Readers opening this first novel from Akhil Sharma find themselves face to face with a wildly unappealing main character. Ram Karan is a corrupt civil servant, chubby and self-hating. "I had been Mr. Gupta's moneyman for a little less than a year and was no good." Ram has no illusions about his failings: "My panic in negotiations was so apparent that even people who were eager to bribe me became resentful." Things at home aren't so hot either: Ram's wife has recently died, as has his son-in-law, and so his daughter Anita and granddaughter, Asha, have moved in with him. The first chapter of An Obedient Father
is lugubrious and oily and awkward, like its narrator; then suddenly the whole thing breaks wide open. Drunk one night, Ram touches Asha with his penis. Anita walks in, and the family's secret is out all at once, like a just-freed, very angry cat: Ram forced Anita to have sex with him repeatedly when she was 12.
Sharma, a Delhi-born New York investment banker, has written a novel that's satisfyingly ambitious and full of really lovely imagery (tulips, for instance, are "heavy-hearted"). He squares Ram's downfall in the context of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. As India descends into political turmoil, Ram is made accountable for corruption both at work and at home. What gives the book its engine is its even-tempered handling of Ram himself: he is always complex, never a moral lesson or a villain. By the time Anita exacts her quietly devilish revenge, we feel neither glee nor pity, just sadness. Sharma doesn't have perfect control of his material--the transitions between personal and political can be abrupt, the tension between father and daughter unravels sloppily. Still, this is a new voice of great subtlety and care. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
A supernova in the galaxy of young, talented Indian writers, Sharma debuts with a bold and shocking novel that casts a mesmerizing spell. Ram Karan is a widower whose widowed daughter, Anita, and eight-year-old granddaughter, Asha, live with him in a tiny apartment in one of Delhi's poorer sections. Nominally a functionary in the physical education department of the city's schools, Ram is in fact "Mr. Gupta's moneyman"; that is, he coerces bribes for his boss, who funnels the money to the Congress Party. At first, Ram's candid admissions of "general incompetence and laziness" are perversely endearing, but when the real cause of his self-hatred comes to light, the reader's perceptions begin to change. In a moment of temptation, Ram commits a furtive sexual act with his unwitting granddaughterDand his downfall begins. Twenty years ago, he had repeatedly raped Anita, who now becomes unhinged at the thought that her daughter may be in peril. Anita's bizarre revenge will result in Ram's complete degradation; ironically, the repercussions of her obsessive need for disclosure cause even more emotional damage to everyone involved. Concurrent with these personal tragedies and the breakdown of one family, Sharma draws an acid-etched picture of modern Indian society, in which the corrupt political system victimizes all citizens. When Rajiv Gandhi is assassinated during the 1991 parliamentary elections, Mr. Gupta switches his allegiance to the rival BJP party, commencing a dangerous political game that embroils Ram. Sharma's depiction of a society riddled with graft, violent religious prejudice, male chauvinism and bigoted cultural attitudes is a cautionary tale about what happens to the individual spirit when poverty, superstition, racial tension and general hopelessness are exacerbated by the absence of judicial morality. This caustic yet darkly comic story resonates powerfully, as the reader comes to sympathize with fallible human beings trapped in circumstances that corrupt the soul. (July)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.