Akhil Sharma: “A Mistake” from TNY, 1/20/14

TNY Art by Gerald Slota

TNY Art by Gerald Slota

My father was an accountant. He had wanted to immigrate to the West ever since he was in his early twenties, ever since America liberalized 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 sensed buildings’ having opinions—he believed that if he were somewhere else, especially somewhere where he was paid in dollars and thus was rich, he would be a different person and one whose life had meaning.

Yes, it’s an excerpt. But it’s also available online. I’ve decided I won’t be reading/blogging future TNY excerpts for a while, since they aren’t short stories, so they do justice to neither the short story form, nor the book from which they came; they only serve to publicize new book releases. Time’s more and more at a premium every week, and I’ve got to cut back somewhere; I’d just as soon cut back on other peoples’ marketing as anywhere else.

That said, I enjoyed this excerpt far more than Sharma’s June 2013 offering, which was a short story proper. Here, I find an authenticity in the younger brother’s realization, through tragedy, of how important his brother is to him, as well as a genuineness in the contrast, from a child’s point of view, between his experience in India, when his mother was in charge, and after arriving in the United States, where they were “rich” (meaning more or less middle-class) and Dad took over. The pressure put on the older son to get into Bronx Science High came across, too; perhaps it’s because these things just seem more familiar to me than the details of Indian funeral rites. That is why we read, however: to broaden our scope of what is familiar.

As I walked, I wondered if Birju had stepped on a nail. I wondered if he was dead. This was thrilling. If he was dead, I would get to be the only son.
The sun pressed itself on me from above and also, its heat reflecting off the sidewalk, from below. I thought I should probably cry. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I imagined myself alone in the house. I imagined Birju in the hospital and my aunt there. I imagined the fall, with Birju at the Bronx High School of Science and me at my ordinary school. Then the tears came.

The title theme of one’s fate having followed a mistaken path is echoed several times in the text. The narrator has this sense when he encounters schoolyard bullying: “…I would think, There has been a mistake. I am good at cricket. I am good at marbles. I am not the sort of boy who is pushed around.” That touched me quite sweetly, the garbled notion of what it takes to be the sort who is not pushed around. Still later, when news of his brother’s accident reaches him, he looks at the stars: “I suddenly had the sense that what was happening was a mistake, that we had been given somebody else’s life.” Maybe that’s the human reaction to a bad situation: this must be a mistake; how could this happen to me, how did I get here? At least for some; there are those who expect the blows to fall.

This excerpt, and the book as a whole, according to Sharma’s Page Turner interview, is based on actual family events. Given my recently-inflamed hypersensitivity to untruth-in-nonfiction, I was particularly interested in some comments he made about the process, and the reason he chose fiction as opposed to memoir:

I think one can be more honest in fiction than in a memoir. For me, memoir, because it claims to be factually true, restricts my ability to use dialogue, since I remember only a few things that were said. It also hampers my ability to collapse time, because collapsing time takes events out of context. And I wanted to focus on only certain aspects of the experience; in a memoir, I would have felt obligated to include things, such as boredom, that don’t interest me artistically but were an important part of the experience.

Akhil Sharma, Page Turner interview

That sums it up for me.


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