Akhil Sharma’s An Obedient Father

[some spoilers]

I’ll be honest. Till a week ago, I’d never heard of Akhil Sharma. Then his name popped up on the Granta list of promising young novelists, and I figured it was a shame that there was an Indian born writer, writing about India, potentially in the same league as Grushin and Shteyngart, who I’d never read.

An Obedient Father is the story of Ram Karan, a petty official in Delhi’s education department and a petty lowlife in everything else. Ram Karan is the ‘money-man’ for his superior, Mr. Gupta, who in turn is a minor cog in the greater political machine that is the Congress Party. As chief factotum, Ram Karan’s job is to bully principals of schools under the education department’s jurisdiction into giving ‘donations’ to the department that will eventually find their way into the Congress’s electoral fund. The story opens in May 1991 (exactly two days before Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination) with the Congress rallying to meet the emerging threat of the BJP in the upcoming General Elections. This election will come to occupy centre stage in the novel, as Ram Karan’s boss defects from the Congress to stand for election on a BJP ticket, setting off a sequence of political machinations involving violence, larceny, betrayal and murder, all of which, as a miniscule player in a high-stakes game, Ram Karan will have to negotiate without being trampled.

This is only part of the novel’s plot however. It’s real tension lies in Ram Karan’s home life, where his daughter Anita, having been recently widowed, has come back to live with her father, bringing her nine year old daughter Asha. We soon learn, however, that Ram Karan had raped Anita (his own daughter) when she was a little girl, emotionally damaging her for life. This crime has lain dormant for years, hushed up by shame and fear of social censure, but when Anita catches Ram Karan making advances to her daughter (his granddaughter) her barely repressed outrage explodes, and father and daughter find themselves trapped in a bitter contest of suspicion and accusation on her side and self-justification on his. Ram Karan eventually dies, but the trauma of his abuse continues to poison his family.

In its exploration of taboos, in its nightmarish pathology of dependence and hatred, the novel is horrifying. Ram Karan and Anita seem trapped in a claustrophobia of self-loathing – forced together by necessity and hating each other for what has been done to / by them, they exist in a wild see-saw of recrimination and grudging reconciliation, made sharper by the ever present sexual threat that Ram Karan represents to the innocent Asha. Ram Karan, in particular, is a novelistic triumph. In him, Sharma has created an exquisite monster, a sort of domestic Caliban. Because the story is told largely through the eyes of Ram Karan, it’s easy to get swept up in the tide of his self-pity, and Sharma cleverly alternates the damning facts of this man’s brutishness with insights into his insecurity and vulnerability, painting a compelling portrait of a truly pathetic human being. Yet it is this very mediocrity of Ram Karan that gives him his particular power to inspire pity – he is such a miserable excuse for a human being that we can’t help feeling at least a little sorry for him, and have to remind ourselves of the terrible things he’s done in order to harden our hearts against him. This is Anita’s dilemma (made worse by the fact that she’s financially dependent on him and related to him by blood), and it also the reader’s. (more…)