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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.