The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for moving countries


Ailment: Moving countries

Cure: Family Life by Akhil Sharma

There are few bigger ways to shake up your life than by moving countries. Whether you've left your homeland for reasons of survival, or to seek a better, wealthier life, the new country will still be foreign and strange, and require that you learn a whole new set of rules in order to fit in. And, however good you are at adapting, you have to come to terms with what you have lost. Will you ever stop missing the horizons with which you grew up, or apfelstrudel the way your mother made it?

When eight-year-old Ajay and his family join an early wave of immigrants flowing from India to Queens in Seventies New York, he doesn't quite make the connection that embracing jet packs and chewing gum means saying goodbye to his grandfather, his home, his toys. "Americans clean themselves with paper, not water," a boy at school warns him. But when they arrive, Ajay finds everything wonderful. The elevators which rise up at the press of the button. The sliding doors which open as you approach. The water that pours pre-heated from a tap.

But then tragedy strikes. Birju, the brilliant older brother tipped for medical school, hits his head on the bottom of a swimming pool. In the three minutes it takes to bring him to the surface, everything changes, and Ajay has to deal with the bewildering new world more or less by himself.

The experience of being an Indian immigrant is captured through a myriad of poignant details: how sad it seems to have to go to school on Diwali, for example; and how confusing to be bullied despite being good at the things which, up till now, have mattered (cricket and marbles). Whatever your own cultural background, you'll relate to the bafflement of having your own talents rendered null. And you'll know that if Birju can find a way to survive, and even to thrive, in his new milieu – despite the additional blow of his brother's accident – so can you.