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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An Obedient Father (2000) Akhil Sharma


Book Review
An Obedient Father (2000)
 Akhil Sharma

  Speaking of Indian-themed novels from the end of the 20th century.  Another debut novel, no less.  Like Arundhati Roy, Sharma waited over a decade to write another book, Family Life, published in 2014.   You really risk...losing your audience...when you wait more than five years between putting out works like books, movies or albums that seek to balance serious and popular art.  Obviously for pure pop the audience attention span is shorter- the idea of a work a year has historically been considered optimum, although now a multi-market promotional cycle including publication and some kind of supporting touring appearances can run two or three years   The cycle takes different shapes for different art forms.

  Of course, the financial consequences of a "hit" in any of these cycles lasts far longer than the promotional cycle itself.  It can be decades, a lifetime of income.  I'm not saying that is the case here, Sharma.  Having a "hit" in the literary fiction world is something like getting Best New Music in Pitchfork:  You can parlay it into big money, but by itself it's not worth a lifetime of financial security.

  An Obedient Father is most notable for its depiction of the most memorable villain in Indian literary fiction, Ram Karan, a widower and "bag man" for a local Congress Party functionary.  The corruption in his job is mirrored by corruption in his private life, notably an incestuous dalliance with his now adult daughter, Anita, who is herself widowed and living in Karan's tiny flat with her own daughter, Asha.

  The events take place against the backdrop of the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, the last representative of the Congress Party dynasty.  His death was a crucial turning point in the rise of the rightist Hindu fundamentalist party BJP.  This rise is mirrored in the plot of An Obedient Father, as Karan's mentor is induced to betray the Congress Party and run for office as a representative of the BJP.  Karan tries to navigate the rapids of politics while the consequences of his behavior with Anita, graphically depicted in the text of the book, come home to roost after twenty years of denial.

   The 1990's were a break out for Indian literature in the West, as well as the literature of South Asia.  Sharma is at the tail end of the initial post-Rushdie explosion, but he also represents an evolution, with a level of graphic detail absent from earlier books. Sharma's India stinks, metaphorically and actually, and it is hard not to be repelled by this world.  Call it progress.

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