he stepped back and rolled his eyes.

Excerpted with permission from Family Life: A Novel, Akhil Sharma, Penguin Books India.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Can a colour encourage creativity and innovation?

The story behind the universally favoured colour - blue.

It was sought after by many artists. It was searched for in the skies and deep oceans. It was the colour blue. Found rarely as a pigment in nature, it was once more precious than gold. It was only after the discovery of a semi-precious rock, lapis lazuli, that Egyptians could extract this rare pigment.

For centuries, lapis lazuli was the only source of Ultramarine, a colour whose name translated to ‘beyond the sea’. The challenges associated with importing the stone made it exclusive to the Egyptian kingdom. The colour became commonly available only after the invention of a synthetic alternative known as ‘French Ultramarine’.

It’s no surprise that this rare colour that inspired artists in the 1900s, is still regarded as the as the colour of innovation in the 21st century. The story of discovery and creation of blue symbolizes attaining the unattainable.

It took scientists decades of trying to create the elusive ‘Blue Rose’. And the fascination with blue didn’t end there. When Sir John Herschel, the famous scientist and astronomer, tried to create copies of his notes; he discovered ‘Cyanotype’ or ‘Blueprints’, an invention that revolutionized architecture. The story of how a rugged, indigo fabric called ‘Denim’ became the choice for workmen in newly formed America and then a fashion sensation, is known to all. In each of these instances of breakthrough and innovation, the colour blue has had a significant influence.

In 2009, the University of British Columbia, conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. While the red groups did better on recall and attention to detail, blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination. The study proved that the colour blue boosts our ability to think creatively; reaffirming the notion that blue is the colour of innovation.

When we talk about innovation and exclusivity, the brand that takes us by surprise is NEXA. Since its inception, the brand has left no stone unturned to create excusive experiences for its audience. In the search for a colour that represents its spirit of innovation and communicates its determination to constantly evolve, NEXA created its own signature blue: NEXA Blue. The creation of a signature color was an endeavor to bring something exclusive and innovative to NEXA customers. This is the story of the creation, inspiration and passion behind NEXA:

Play

To know more about NEXA, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of NEXA and not by the Scroll editorial team.