“I’d love to come to the Emirates Lit Fest” says Akhil Sharma

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“I’d love to come to the Emirates Lit Fest” says Akhil Sharma

Noted Indian-American author Akhil Sharma holds forth on the importance of being happy... and a well-fitted jacket

By Nivriti Butalia (senior Reporter)

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Published: Fri 27 Mar 2015, 9:43 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 7:48 PM

 Akhil Sharma

For five days in January, Diggi Palace — the venue of the free-to-enter Jaipur literature festival  — is a complete madhouse. Packed over with all sorts, crowds literary and seemingly less so, you’re elbowed by lovers of kachori and masala chai. It’s not for everyone. But it does seem like everyone is there, in attendance. People swear they’re not going to return next year. And yet, for a segment of festival-goers, being jostled about, the long queues, not finding a place to sit in the sessions, people spilling tea on your shoes — is all worth it when authors you’ve been on the lookout for agree to talk to you.

Like Akhil Sharma, whose literary moon seems on the ascent.

On stage as well as in person, Sharma chooses his words carefully. He talks slowly. His movements seem unhurried. And there’s little that sticks out of his sentences — that much is gauged from his beautiful, terse, semi-autobiographical novel Family Life, about a family of four that migrates to New York, and &how it copes with the elder son having a fall in a swimming pool that makes him brain damaged. The New York Times &featured Family Life in their list of 10 best books of 2014.

At the festival, Sharma has more than one session on stage. One interviewer on stage remarks, “Akhil, you are a very serious person…” He doesn’t correct that. Either he believes it or he’s being polite. You think if you get a chance to meet him, you’d ask him about it.

As it turns out, one manages to spot Sharma in the crowd. He graciously agrees to a chat, and we step into the delegates lounge area, where he sees his friend Vijay Seshadri, the New York–based Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, to whom I am introduced. Sharma complements the jacket on Seshadri, repeatedly. “Isn’t it a great jacket? Doesn’t he look great?” Seshadri plays along, and quickly leaves, possibly because his friend seems to have an interview lined up.

Turns out, Sharma, not long ago, helped Vijay Seshadri pick the jacket. Sharma himself is in a well-fitted navy blue jacket, with an unexpected lining. He holds open the flap of the jacket, and you see pink flamingoes on white silk. “It’s my little secret,” he says, smiling. In minutes, without even having broached the topic, Sharma has dispelled the not-ion of ‘being serious’.

We sit down. Sharma gets himself a cup of tea. He has a green-orange striped scarf around his neck presented to him by the lit fest people at the end of his morning session. “If you’re coming to India,” he says, taking a sip, “you might as well get some custom-made jackets because  mostly jackets don’t fit exactly, and so they… they look baggy…

So you went shopping yesterday for the jacket?“I’d love to come to the Emirates Lit Fest” says Akhil Sharma

No, no, this was in December. 

My perception of you was this serious, grave person and then you’re doing jacket- shopping…

I take happiness very seriously. For most people, happiness is not going to just occur. You have to make choices everyday. You have to choose happiness.

And well-tailored jackets are a miniscule part of that?

They’re a part of taking pleasure. Like eating delicious things, talking to people and not being afraid… I find that I am very open about myself because it’s just so much easier to not be so defensive.

Were you always like that or is it something that happened as you turned into a writer?

It’s a part of growing older. As you get older, you suddenly realise ‘wow, I’m going to dead someday’. I might as well try to be happy!

Do you think it requires courage to dress brazenly?

It requires courage to get out of bed. 

Is it liberating that your family doesn’t read your work or would you rather your parents did (read your books)?

It’s not like they don’t have lots of opi-nions about me with or without reading it (laughs).

When you were an investment banker, did you ever have a premonition that you would one day be a writer?

Absolutely not! I just wanted to live my life, my peaceful life. And… it was just such a difficult career that I couldn’t do it anymore. And then I began this thing (writing)… it’s so much more risky, so much more stressful in its way. […]

How do you respond to be called a serious person, a serious writer? And can a serious person write humour?

I don’t know. Many people say that I am very funny. I don’t think of myself as funny. I think I’m just describing the world as it is.

So how much time do you spend... shopping for clothes?

My wife and I go buy cloth. And then when I come to India, I have it made &into outfits.

So Delhi is…

Delhi is where my family is. I go to Khan Market and I get it done there. Or if in Bombay if I’m there.

Do you get your shoes made as well?

I don’t. I’ve considered it. But I’ve never found somebody, which is both affordable and I think is likely to make something good. Like the least expensive custom-made shoes is $300, and for $300 you can get a pretty decent pair &of shoes.

I have to ask you about Dubai — has anyone approached you for the Emirates lit fest?

No, I would love to go.

Been to Dubai?

Ah, only to the airport. 

What is the most tedious part about the Jaipur lit fest?

The flights. It took me almost 24 hours to get here. 

And about the festival itself?

Well… the pleasure of the festival is when you meet people. It might take a day or two before you meet people you like a lot. But that always happens. You always meet people you like a lot.

I was going to ask you about writer friends —

I have lots of friends who are writers. 

If you have a writer friend who writes terribly, do you tell them that?

I tell them they write terribly. I mean, I’ve lost friendships because of that. And that’s why people don’t ask me to read their things.

There was something Hanif Kureishi said about how when  you put something down in writing, you forget about it, but you remember it if it’s immortalised on paper. Is writing about trauma like that?

You don’t forget it. But it’s a way of &having a response to it, which might be healthy. To some extent, when you’re writing it down you’re de-personalising it because you’re writing it for an audience. So you’re thinking: how would a healthy person respond to this? A healthy person would say ‘this is terrible, let me try and go be happy’. It’s important to be happy. Unless you try very hard, you can easily slip into not being happy.


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