Thursday, April 13, 2017
The second wave of Indian-American fiction and a story by Akhil Sharma
Strong and disquieting story by Akhil Sharma, You Are Happy?, in current New Yorker - another one of the fine stories so important to American literature and ever-evolving on the immigrant experience. Stories of Indian-American immigrant families live today in the shadow of Jhumpa Lahiri, but she seems to have moved on to other topics and Sharma is one of the writers thriving in the 2nd wave. This story is told from the POV (though in 3rd-person narration) of a teenage boy, Lakshma (surname) who watches in silence the horrible dissolution of his mother's well-being and of the unhappy, arranged marriage. As in many stories about Indian-American immigration, the Indian immigrants are well-educated and relatively prosperous; the L family seems to have a wide range of friends and close connections with the families back in India (unlike an earlier generation of Indian-immigration stories, in which travel to the U.S. was like a complete break w/ the homeland, here the families travel back and forth, for business reasons, with ease). But his mother is an alcoholic whose life is spiraling down the drain. It seems there's a particular shame in Indian culture about a woman with a drinking problem, which leads to the disturbing part of the story: the father and his family believe she has betrayed the family and that she is therefore disposable, not as in divorce but as in murder. Ultimately she is sent back to India on a "visit" and she dies a few days later, supposedly of dengue fever. The young boy gradually, through hints dropped by an uncle and through phone conversations of his father than he overhears, recognizes that his father has a relationship - essentially, a form of child prostitution - with a young, uneducated farm girl back in India and that he's had the mother killed in some manner. The story ends with the young boy trying to make sense of what he knows and feels - in a great scene he runs through a track practice w/ tears streaming. Of course there is no way to make sense of these events; it's a terrible clash of cultures and ideologies, and as a young American boy, with little sense of or sympathy for the ways of the homeland, L. can only puzzle and despair. Not sure if Sharma develops this story further in a novel or a series of stories, but I think it stands alone well, ending as it does in a cul-de-sac.