It was a summer afternoon like any other. Ten-year-old Akhil Sharma was vacationing at his relatives’ home in Arlington, Virginia. His older brother, Anup, was swimming at a pool nearby. Only two years  earlier, in 1979, their family had moved to the United States from Delhi, India, and Anup had just been admitted into the prestigious Bronx High School of Science, an arduous effort that involved the entire family. Dreams and possibilities filled the warm air as the Sharmas began to settle into their new country. Then Anup dove in and struck his head on the bottom of the pool. In an instant, the promising summer, and a new life for the family, ended. Anup was unconscious for three minutes. By the time he was pulled out alive, he had suffered permanent brain damage. As Sharma prepared to visit his brother in the hospital, he could not have imagined how much his life had changed—and how much his abruptly altered boyhood would figure years later in his success as a novelist. His latest book is Family Life: A Novel (W.W. Norton, 2014), a largely autobiographical story that the New York Times singled out as one of its Ten Best Books of 2014.

After the accident, Sharma’s brother spent two years in hospitals, where the care was so poor that his parents brought their son home to care for him. They had taken on an immense responsibility, one that eventually took a huge toll. There was the financial burden, the physical strain, and the tension that arose between his parents; for 10-year-old Sharma, he was no longer an ordinary child with ordinary concerns. He was the fortunate one, the child who had been spared. Tending to his beloved brother, daily and without question, was not asking too much despite the despair and sadness it wrought. He was glad to be alive, but his gratitude lay in the shadow of the constant reminder that his brother had not been so lucky, that his life was now ruined. Most of all, it felt un-Indian and disloyal to give voice to his unhappiness; he could see that his own need for attention and encouragement was unimportant.

Sharma’s growth was also affected by the profound and complicated nature of his mother’s grief. In the family’s efforts to do the best for  their helpless son, hard choices were asked of him and his parents. His mother invited so-called healers who promised to revive his brother, even though their presence in the house went against the wishes of Sharma and his father. Why, he asked, was it important to try such absurd measures when all it caused was more pain over dashed hopes? Where, in his family’s relentless struggle to care for his brother, was he?

Soon after his brother’s accident, Sharma stopped speaking, sometimes for weeks. His concerned parents sent him to visit relatives in India. There, surrounded by family, the loneliness lifted. But the child who needed to be recognized and reassured in his home was often left to carve out meaning wherever he could find it, and Sharma found it in books. The experience of being new to America heightened his natural self-awareness, and the conflicting emotions his invalid brother awakened in him built a reservoir of information and memories that he continues to draw upon today as an acclaimed writer.

Akhil Sharma at home in New York City


Akhil Sharma attended Princeton, was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and attended Harvard Law School. He joined the Rutgers M.F.A. program in 2011. The years he spent revisiting his past in order to write about it made him impatient with unhappiness: why make today any harder than it needs to be?

Nick Romanenko

Sharma is also an assistant professor in the master of fine arts program in creative writing at Rutgers University–Newark. When he turned 30 in July 2001, he abruptly quit a career in banking to begin to tell the story of what happened to his family after his brother’s accident. It took him more than 12 years and 7,000 pages of drafts to create Family Life. The transition for the Harvard Law School-trained Sharma, from an investment banker’s comfortable six-figure salary to full-time writer (he is married to a lawyer who works in New York City, where they live) was frightening, but he had reason to be confident. His first novel, An Obedient Father (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), begun when he was only 19, won the Pen/Hemingway Award. Writing his new novel, though, was a constant battle, he says—a battle to remember and a battle to craft—because he wanted it to be useful, to provide a vision of life and how people get through difficult times. Part coming-of-age story, part immigrant narrative, and universal in its appeal, Family Life is a slim, quietly majestic tale of a family in the throes of tragedy and their younger child’s attempt to find his place in it.

From an early age, Sharma was often lost in a book. But the possibility of a writing career became a real consideration only after he came across a biography of Ernest Hemingway as a teenager. “Hemingway was such a part of my youth that it was hard for me to separate who I was from who he was,” he says. It seemed to him that a career in either medicine or law might prompt the depression and loneliness of the life that he was leading at home and in school. Hemingway’s life, and the life of a writer, seemed to offer an escape. He recalls riding in a train in India, and thinking about how to describe the view of the fields in the night and how they were dark like an ocean, with nothing reflected back.

Sharma grew up in New Jersey, first in Metuchen and then in Edison, in the early 1980s before the areas became an Indian immigrant enclave. The small, tightly knit Indian community was his family’s support system. It was common for people to show up and do work around the house. Family friends took him to buy school supplies. A woman once asked him what he liked to read and then mailed the books to him. Sharma watched as his brother and mother were revered, even idolized, by other Indians. Seeing this as a way for well-meaning families to share and respect their suffering moved and frustrated him because the gesture was futile and absurd. In school and in the world beyond, there was overt racism. Indian students, especially those who spoke with an accent, were often spat upon and shoved into lockers. Often, Sharma hunkered down to get through it. But talent and resolve were his trump cards. He attended Princeton University, became a Stegner Fellow at Stanford’s highly selective program for writers, and attended Harvard Law School. He joined the Rutgers M.F.A. program in 2011.

Sharma says that the years he spent revisiting his past in order to write about it made him impatient with unhappiness: why make today any harder than it needs to be? He is deeply proud of being Indian, and although he speaks of his parents and their community with real tenderness, he is unafraid of exposing their quirks and darkest flaws. “We gain by accepting people,” he says. “For me, that’s a very important part of my nature. By hiding things, we deny ourselves the opportunity to be seen and understood and to be loved.” Family Life reveals Sharma’s pain, his parents’ torn humanity, and many difficult truths that his family’s predicament exposed in the community he knew, truths that question popular assumptions about success and assimilation among Indians in America. This stark honesty offers a vision for art that meets Sharma’s vision for his own  life, and of the great distance he has traveled to learn this. •