The Improbability of Love: Akhil Sharma's A Life of Adventure and Delight

Akhil Sharma's A Life of Adventure and Delight is a collection of eight short-stories about Indians living in India and abroad. Woven together by the common themes of love and its improbability, grief, loneliness, the impossibility of connection, and the pursuit of happiness, the stories offer a glimpse into the codes that operate and govern individuals in society.

The stories quite often undercut the expectations set up by the title of the collection. The characters in the stories are neither invested in adventure nor are their lives particularly delightful. The stories are darkly comic with several shades of melancholia, dilemma, and contradiction.

Of Indians at home and abroad

The characters that inhabit the short-stories are Indians located in parts of India and abroad. They function according to certain social codes, many of which are part of the experience of growing up in India or inheriting Indian culture and value systems (which are diverse in themselves) through immigrant parents and family members. In the case of the latter, especially for second generation immigrants, social codes may often appear confusing and contradictory.

In the story 'Surrounded by Sleep', for example, young Ajay, who encounters grief and hopelessness with his brother's accident and paralysis, considers prayer-as-bargain to be a sly and confused way of appealing to a greater force. When Ajay is told that God can take any form, he begins to imagine Him as Clark Kent, only to be rebuked by his mother. The story highlights the many manipulative ways in which people attempt to please God and make Him listen to their prayers as well as the futility of it all. Ajay questions how chanting and burning incense can undo the three minutes of his brother's accident.

While characters located outside India (mostly in the West) have the agency to question the absurdity of certain social codes (perhaps because of their geographical and ideological distance), characters located in India are provided with lesser flexibility of thought (perhaps because of their proximity). In the story, 'We Didn't Like Him', the adult narrator comments, retrospectively, on the relationship he had with one of his cousins. He says,

Since he belonged to my aunt's husband's family, we had to show him the respect due to a family that takes a daughter away.

The stories also provide a critical glimpse into social codes that are specific to gender, race, disability, caste, and class.

The pursuit of happiness 

Irrespective of their location, the characters in the novel are in pursuit of happiness. In the story 'You Are Happy?', for instance, Lakshman muses,

The occasional person walking across a road seemed like life going on, like life was always going to go on and so somewhere there was the possibility of things being different and happiness existing.

However, happiness is always short-lived and there is loneliness and grief have to be grappled with. In the story, 'If You Sing Like That for Me', the narrator-protagonist hums along to a song by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi which says that grief is no letter to be passed around to whoever wants to read. In other words, grief  and loneliness are burdens to be borne alone.

Yet, there seems to be a shared understanding that one must suffer before one can love and be loved. 'Cosmopolitan', for example, tells the story of two divorcees, a man (Gopal) and a woman (Mrs. Shaw). Gopal believes that by following the relationship advice given in women's magazines, he will be able to make Mrs. Shaw fall in love with him. He imagines that they will connect easily (the magazine articles make attachment appear effortless) because both of them know what it means to suffer alone. He expects tears and recriminations but Mrs. Shaw gives him plain details of her divorce, making him apprehensive of their intimacy.

Such apprehensions also arise in the title story, 'A Life of Adventure and Delight'. Both the title story and 'Cosmopolitan' draw attention to how, in relationships, partners can know and trust each other only by narrating their stories, by revealing their strengths and vulnerabilities. However, the more one knows one's partner, the more they begin to appear as complicated and flawed as oneself.

The improbability of love

The stories, therefore, foreground that love, in all kinds of relationships, if often improbable. Love is neither black nor white but belongs to an inconsistent and feared grey area. This is a fact that we do not want to acknowledge, even to ourselves. The characters in these stories want to love but they don't know how or they find themselves unable to trust people enough to love them or they simply realize that love is fleeting by nature. The impossibility of sustained connection is emphasized time and again.

In the story 'If You Sing Like That for Me', the narrator-protagonist is a married woman who wakes up one day to find herself in love with her husband. Unable to trust her alcoholic father enough to love him, she invests her love in her husband whom she married in order to dispel her loneliness. She wonders what kind of love they could have. In the end, she is disappointed because her husband dares to remark on the grey-ness of love. He says,

There are so many people in the world that it is hard not to think that there are others you could love more.

The grey-ness is also pointed out by the narrator in the story 'Cosmopolitan'. He remarks that it is, in fact, impossible to live with someone for a long period of time because if you know someone that well, you are bound to be disappointed. Moreover, love requires a certain suspension of belief. 

I often find it difficult to review short-story collections because one has to treat the collection as a whole but also consider each short-story as an independently functioning universe. With Sharma's collection, this difficulty does not persist as the stories do have common themes and leitmotifs. So, while the characters may occupy seemingly distinct universes, Sharma employs them to lay bare human psyche in its raw form, stripping it of the veil of morality. He puts the unspoken—the cruelty of children and of adults, the tendency towards promiscuity, the desire to manipulate and control our partners, among other things—into words.

To conclude, the stories in this collection reveal that human beings function according to social codes in pursuit of happiness and love, in an attempt to rid themselves of loneliness and grief, but are only met with the improbability of love and the impossibility of sustained connection. As the narrator in 'Cosmopolitan' remarks, 

This is who we are. . . dusty, corroded, and dented from our voyages, with our unflagging hearts rattling on inside.

A Life of Adventure and Delight by Akhil Sharma, published by Hamish Hamilton/ Penguin Random House India, 2017.

* This book was sent to me for review by the publisher through a review program coordinated by Vivek Tejuja of The Hungry Reader. The views expressed, however, are entirely my own. 

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