Wages of Sin
Source: The New York Times, August 27, 2000
A first novel focuses on an Indian bureaucrat whose life follows the path of least resistance.
AN OBEDIENT FATHER
By Akhil Sharma.
282 pp. New York:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.
Another month, another bright young star in the firmament of Indian writing. To Kiran Desai, Raj Kamal Jha, Jhumpa Lahiri and Pankaj Mishra, add the name of Akhil Sharma, a 29-year-old New York investment banker who has studied with Toni Morrison, worked as a screenwriter, published fiction in The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker — and now written an impressive, sensitive first novel. It is an ambitious novel too, one that sets the private lives of its characters against the tumult of Indian politics.
Ram Karan, the main narrator of ”An Obedient Father,” is a lowly and corrupt functionary in the physical education department of the Delhi school system. He is a man of voracious appetites whose job consists primarily of extorting bribes for his political superiors. At home, he is haunted by the memory of sexually abusing his daughter, Anita; recently widowed, she and her 8-year-old daughter, Asha, now live with Karan. He is guilt-ridden by his rapaciousness, but persists nonetheless, molesting his granddaughter and betraying his political mentor to save his own skin in the aftermath of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
It’s easy to brand Karan as vile and despicable, but such epithets don’t capture the complexity of his personality or the subtlety of Sharma’s prose. Karan — like most of Sharma’s characters, who scheme their way through a fog of self-deception and self-righteousness — is less evil than weak. He possesses little of evil’s dark grandeur and all the pathos of a man too frightened to do anything but play by the rules of a world in which corruption, extortion and even murder are the norm. Karan is, in his own words, ”a sad bad man”; he represents the face of ”gentle corruption” — pitiable, even comical, rather than simply detestable. ”I imagined myself as ruthless and powerful,” he crows on one bribe-collecting mission to a school. As a show of force, Karan, who has just downed the headmaster’s soda, proceeds to extort a badminton set for his granddaughter and chucks a cricket ball down the hallway.
Sharma’s evenhanded treatment of men like Karan — small people, big talk, small doings,” in V. S. Naipaul’s pithy categorization of R. K. Narayan’s protagonists — is wise and compassionate. There are traces, indeed, of Narayan’s famous empathy in this novel, which at its best displays some of the most psychologically acute writing to have come out of modern India. This is particularly true of the episodes that have been previously published as short stories, luminous narratives that swarm with a heart-rending knowledge of life. ”Big things do not happen to you and so you think time is not passing,” Karan reflects in a passage that first appeared in The New Yorker. ”You jiggle the years in your pocket, thinking you are a rich man, and suddenly you have spent everything. I was 38 and an old man overnight, and Anita was 12 and so young that seeing her was like looking down from some great height into a misty valley and wondering what will be revealed when the sun arrives.”
Unfortunately, the rest of the novel, while not quite a disappointment, doesn’t measure up to the high standards set by such moments. The passages that have been taken from previously published stories fit uneasily within the overall narrative. (The wonderful ”If You Sing Like That for Me,” for example, originally published in only slightly different form in The Atlantic, features Anita’s voice and has a lyrical dreaminess that jars with Karan’s hard-edged realism.)
The novel as a whole feels hurried, composed of a patchwork of brilliant moments strung together by an often lackluster story line. Perhaps this is not surprising: investment banking is not known for affording much spare time, and Sharma may have been tempted by the current enthusiasm for Indian writers. The impulse behind the publication of ”An Obedient Father” is understandable, but the result is an uneven book that, though often moving, fails to do justice to its author’s considerable talent.