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In condition 'love'

Soni Wadhwa Nov 25 2017, 23:18 IST

A character in Samuel Beckett's play Endgame says, "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." Since the play is conventionally understood to be absurdist, the idea that unhappiness is the funniest thing can come across as ridiculous. That is, until one reads about situations and characters grappling with mundane yet profound state of love and its accompanying conflicts.

Akhil Sharma, in his third book and first collection of short stories, A Life of Adventure and Delight, engages with some interesting and moving accounts of coming to terms with the condition of love and its absurdity. The eight short stories in the book are incredible for their focus on the study of being in love and its nothingness.

Sharma devotes a lot of time and space to examine the various voices in the characters' heads: a divorcee having an affair and confusing it with love; a small boy confused about what to make of his brother's coma; a man who does not like his relative but continues to help him; a wife who falls in and out of love with her husband; a man's adventures in sex; a family that thinks that the newly wed bride is crazy; a son who does not know what to make of his mother's alcoholism and the way she is murdered; and a man who has a fling that leads to abortion and mourning for the unborn.

The ways the Indian characters, at home and in the US, handle relationships and their discontents are "confused and ridiculous", "weak and baffled." A disorientation results from the expected enormity of their experience and the actual vacuity of it when it finally dawns upon the individual. The dissonance between what people do and what they feel in the stories makes the reader wonder why we do not amend our ways. Or maybe the question itself is so heavy that one wants to escape it by revolting against it.

In the story A Life of Delight and Adventure, Gopal meets a hooker in spite of being in a genuine relationship. The last paragraph goes: "His hands on her breasts, Gautama became happier and happier. He knew that tomorrow he would feel guilt and shame, but he did not care. The girl jumped, and he had the sense that nobody else anywhere could be leading a life of such adventure and delight."

The story that works best in the volume is A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing.

It feels scattered because it does not follow one particular character's view of things. It is a typical middle class situation - the son gets married, the father gets drunk at a party, the mother thinks that the daughter-in-law must be crazy to ask for things like shampoo, or for wanting to do yoga on the roof on the next day of marriage, and the younger son wonders where the dowry is. The dowry comes in the form of furniture, which is returned to the store for the cash. The washing machine that comes as a gift is useless because there's serious water shortage: "When Namrita realised the problem, she began laughing, and the fold of sari that had been covering her face slid onto her shoulders. 'You can store clothes in it,' she said. Arun began laughing, too. Namrita smiled at him, and Indira thought for the first time that what she had first seen as a sign of insanity might just be directness."

There are insights into love and loved ones too: Gopal, in the story Cosmopolitan, can move on only after accepting that love is extraneous, and the wife in If You Sing Like That for Me is trapped into it forever after admitting to being in love. While one character asks strongly why love someone mediocre, another wonders why choose love at all.

The question of authenticity continues to haunt diasporic writing. Who do the immigrant writers write for? Or, do they deliver a certain variety of India to the West? These questions may have been silenced for their naïve approach to readership and authorship, but each time a new book by a South Asian-American comes up, it is searched for the insights into these issues too. At first sight, Akhil Sharma fails a little. Anglicised spellings like Rajeeve, Gautama and suttee, or italicised Hindi words like kos and annas, or the references to God Krishna, arranged marriages and honour killing emerge as anywhere between amusing to offensive. However, we still live with the news of such killings and lynching. So, the way these things form the material of the stories is forgettable and forgivable. Taken as a whole, the stories are funny and absurd in their moments of figuring out the right thing to do. They are genuine attempts at capturing how our confusions gnaw away at our intellect, and our inability to do anything about it.

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