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.

Clearly there are parallels between the two storylines. Sharma is suggesting (perhaps a little ham-handedly), not only the cycle of patrimony, dominance and dependence that leaves us reliant on those we cannot trust in both the political and the domestic sphere, but also the way in which patriarchy is made up, in the final analysis, of petty, insecure men who find solace for their own inadequacy in victimising those weaker than them – children, minorities, the poor. What Sharma does really well is lay out the superstructure of the problem – how rape and child abuse aren’t just about the individual perpetrator but about a larger social system that provides no support to the victim, that forces the victim to collude in a conspiracy of silence, that makes women who speak out against sexual violence targets for attack not only by outsiders but also by those near to them who don’t want their good name sullied. A woman who speaks out against atrocity must be silenced – either through sympathy or through further violence. And that, of course, is what allows monsters like Ram Karan to go unpunished.

Sharma is also very good at capturing the realities of middle-class North India. Their sensibilities and prejudices, the narrowness of their political vision, the constant effort and double-dealing required just to make it through in a world fraught with corruption and privilege. Sharma’s dialogue is authentic enough so that it sounds almost as it had been written in Hindi and then translated (if anything, he sometimes goes too far – at one point talking about the movie ‘Time’, which, I finally figured out was Waqt) and he does a good job of bringing to life the petty posturing of those who are on the fringes of power and feel the need to constantly reassert it (in one early scene, for instance, Ram Karan spits on the carpet of a school principal, just to make the point that he is more powerful).

The trouble with the book is that Sharma’s appetite isn’t matched by his stamina. Again and again, Sharma sets up interesting side-stories or characters but fails to follow through on them. With the exception of his relationship with Anita, Ram Karan’s relationships remain undeveloped, more plot devices than meaningful connections. The potentially fascinating story of Mr. Gupta’s election bid gets short shrift, barely starting to pick up momentum before it is summarily doomed to violent failure. Anita gets her own narrative voice early on in the book, but then disappears until then end where she makes a brief reappearance. There’s an abortive last chapter which tries to tie things back together and which the book would have been much better without. A string of subsidiary characters get introduced but then serve little purpose. On the whole, An Obedient Father reads like a collection of well executed vignettes, that never really develop into a single cohesive novel. If I didn’t know better, I would have said this was an incomplete draft of a book, with several chapters / sections in between missing.

The shortness of the book also forces Sharma compress the action into a frame narrow enough to feel contrived. A good part of the horror of the book comes, I think, from its location within the domestic and ordinary, but while Sharma repeatedly tries to convey a sense of life lived day to day he never quite manages it. Every day that Sharma describes seem to end with some extraordinary or cataclysmic event, which makes the story seem overwrought. The best bits of the book, for me, are the parts where Sharma isn’t trying to cram the pages with allusions and significance and plot development, but is letting his characters live their lives in carefully described detail, making you realise that the people he’s describing are the kind of people you know. By contrast, passages describing how Ram Karan has dreams about sucking his superior’s cocks (a piece of information that gets repeated twice) just seem too artificial to take seriously.

Overall, An Obedient Father is a promising first book that fails because it is too impatient, because it rushes forward too prematurely without allowing the dramatic tension that could have made it a truly great book build. It’s not a pleasant book to read – some of the descriptions may leave you downright queasy – and it’s not, in my view, a brilliant book (in the way that, say, the Dream Life of Sukhanov is) but it’s a good enough book to make me watch Sharma’s future progress with interest.