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The Boston Phoenix A Father's Story

Akhil Sharma's debut is a rough beauty

By Jon Garelick

AUGUST 7, 2000: 

An Obedient Father by Akhil Sharma (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), 282 pages, $23.

The astonishingly assured 28-year-old novelist Akhil Sharma is an adept genius at a style I can only call deep realistic modernism. That is, there are no fancy experiments or meta-narrative sleights of hand. You can trace the vein Sharma works back through Hemingway, the Joyce of Dubliners, and Henry James to Flaubert. Although An Obedient Father is potent with history, its true subject is consciousness. And though its protagonist is, by just about any measure, a scoundrel, he resists judgment. Flaubert's Emma Bovary, Joyce's Gabriel Conroy, Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, Francis Coppola's Vito Corleone, Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant -- make your own comparison: in the modernist tradition, Sharma has created a protagonist beyond judgment, simply because he's so true to the fictional world he inhabits. You can resist him, but you can't help feeling what it's like to live in his skin.

Ram Karan is a 57-year-old inspector in the Physical Education Department of the Delhi school system, but his real job is collecting bribes for his superior, one Mr. Gupta -- "Mr. Gupta's money man," as he calls himself. In other words, Karan is a corrupt petty bureaucrat. A widower, he lives with his widowed daughter, Anita, and her eight-year-old daughter, Asha. By Western standards, one could say that Karan, despite his position in the bureaucracy, lives in poverty. Through his first-person narration (carefully calibrated by Sharma), we get an insider's view of his impoverished Delhi with an outsider's perspective. It's there in the dirt courtyards, in a bare bulb in Karan's flat, in the bags of cement leaning against the wall in a prostitute's hut. "To me pashmina shawls had always been something in stories," Karan says when he's given a political gift that someone else has to identify for him. "What the Birlas gave Mahatma Gandhi, what would make you sweat in winter if you wrapped yourself tightly in it."

Karan gives us his story going back to a miserable childhood in his small Brahman village, the death of his mother, the partition with Pakistan in 1947, the subsequent massacre of Muslims, Karan's marriage, the death of his first child and the birth of three more, and up through the story's present, on the eve of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. He's a charmer and a bigmouth, a shameless narcissist but also wily in the ways of small-time Indian politics. We watch him wheel and deal, hear him think through his political calculations. Early in the novel, his tasks have an almost jaunty, Leopold Bloom comedy about them, but the stakes grow more dire in the days preceding and following Gandhi's assassination.

Also raising the stakes is Karan's relationship with Anita and Asha. Early in the novel, we see Karan as a young father repeatedly molest his daughter. These scenes are pitilessly graphic (they earned the New Yorker a couple of angry letters when a portion of the book first appeared there as a story in the summer fiction issue). The relationship between father and daughter, the presence of the silent granddaughter, and Karan's deep well of shame are at the heart of the novel. If one were being simplistic, one could say that Ram Karan's personal corruption and degradation parallels the corruption of India itself. But if Karan is a great character (and I believe he is), it's not because of any schematic political metaphors. It's not the grand sweep of history that brings Ram Karan to life but the minutiae of his daily activities, the comment from a waiter in a bar who hears his self-pitying weeping, the look in his daughter's eye, that gift of a pashmina shawl.

Sharma -- who was born in Delhi but works in New York as an investment banker and writes in English -- has a Flaubertian control of narrative voice. Critics have written that when Flaubert describes a sound from outside a window, it helps you see what's happening inside the room more clearly. Sharma achieves similar descriptive feats: as he walks down an outdoor gallery to Mr. Gupta's office, he internally voices his confused feelings of fear and sadness and then pauses. "I stopped and looked out at the dirt courtyard. The wind was sliding sheets of dust back and forth across the yard." That observation brings home Karan's feelings and "the certainty that I would be punished."

In two sections -- one early and one late -- the novel shifts from Karan's point of view to first-person narration by Anita. The first acts as flash-forward as well as back story. The second tells of Anita's revenge on her father -- the chapter is excruciating and threatens to turn the novel Faulknerian gothic, but Sharma regains his balance. The final chapter is told in third person through the eyes of Kusum, the daughter who "escaped" India with a PhD to a professional life and a husband in America. In a way, these final sections are a gift to the reader, a sliver of hope that saves the novel from Naipaul-like cynicism. You could hardly call An Obedient Father sentimental. There's no room for sentimentality in the dreamlike clarity of Sharma's prose.

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