A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma contains eight stories that deal with a continually changing mosaic of relationships. It’s peopled with diverse characters from different milieus, both within India and abroad, from a newly wedded couple to a young boy who has a brain-dead sibling. We see human beings striving to achieve normalcy no matter what life throws at them, from separations to life changing events. But each person’s version of a normal life is dramatically different.
Each story in this book has an undercurrent of despair running through. These are not typical stories with a conventional beginning and end. They are vignettes from seemingly ordinary lives which are however rife with peculiarities and eccentricities. It’s like we are whirled along on a magic carpet, which lingers at certain doorways and allows us a glimpse of the lives within. Scenes from myriad lives are revealed which are by turns tender, poignant, bitter and nostalgic. The author gives us an intimate view of people and the unique ways in which they navigate through the shoals of life.
In ‘Cosmopolitan’, Gopal who is recently separated from his wife desperately tries to get back his confidence in himself by befriending the neighbor. His dependence on a popular magazine to help him deal with the changes in his circumstance reflects the utter loneliness hidden in modern life. The rest of the stories move through a grim landscape that has children and adults grappling with dilemmas that may seem trivial to an outsider but which is vital for them.
There are two stories featuring newly weds, ‘If You Sing Like That For Me’ and ‘A Heart Is Such A Heavy Thing’. Anita, the protagonist in the former, is from a middle class family that has its own hidden fault lines linked to a death in the family and a father addicted to alcohol. She reconciles herself to her marriage without many expectations. Hence she is surprised when she finds herself in love with her husband. “I will love Rajinder slowly and carefully and cunningly, I thought, and suddenly felt peaceful again, as if I were a lake and the world could only form ripples on my surface, while the calm beneath continued in solitude.” Arun, a bridegroom in the latter story gets a wife who refuses to be fettered by preconceived notions. She is definitely not a rebel, but with her naïve honesty she brings an unexpected freshness into their lives.
‘Surrounded by Sleep’, and ‘You Are Happy?’ were the most difficult to read mainly because it had children as protagonists. The desperate desire that children have, to get their lives on an even keel is heart-rending, especially when the outcome is bleak. Akhil Sharma has been able to capture the emotions in a child’s mind very accurately. When his brother Birju meets with a crippling accident, Ajay prays to his God who has the face and figure of Superman. It’s a tiny detail but it shows how correctly the author interprets the thought processes of children. “At some point, Ajay began to cry. He tried to be quiet. He did not want his parents to notice his tears and think that he was crying for Birju, because in reality he was crying for how difficult his own life was.”
Akhil Sharma’s narration is beautiful and it’s difficult to remain unaffected by his words. The stories appear suspended in a strange time zone, which is neither too modern nor too ancient. This is not a book that should be read quickly. Each story will make you pause and ruminate. My only gripe with this collection is that I would have liked a sense of closure to some of the stories.
(I received this book via the Flipkart Blogger program, for a fair and unbiased review.)