a PAW web exclusive column
Creating character while commuting
banker Akhil Sharma's first novel examines the world of a man who
molested his daughter
By Lolly O'Brien
First novels are generally
coming-of-age tales, but Akhil Sharma '92's first novel, The
Obedient Father (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23), is a full-grown
story of political corruption and incest set in steamy Delhi, India,
that bears little relation to Sharma's life as a Princeton graduate
made good as an investment banker/novelist.
The book's main character,
Ram Karan, works in the physical education department of the Delhi
school system, where he exacts bribes from school principals and
slakes his appetite for food and drink almost ceaselessly. He lives
with his widowed daughter, Anita, whom Ram regularly sexually assaulted
when Anita was young, and Anita's daughter, Asha. The novel's dramatic
tension escalates when Anita realizes that Ram is about to do the
same to Asha. Anita then comes out of an emotional stupor to confront
Ram and exact her price. Ram, through love and fear, becomes the
an ironic thing," Sharma says. "We always thinking of
obedient children. The idea that Ram would be come subjugated to
his daughter is the story."
Sharma clearly has no
problem examining the inner workings of a depraved man, and in fact,
he carried the idea for the book around for several years. "The
idea for the story came out of a idea I had discarded from an earlier
short story. The drama of a woman who was molested as a child living
with her father who molested her, the idea was so powerful, that
it appeared worth writing about," Sharma says.
And the novel itself,
though unsavory in content, is rich, rewarding, and compelling.
The characters, and especially Ram, are complex and funny.
This complexity of character
is something that Sharma works hard on. "I read a lot of stuff.
The writer whom I most admire is Tolstoy. I especially admire War
and Peace, Anna Karenina. And it's because of the three
dimensionality of the characters." Learning how to create well-rounded
and sympathetic people is a goal, and it is possible, Sharma says.
"Mostly you learn by writing and reading a lot. Teachers and
readers are good at telling you where you're hitting the mark and
where you're off by a mile."
And many readers of The
Obedient Father know he's right on. The book was named on of
USA Today's best books of 2000. And this is an honor not
many full-time investment bankers can claim.
Sharma, who works at
Salomon Smith Barney in New York, commutes from his home in Edison,
New Jersey, where he uses his kitchen as his writing studio. "I
try to get up at 5 A.M., and it's very hard. I get home often times
Sharma has always wanted
to be a writer, but he has a practical side that drives him as well.
At Princeton, he studied at the Woodrow Wilson School, but he also
found time to take writing classes.
"I wrote a collection
of short stories while I was Princeton," he said. "I worked
with Russell Banks; he was my adviser. I also worked with Toni Morrison,
who was my second reader of my thesis, Joyce Carol Oates, Paul Auster,
John McPhee, and Tony Kushner, the playwright."
After graduating, Sharma
went to Stanford, where he enrolled in the creative writing program
in 1992. "I had hoped to go into the movies. In my heart of
hearts I wanted to make a lot of money, and I thought making movies
would be the easiest. At Stanford I got into the television program,
but nobody really wanted to buy my stuff."
Undaunted, Sharma decided
to try a different tack. "I wanted a stable living, but not
work hard. I went to Harvard law school in 1995, and once there,
the things I found I was most interested in were the corporate activities.
So, it made sense to try to become a banker."
After law school, Sharma
worked for a series of banks, and a year ago, he went to Salomon
Sharma, whose mother
tongue is Hindi, grew up in Delhi and moved to Edison with his family
when he was 10. Asked if his parents were literary, and if they
had read The Obedient Father, Sharma said, "My parents
are not literary at all. Nobody in my family owns a book. My parents
have not read my book. They are just not interested. My father once
tried to read a book. He's intellectually curious, but books are
not his thing. He reads magazines. And the subject of my book, they
Reflecting on Princeton,
Sharma glows. "I thought Princeton was incredible. I was so
ignorant when I showed up a Princeton. I wasn't well read, I wasn't
particularly thoughtful. And it was wonderful to be around all these
people who cared intensely about things and ideas and learning.
It was the best $100,000 I ever spent."