Dublin Literary Award Winner Akhil Sharma Reading and Q&A - Transcript

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The following is a transcript of 2016 Dublin Literary Award Winner Akhil Sharma reading and answering questions in Dublin City Library & Archive, Pearse Street, on Friday, 10 June, 2016.

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Welcome to the Dublin City Public Libraries and Archive Podcast. In this episode Akhil Sharma, winner of the 2016 International Dublin literary Award reads from his winning book 'Family Life'. The reading is followed by a Question and Answer session introduced and moderated by Niall MacMonagle. Recorded in front of a live audience in Dublin City Library and Archive on 10 June 2016.

Good evening everyone. This is what I call a lucky, lucky point of time. This is my idea of a really special occasion, an enthusiastic gathering of book lovers, a wonderfully talented writer, a marvellous novel and all on a sunny spells and scattered showers summers evening. Welcome everybody. Especially welcome to Akhil Sharma, who’s come 3,000 miles to celebrate with us this evening his novel “Family Life”, winner of the Dublin Literary Award 2016. The novel has a fine and distinguished history, and though it has been argued that among the countless novels published to date, there are only two plots; a person goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. The novel continues to be written and it continues to be an innovative, resilient, exciting form. It is forever reinventing itself. In Akhil Sharma’s memorable novel, a family goes on a journey, things go terribly wrong, they suffer intensely, and their lives are changed forever. Family is one of the most potent words in every language. Tolstoy tells us that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And the unhappiness that visits the Mishra family in Sharma’s novel is devastating. Ajay the narrator, is 40 when the novel opens. But then Akhil Sharma returns immediately to that same narrator at 8 years of age. We follow Ajay through boyhood and adolescence, from Delhi to New York in an intimate first person narrative that captures his response to ordinary and traumatic events. It seemed unfair says Ajay, that something like this could happen and the world go on. Sharma is a novelist alive to language, its power, its possibilities, a writer who tells an engaging story in his own unique way. The writing is spare, vivid. Ajay’s voice is honest, direct, unsettling. Consider the following effective description. “My father lifted me onto a stool. I looked around. There was an old fat man in shorts sitting at a table. He was wearing an under shirt and his stomach sat on his lap like a small child. He was wearing sneakers and no socks, and the skin around the ankles was black, like a bruised banana”. Our Ajay tells us that “at school the guilt and sadness were like wearing clothes, still damp from the wash”. And it’s not without humour. A character describes Paris as “the most beautiful city in the world, there is dog shit everywhere though. What is the point of a city being so beautiful, if you have to always be looking down”. But not only can Sharma describe something so clearly, and do what Joseph Conrad urged all writers to do, “above all to make you see”. But he has a remarkable ability to catch the unsettling and truthful complexity of a consciousness. Ajay admits his imperfections. He talks to God. He is bullied at school. He lies at school. He watches his family implode. He reads about Hemingway, then he reads Hemingway. He falls in love. He wants to be a writer. At times the voice is endearing. “On an aeroplane, the stewardess has to give you whatever you ask for, I’m going to ask for a baby tiger”. At other times it’s disturbingly convincing as when he thinks about his older brother Birju following his accident, Ajay wonders if he was dead. This was thrilling. “If he was dead, I would get to be the only son”. And he tells God “I was glad I might become an only child”. Only for Ajay to imagine God replying “everybody thinks strange thoughts, it doesn’t matter if you think something”. Like Akhil Sharma, other writers, I’m thinking of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, (4.46 inaudible), NoViolet Bulawayo, they have also explored the experience of moving to a new county in search of a better life. Family Life is one such story, and yet like no other in that the central episode is captured with such honesty, with such clear sightedness. And there’s a world beyond family. When Ajay discovers American libraries, his life changes. “Vanishing into books, I felt held”, is how he describes it, and Sharma says that “reading a book a second time was more comforting than reading it in the first place, because during the second reading, everything was in its place”. Reading Family Life, especially, certainly, sorry, reading Family Life you will certainly feel held and you will want to re-read it. The American poet Marianne Moore believes that the cure for loneliness is solitude, and solitude can be an enriching and rewarding experience, especially if you are a reader, and if you are reading a novel as fine as this one. This evening, Akhil Sharma will read an extract, then he and I will be as they say “in conversation”. This will be followed by questions from the floor, and then finally through the doors at the back, to a delightful reception. Please join me in congratulating Akhil Sharma and welcoming him to Dublin. (Applause)

Akhil Sharma

Thank you very much. The introduction might be better than what I’m going to read. I’m very honoured to have won this prize. Partially because the books that have won this prize are genuinely good, and books that I admire. And so there’s a sense of oh I belong in the same tradition. And I get a congratulatory email and so they asked me how I felt and I said you know I feel like a fake. But you know, it’s hard to be a good copy. So I might not be genuinely good, but I’m at least a good copy of somebody who is good. Thank you to the Dublin Public Library for inviting me. I’d like to thank the city of Dublin for this award. I will read and I’ll talk a little bit about what I was thinking as I wrote this book.

“When I was a child, I thought my father had been assigned to us by the government. This was because he appeared to serve no purpose. When he got home in the evening all he did was sit in this chair in the living room, drink tea and read the paper. Often he looked angry. By the time we left for America, when I was 8 and Birju was 12, I knew that the government had not assigned him to live with us. Still, I continued to think he served no purpose.”

The book draws very heavily on my own life and I had a brother who had an accident like this and became severely brain damaged. And when I was writing the book, part of the motivation for writing the book was to memorialise him, and memorialise my family. And while writing the book I tried whenever possible to use something from my own life. Like I would of course always pick the good detail over the worst detail, but I would try to use what had actually happened. And so I used to think strange thoughts like that. I wondered who is this man? Why is he always around? I also remember being very young and being in love with my mother, and thinking she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and hoping that one day I would get to marry her. Which I think is something that lots of little boys think.

I’ll continue reading “As far back as I can remember my parents have bothered each other. In India we lived in two cement rooms on 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, (10.00 speaks in native tongue) no matter what we do we will all die”. “Yes, yes beat drums my mother said once, tell the newspapers too. Make sure everyone knows this thing you have discovered”. Like many people of her generation, those born before independence, my mother viewed gloom as unpatriotic. To complain was to show that you were not willing to accept difficulties, that you were not willing to do the hard work that was needed to build the country. My 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.”

So this book took forever to write. It took twelve and a half years. Whenever I would finish a draft, nearly every draft I wrote was terrible. And whenever I would finish a draft, I would begin with a blank screen. Just because otherwise one is lazy and one wants too just recycle things, you know just the end the pain as quickly as possible. And you know, you just have to walk into pain. I mean I think that’s part of what it means to be a writer, to do the stupid thing over and over. And so people have asked me how did I realise that the book was nearly done. And for me, there are certain things which are characteristic of my voice. And one is that I see really beautiful things, you know the most wonderful things in life, noble things, right next to utter stupidity. So to me when I began to see sentences such as “each night my father would stand before the sink, the sky above him full of stars and brush his teeth till his gums bled”, I thought okay, this thing is nearly done. I’m also always, I want all of my characters to be right, and I want all of my characters to be wrong. So, you had the mother is right, in that she says what is the value of pointless gloom. She is wrong though, in that her motivation for this is largely what will the neighbours think. The father is of course wrong, because unattached cynicism, just cynicism as a habit is corrosive, it’s dangerous, it destroys joy. Except if you know India, it might be wise to be cynical about everything. So, I’ll just read a few minutes more.

“My father was an accountant. He had wanted to emigrate to the west ever since he was in his early 20’s, ever since America liberalised its immigration policies in 1965. His wish rose out of self loathing. Often when he walked down the street in Delhi, he would feel that the buildings he passed were indifferent to him, that he mattered so little to them that he might as well not have been born. Because he attributed this feeling to his circumstances, and not to the fact that he was the sort of person who sense buildings having opinions of him. He believed that if her were somewhere else, especially somewhere where he was paid in dollars and thus was rich, he would be a different person and one who’s life had meaning. Another reason he wanted to emigrate was that he saw the west as glamorous with the excitement of science. In India in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, radios, televisions and cars were not just expensive objects, but were seen as almost supernatural. I remember that when we turned on the radio in our apartment as the vacuum tubes warmed up, first of all he said it would sound far away, and then they would rush at us. And this was thrilling, as if the machine were making some special effort for us. Of everybody in my family, my father loved science the most. The way he tried to bring science into his life was by going to medical clinics and having his urine tested. He loved clinics and doctors’ offices. Of course hypochondria had something to do with this. My father suspected that there was something wrong with him and that it might be something physical. Also sitting in the clinics and talking to doctors in lab coats, he felt that he was close to important things, that what the doctors were doing was the same as what doctors would do in England or Germany or America.  That he was really there in those foreign countries. My mother had no interest in emigrating for herself. She was a high school teacher of economics and she liked her job. But she thought that the west would provide me and my brother Birju with opportunities. Then came the emergency. Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and put thousands of politicians and journalists in jail. My parents like almost everyone who had seen independence come, were very loyal. They were the sort of people who looked up at a cloud and thought, that’s an Indian cloud. After the emergency however, they began to think that even though they were ordinary and unlikely to get into political trouble, it still might be better to emigrate.”

That’s all I’m going to read. When I was writing this book, for me it was a really difficult experience. For many of the years while I was writing this, my wife was supporting us financially. And so, you know, I needed to at least appear to not be going out of my mind. And so when she would leave for work, I would be sitting at my desk working. And then she would, I would work for about half an hour and then the depression  would get so great that I would go lie down and sleep. And that somehow caused the brain to restart. It renewed the hope. But often times when I was lying there I would think that the book will eventually get done. And I would think that the book will matter to someone. And sometimes a book, even if it is a very bad book, right, a totally incompetent book, contains certain truths that matter to a few people. You know, I’m not totally sure that this book is a great book. I haven’t read over the book since I finished it. But I do believe that there are things in the book which are true and which matter, you know which can be of comfort. Whenever possible because of my own experience, I go visit people in hospitals. And I remember a friend of mine, her husband had a seizure and  was taken to the hospital, and you know, I visited her and the day I showed up, I showed up in the morning and I said to her, you know, I’ll be with you all day, don’t worry. Because I remember when I was a child, when people would visit me in the hospital, visit my family in the hospital, I would immediately begin thinking when are they going to leave. Not because I wanted them gone, but because it became unbearable to be alone again. And at some point I went to, when I was going to go get us lunch for me and my friend, I said to her you know, I used to get very lonely when people would leave. And she said, okay, and then I went, I was gone for 20 minutes and I came back and she said she got so lonely so fast, that it was almost like she was getting cold. And whether or not the book is a good book or a funny book or a well written book, it has certain truths which I think make people feel less alone. And in the end that’s what I think is the most powerful thing that a book can do. Thank you for inviting me to be here. (Applause)

Have we got sound now?
Yes.

Moderator 

Thank you very much. Could I begin with a big general question and bring you back to April 1719 when what is so called the first novel in English, Robinson Crusoe was published. Do you write within a tradition or against a tradition, or where do you see your two novels in terms of that backdrop to you as a novelist in the 21st century?

AS

I think, can you hear me? Okay. I think I write very, very much in the mainstream of literary fiction. That is, I write books which have stories. I write books where there are characters, characters who matter to the reader, and they exist in situations which transform the characters. So by the end of the story, somebody the reader cares for is changed. Often times as part of the tradition, the post Robinson Crusoe, the late 1800’s tradition of Dostoyevsky I believe that it’s important to write about characters who are not completely good. You know, it’s easy to love the lovable, right. The key is to learn to love the people who are difficult. So, I mean I think of myself as very much in the mainstream of fiction.

Moderator

I heard Ail Kennedy last week in Listowel say “all good writers say here is my anguish”. Now in your work, is your anguish the anguish of your family, your own personal family history? Or was there another anguish within you as a writer, as a creative person?

AS

When I was a child, when I was 7 or 8, right before we emigrated to America, my mother took me, went to all our different relatives to say goodbye. And at one point we left a relative, you know somebody who lived on a farm and we went and stood by the side of the road waiting for a bus. And I was bored and sort of restless and my mother took off her sunglasses and gave them to me to play with. And so I put them on and the world not only looked different but it felt different. A world to me, to see the world as it actually is in an ordinary way has less intensity and flavour than to see a world that is slightly artificial. I find the world as it actually is, shapeless. Going on and on and on. Both slightly uninteresting and also frightening. So for me, there was a part of me as a child, I was a shy child and that shyness came from a certain amount of fear. And that fear was comforted by existing in a universe which had rules, which had very strict rules. And fiction allows strict rules to exist. And so there is anguish certainly in terms of what happened to my family. But I think even beneath that, like as far back as I can remember, there was a certain anxiety, a certain thin-skinnedness about life. So for me fiction was a way of dealing with that anxiety. You know, even if nothing bad had happened to me, I think there would have been a desire to go into fiction. You know, I as a child was incredibly happy. I mean I remember being a little kid, playing cricket you know, and one day I was about 6 years old, I was playing cricket and I was thinking you know, I’m good at cricket, I’m good at flying kites, you know, I’m about as old as I need to be.

Moderator

In your first novel you describe Delhi as “living inside an oil tank”. And then you went to the land of the free and the home of the brave. What’s your relationship now with India?

AS

You know, I care for it very much, but it’s like the relationship between me and my cousins, you know cousins whom I love. But in the end, their lives are their lives. And I can offer help where I can, but their lives are their lives. And to some extent I can’t love them more than they love themselves. So I have a cousin whom I adore, love him. I mean I love him so much that for many years I used to carry a photograph of him with me. You know, and he’s married to somebody who is mentally ill. So mentally ill that when she gets into a fight with him, she will take off her clothes and run naked down the street. Because when she does something like that, what’s she’s saying is that there are no rules. I will do anything. And so you need to be quiet and listen to whatever I have to say. And you know, my response to this is that you gotta get out of this marriage, I mean this woman is insane. And he says to me, oh you know, but then my children won’t be able to get married. You know, nobody will marry a girl or a boy whose parents are divorced. And I say I don’t know if that’s true, but there’s a certain point where you can no longer care more than they do. You know, if you say something once to a person, you say it right? You say it twice, you’ve said it twice. By the third time you’re saying it you’re trying to control them. And so, if I say about India look, don’t steal, don’t do these horrible things, India’s going to do what it’s going to do. I can only love it and try to keep a certain amount of distance from it.

Moderator 

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s story, Mrs Sen, she romanticises India, she talks about how perfect India is compared to crass, materialistic America. But you have a much more clear sighted view of India. For example, a bad marriage is often accepted as part of life and where depression and mental illness are described as a person being “moody”. So, did you ever think of returning to India? Was America the place for you for the rest of your life?

AS

When I was a child I was so unhappy, right, my life was so difficult because of the illness in my family and the problems that my parents had, that I kept fantasising that elsewhere I would be happy. And so I pushed India when I was a child with this ferocious sort of love. Like it mattered to me that I knew the bus system inside Delhi. That mattered to me.

Moderator

Even though you were living...?

AS

Even though I was living in America. It mattered to me the cost of tomatoes. There was something, I needed that level of details so I can imagine myself into a different world. Once I was able to escape the difficulties of my family, I began to be much more comfortable and so when I began to be more comfortable I looked around and I thought, you know this is a good place, you know, there’s a reason why even  Indians who emigrate to you know, countries where they are periodically driven out from. You know, you go to some county like Idi Amin driving out the Indians, they returned to India and as soon as they get a chance they go back, they leave India. Because you know, India is a difficult place to live. So I thought when I was a child of going back, but I would not go back and also there is an animosity and a jealousy felt for people who have gotten to go live in America. Like you know, you think you’re better than us, or if you haven’t suffered the way we have suffered, if you’ve not breathed in the polluted air, if you haven’t drunk the bad water, then what right do you have to participate in the good things in this country. You know, people are crazy, they’ve always been crazy, they’re always going to be crazy.

Moderator

We’re in a library and a pivotal moment in the novel is you’re discovering the wonderful library system in the US. And is that autobiographical? The Hemingway connection?

AS

Oh yeah. Yeah, I learned writing. So when I was a child, I used to lie all the time about the books I had read. You know, I would say I had read this thing, I had read that thing, I hadn’t read anything. Mostly the only thing I enjoyed reading was science fiction. And I began at some point to read biographies of famous writers so I could lie more effectively about these books (laughter), about the books they had written. And so I read a biography of Ernest Hemingway and I can tell you where I was sitting. I had just finished bathing my brother. It was winter. So it was still dark outside, and I began reading this book called “The Young Hemingway” and I was amazed that this guy, Hemingway, got to have such a nice life. He got to travel around, he didn’t have to be an engineer, he didn’t have to be a doctor. And I thought hey, I can do this (laughter) and so I went and I read all of these essays about him, you know all these books about him.  I must have read like 30 books about him because my thinking was I don’t have to be good, I just have to do what this guy has done, right, and I feel like I have always had this tremendous gift of obedience.  Like if you tell me what I need to do then I will do it, right.  Why should I argue with success (laughter), right?  If you ... like when I was a young kid, a young boy, I used to read Cosmopolitan magazine thinking, hey, I’d like to get married one day, let me read what women want (laughter) and so that’s always been my attitude.

Moderator

And was Hemingway the most important literary influence in your life?

AS

Yeah by far.  By far.

Moderator

And is it their style, is it the bravado of the life, is it the macho stance?

AS

I mean originally it was because of lifestyle.

Moderator

Right.

AS

Because he got to lead a good life and then there was a ... in a lot of ways Hemingway is essentially false, right.  And so his characters, all these quiet characters that he writes about are good people because ... and he writes simply ... because you can’t write simply about people behaving very badly, right, you can’t deny these people introspection and justification.  The only people who don’t have to justify themselves are the people who are behaving with a clean conscious, right.  I don’t know many people who behave with a clean conscious, right.  I am somebody who worries a lot.  I am somebody who has my doubts, like for example I am always hoping to somehow avoid tipping (laughter), right.  And so I am always looking for excuse to be able to avoid tipping, right.

Moderator

But you live in a country where the tip is paramount.

AS

I know but I’m always looking (laughter).

Moderator

And they come after you saying ‘Sir, were you not pleased with the service?’.

AS

You know I have had that happen (laughter) and I think that a lot of people are strange in the way that I am strange, you know and I just feel like if you’re going to write about human beings you have to somehow include these aspects and Hemingway just the way he writes he is unable to do that.  I mean I think that to some extent the reason he ran out, sort of he began to have problems writing – aside from his drug abuse, was that whatever he had to say he could not write truthfully about the world because his sense of the world had gotten so complicated that he wasn’t able to right truthfully about how people behave.  So, for example, his son was a transvestite, right, and he was not able to write about that.  Among the late, late, late stories the only one to me that seems really good is there’s a story about a man, a father, who learns that his son has been cheating at a shooting contest, right.  And that story is based on something that happened in his own life where his son had gone and copied some stuff from (32.38 inaudible) and presented it as his own and that story is magnificent.  It’s a great work of art.  And just his style did not allow him access to those type of complications.  So at some point I found that I could not do what he had done because my sense of the world is different from his sense of the world.

Moderator

I think Harold Bloom called ‘Hills like White Elephants’ possibly the greatest short story in the language, what would you make of that?

AS

That’s fair.  I think that’s a fair work.  Yeah it’s a great work.  Is it the greatest?  You know my father’s house has many mansions...

Moderator

Sure and we’ve got James Joyce to consider as well in that discussion.

AS

...yeah.

Moderator

You said that writing family life was like chewing stones and you chewed stones for 12 years.

AS

12½.  12½.  (laughter)

Moderator

Oh 12½, sorry okay, sorry, count those days.  And you had the stop watch 5 hours a day.

AS

Yeah.

Moderator

Was it the subject matter or was it the form that gave you most difficulty?

AS

I mean there’s the subject matter, right, the subject matter of grappling with physical illness has been written about before and there are plenty ... so one obvious problem that you learn about when you’re writing about physical illness or when you’re reading about physical illness is that the reader will only stay with you for a certain point, a certain amount of time, and then the reader will say, look, this is a bridge too far for me.  I accept the fact that this is true but I don’t really want to be with you.  You know it’s sort of like ... I assume that all of you guys have dealt with people with severe illness and an aunt of  my ... somebody said to me people will cry with you once, they’ll cry with you twice and then they’ll say ‘Oh he’s always crying’ and I mean that’s reality so there are certain problems writing about physical illness that you can sort of solve.  The problem that I was running into was that I was trying to write about ... I was writing about covering many years and I was writing a book where there is not that much causation, right, a) happens and a) causes b) and b) causes c) but in real life a) happens like then b) is caused and maybe c) and then f) wanders in and y) is n) bothering me ... I mean that’s the reality of life you know.  An immigrant family ... in a traditional family, the traditional novel, the fact that there is an accident would be at the very beginning, right.  That would be the key that turns the engine and so because causation is not present we as readers begin to feel that what we’re reading is just incident after incident after incident and that’s a bit ... you know a reader gets tired, like what’s happening, how are things accumulating.  Why are we ...?  So then what occurred was I tried all these different solutions and I was reading Chekhov and I began to think that what I could do is do the reverse of what Chekhov does, so typically when you are writing you are creating visceral reality and you are using ... everybody uses sight, smell, sound, feel and what Chekhov does is he uses sight very little.  He uses sound a lot.  He uses smell a lot because these are stickier, right.  So sound always has to exist in present tense, right.  And so I was thinking what I need to do ... because the problem I was having was that things felt slow, what I can do is I can remove certain elements of the sensorium.  I can get rid of ... if I take out sound, if I take out smell, it thins out the reality of the book, right, because there isn’t as much visceral reality and so the readers enter into a scene and exit a scene very quickly because there isn’t resistance.  We as readers are not as present inside the scene because it is not being made as real and so when I did that that sort of converted what had been a series of incidents into a story.  The feel of the novel changed.  The problem is that if you thin out reality in that way it begins to feel false and so then you have to go in and put in other things – humour, introspection, as a way to thicken and plump out the novel.  So it was just these technical complications that took forever.  At a certain point you know writing a novel is like designing microchips, you know here is a sentence that is going to generate this type of emotion, what do I need to do about this?  I need a transition, how do I hide this transition?  So, for example, when you are describing something typically you will use three descriptors, so I would say of this room, a large room, a crowd sitting on chairs and a wall with posters, right.  I would do something like that to generate the scene and you would also list the scene based on smallest word to largest word because this list has teach the reader how to read it, so as the words get bigger the reader is able to read it faster and so it reads at the same speed, right.  That’s how  a list inside fiction works.  If you need to create a transition inside a paragraph what you do is you put in four descriptors because by the fourth description, descriptor, the reader is getting a little bit bored, the reader detaches a tiny bit and then you can put in the next thing and the reader won’t notice that a transition has occurred, right.  So you have to be able to know how to bore the reader just enough (laughter).  So all these different things, hundreds and  hundreds of these devices, just you need to be able to use them if you are going to write a competent story.

Moderator

You must enjoy teaching creative writing?

AS

I love discussing the work of writers who are greater than I am.

Moderator

And who would you bring into class?

AS

Tolstoy.  So, for example, when you read one piece you oftentimes feel this sense of floating, right, that you are hovering inside this work and the way that he generates this is that he’ll describe a character from the outside, right.  So a third person, slightly distance point of view of Pierre.  Then with the next paragraph he’ll describe the character from internally and then with the third paragraph  the point of view is going to shift out and the rapidity with which that is done discombobulates the reader and suddenly there is a sensation of floating, so just being ... admiring great writers and being aware of the fact that you’re being affected.

Moderator

Do you read much contemporary writing?

AS

I read very little contemporary writing.  I mean if I were to expand contemporary like into 30 years then I would say yeah, yeah I read enough to regularly be in awe.

Moderator

Okay.  Your novel initially was much longer, ‘Family Life’.

AS

Uh-huh.  (laughs)

Moderator And then towards the end of the novel the pace really quickens and you don’t dwell on a death, you are successful, you are giving your mother money, you are going on holiday.  Why did you quicken it so much towards the end?

AS

The book has two beginnings and in some ways there’s a structural need for two endings and so you have the ending with the flashlight, where there’s a flashlight, and then you have ... so that’s  the ending of a traditional novel, right.  You can end a novel there and it will feel complete.  The reality is that when you have difficult things happen to you you never get over them.  The problem is not that something happened to you, the problem  is that you can’t get over it.  You know you’re always sort of shell shocked and that’s the other part of the ... that’s the second ending.

Moderator

But the second ending then is about the  need for letting go, is it?

AS

Or the impossibility of letting go.

Moderator

Okay, okay.  There are many characters in this novel and every one of them is interesting and fascinating but the character of the guard or the presence of religion is a hugely important part – the miracle workers, the alters in the bedroom.

AS

Sure.

Moderator

The superstition surrounding it.  What’s your own response to an Indian belief within Queens or the Bronx or Manhattan?  I mean you portray the families and they are in deconsecrated churches so the temple has become a place that has replaced the Christian tradition.  What was your own relationship with that, religion?

AS

You know my family is Brahmin, right, so we are traditionally of the priestly caste, right.  A lot of my ... I mean my mother used to lie all the time (laughter) and so I would think how can you ... if there is a God shouldn’t you be afraid of it?  Afraid of him?  And so religion was ... I mean to me it seemed like magic, like voodoo.  We prayed all the time, right.  We prayed, like so in my family we would pray as soon as woke up, then we would take care of my brother – bathe him and all that – and take our own baths.  So we would pray after we had bathed.  Then we would pray before we left the house and these are all sort of prayers where you burn incense and then there would be an 11 o’clock prayer and a 3 o’clock prayer and then a prayer before dinner and then a prayer before you go to bed.

Moderator

And you pray for good exam results?

AS

You pray for good exam results ... you ask for the things that you want and so you know I would pray ‘God let me know get caught in this lie that I have told’ (laughter), you know the way that children pray.  There’s an enormous ... you know religion is different from spirituality and religion is different from community but religion oftentimes helps both so the fact that my family had this problem and my parents and my family were viewed as very pious meant that we became the centre of a community.  The fact that we were suffering and trying to do good motivated other people to sort of respond with equal goodness and that’s a type of spirituality – sympathy meeting sympathy.  So all of my ... you know I am pro religion just because I sort of feel like we all need help to become better versions of ourselves and oftentimes religion is a good way to do it.  I mean that’s my personal belief.

Moderator

But in the novel your home becomes a place of pilgrimage ...

AS

Yeah.

Moderator

...and you  know is a powerful force to sustain and yet Ajay asks his father at one stage ‘How are you?’ and the father says ‘I feel like hanging myself every day’, I mean it’s very bleak and black at times.  So what allowed you to come through all of that terrible, terrible sorrow?

AS

I knew that someday somebody would love me, I just needed to be good enough so that was that.

Moderator

And is that your wife or was it your parents sorting themselves out?  I mean they were rowing, your father was ... well the character in the novel is alcoholic, let’s not confuse the two but though they parallel each other.

AS

Yeah.  I mean I didn’t really expect my parents to love me, you know that ... or love me in a way that would be of comfort to me.

Moderator

And what do you make then of the Americans, where the Americans dote on their children, telling them they’re the best and it’s a culture of ... you  know that it’s the other extreme of be seen and not heard, you k now that the celebration of youth culture in American.

AS

Yeah.  Sure.

Moderator

You know anyone over 40 is invisible unless you’re Donald Trump.  (laughter)

AS

You know we say that America is a culture which dotes on its children.  I think the reality of course is that there are plenty of kids who suffer, who have problems.  I was talking to an acquaintance of mine who was sexually abused by his mother’s boyfriend and he told her this and she said to him ‘What do you want me to do about it?’, right.  And so it’s a myth that that’s a culture which dotes on the children.

Moderator

Okay.

AS

It’s like any other society you know that really you have very ordinary human beings with lots of problems trying to do a very hard thing which is raise children.

Moderator

But I mean yes I agree but in America the amount of material things ... middle class kids have so much stuff, of course they have their problems and the like but it is so different from the world that your family left behind in Delhi where the description of your years in Delhi were so basic.  Do you like living in New York City?

AS

I like living in ... I mean I like New York because New York doesn’t feel like the rest of America.  Manhattan is an island off the coast of America.  It’s enormously diverse.  More people look like me in New York than look like you guys (laughter).  My wife once looked in the phone directory.  My wife’s name is Lisa Swanson and she found no other Lisa Swansons and she found three Akhil Sharmas (laughter), you know and so for me it’s a very comforting place to live.

Moderator

Okay.  I’m looking at the clock and we can now go to the floor please for any questions. (Recording ends here)
 

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