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An Obedient Father Hardcover – June, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 282 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux; 1 edition (June 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374105014
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374105013
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.8 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,197,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Akhil Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Best American Short Stories, and O. Henry Award Stories. A native of Delhi, he lives in New York City and is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University, Newark.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By paul on November 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
A spectacular work. An incredible character study. Hard to read. Hard to put down. It is not about India. It is not about incest. India and incest are but metaphors. The theme is universal: corruption, betrayal, guilt, and revenge. It is not about love, remorse, or forgiveness. Rather, it is about the inability to love, the inability to feel remorse, and the inability to forgive. As I said, a hard read.
By telling this tale from the father's perspective, Sharma makes him hard to dismiss. Everday evil is mundane, private, familar. It is committed by people we recognize, people who are petty, weak, and self-absorbed. It is as basic as the blow of a rock and as ugly as incest. It is committed by people who should know better. It is committed by people who are not that different than we are. It destroys everyone involved.
Again, this is a spectacular book.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By frumiousb VINE VOICE on December 5, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am not going to argue that this book is pleasant to read, because it is not. But I will argue that it is worth reading-- perhaps would go so far as to say that it should be read, despite the unpleasant subject matter.

And I suppose that it is worth warning that the subject matter *is* unpleasant. It has fairly explicit descriptions of violence, incest, and poverty. People who are very reactive to these issues, probably want to find a different book.

So often when a writer tackles issues like these, they lose all objective perspective. Somehow Sharma takes some of the most loaded topics imaginable and still places them in a landscape of moral ambiguity. While Mr. Karan (the father)commits acts that seem to put him beyond the pale, it is hard not to feel yourself sliding into sympathy for him. And while you want to like Anita because of what happens to her, it is awfully hard to do. Meanwhile, the landscape of Indian politics around them (which is a bit hard on the reader, since it assumes that you know something about it) also seems to imply a decided lack of ethical clarity.

I think that it is a very strong book, extremely well written. Recommended for people who like books that are thought provoking, if not necessarily uplifting.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I have to say, this book left me feeling empty. Which is pretty powerful, because it was strong feeling. I cannot help but feel that my fellow Indians are so negatively inclined towards the book because it casts India in a negative light. This is real, and it does happen in India.
So for all you Indians who feel so negatively about the book and have a burning desire to critisize those who have been educated in the west, it is simple. Stay with what you are comfortable with.
This book, clearly, is not comfortable.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Debbie Lee Wesselmann TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 23, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Don't enter into Akhil Sharma's AN OBEDIENT FATHER expecting the romantic exoticism of many of today's Indian writers. His India is not mystical or lush or dream-like but instead peels away exterior layers to show what lies beneath. This is a story of corruption, both moral and political. Ram Karan is a self-pitying hedonist, and he knows it, even hates himself for it. Others think even less of him. When his daughter confronts him with their shared secret he hopes she had forgotten, two days after the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, both Karan and India face an uncertain future.
To Sharma's credit, he allows the reader deep enough into Karan's psyche to elevate him from despicable to pathetic, and yes, you do start to feel for this man, however guiltily. Sharma's greatest strength here is his characterizations, from Karan to Anita to the corrupt bureaucrats who work with Karan to his extended family.
If you are just now sampling the range of Indian fiction available in the United States, this is a good place to start. If you are familiar with the wider range of voices, Akhil Sharma's adds a nice balance to the rest, perhaps more American than most but still in his heart Indian.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By louienapoli on January 30, 2005
Format: Paperback
I don't know know where this book came from or how a first-time novelist managed to produce it, other than to say that it came from the same source of all great art. The book is infused with feeling, fully-realized characters, stinging insights and observations, a compelling if repulsive protagonist, and the textures, smells, and temperatures of the characters and their city. Told in first person, it feels at times like one has stumbled on to a diary written by a figure who is an unpdated Raskolnikov. David Sedaris said on NPR that one of the reasons he feels life is worth living is the hope that Sharma will write a second novel. I was very curious to see what kind of book could live up to that praise. The answer is, this kind of book, a great novel, that deals with ugly, unpleasant specifics and tacitly forces the reader to confront his or her own failings, sins, crimes large and small, immoralities, and humanity. As for the negative reviews on this site, readers shouldn't blame the mirror for providing an accurate reflection.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By "ssquare" on August 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
An extraordinary story of moral, physical and political corruption. The protagonist is in almost all ways despicable and weak, yet at times I found myself sympathising with him, and I was always riveted by his unhappy predicament. This is a horrifying and fascinating story, and, unlike one of your other reviewers, at no point did I feel the author was muckraking unfairly. He has written a brave and intelligent book.
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