An Evening With Akhil Sharma

“One of the great things about being a writer is that you can portray every person as a child of God,” says Akhil Sharma in response to a question about the main character in his novel, An Obedient Father (2001). The character is a pedophile and the person asking the question wonders if the character is just a pedophile or if there is more to him. The author clarifies, “Every person is greater than their greatest sin.”

It’s a powerful statement, spoken with gentle assurance on a Monday evening at the American Center in New Delhi in front of an audience of about fifty people. To me, Akhil’s statement sounds like the centerpiece of a sermon, and when I hear it, I almost want to holler, “Amen!” But it doesn’t suit the context. Nor does it suit Akhil’s style. He’s quite unassuming in his presence. He’s short and slight in stature, and speaks softly. On this night, he’s also dressed very casually. But as a writer, he’s clearly on a mission. He says, “Writing fiction is the most moral thing in the world. I write to help people understand themselves.” He believes in himself as a writer.

As Sharma begins to read from his award-winning novel and to make comments about his writing, he betrays his passion for stories and storytelling. “The story itself is truth,” he interjects. As he comes to a favorite expression in his reading, he becomes almost giddy and confesses to the sheer pleasure of crafting words into phrases. He loves writing.

As if we are his students, Akhil talks explicitly about how to begin a novel, suggesting a crisis, perhaps a fight between characters. He explains then the importance of humour and how it helps readers become patient as they wait for the fight to happen. He talks about the need to give visual details to help readers invest in the story and identify with the characters.
I find this all very insightful and helpful.

Akhil is Indian-born and American-educated. He tells us that he came from a poor family in Delhi that didn’t read books. He seems to have retained at least some of their simple outlook on life, although that couldn’t have been easy after moving to the US at age seven and studying at bastions of higher education like Princeton, Stanford and Harvard. He became an investment banker, but has never forgotten his roots -- another good lesson for all of us.

In terms of writing, Akhil makes much of the influence of Ernest Hemingway, not just the writings of this iconic American author but also the biographical sketches of his early life as a writer. As he read about Hemingway, he wanted to be like him. When he finally got around to actually reading Hemingway’s work, then Akhil wanted to write like his favorite author. It was a nice twist of fate, then, when Akhil won the prestigious Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 2001. He received the prize from Hemingway’s son.

I enjoy the glimpses into Akhil’s perspective on life, people, and writing. It’s refreshing to hear from someone who came to writing by a slightly different route than normal. And that’s what he emphasizes in his experience with people, saying, “Very few people are normal. I don’t know too many.” It becomes obvious as he speaks that he relishes in the great diversity among human subjects. As well, his take on life is surprisingly positive, considering the suffering he has encountered, which includes family tragedy. He insists that there is much good to be seen if we are willing to see it, concluding, “Life is almost always beautiful, even in the midst of difficulty.”

Thanks, Akhil.

**To view an article by Akhil entitled, “One Indian Writer’s Experience,” follow the link below.

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