Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

February 7, 2001:
Creating character while commuting
Investment 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 obedient father.

"It's 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 quite late."

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 Smith Barney.

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 found horrifying."

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."