Family Life, by Akhil Sharma
Family Life, by Akhil Sharma

If you have any social media account or at the very least keep up with that pulse on America – I’m talking about The Ellen Show, of course – you probably know about Humans of New York. And if you haven’t? In my opinion, you’re in for a treat: The project, started by photographer Brandon Stanton in 2010, takes him around New York City’s five boroughs as he photographs and interviews people who catch his eye. The subjects and their mini-interviews range from outlandish (“I legally changed my name to Space…”), to the mundane (“Mom is visiting from Barbados. This is her first time seeing snow.”), to the painfully real (“I’ve lost count of how many foster homes I’ve stayed in…”),  to the just plain little (the “Today in microfashion” series, which showcases the sweet and sometimes funny outfits worn by children). Stanton has a knack for asking good questions – or at least pulling out interesting commentary from these people. The success of HONY is based on the premise that everyone has some sort of story to tell and that wisdom or insight can come from seemingly unlikely individuals.

Screen shot from Instagram of the HONY interview with Vidal that gave this story a jump start. (Apologies for the cropping; I did want his words to be readable.)
Screen shot from Instagram of the HONY interview with Vidal that gave this story a jump start. (Apologies for the cropping; I did want his words to be readable. You can click the photo to enlarge it.)

Two weeks ago, Stanton interviewed a boy in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood named Vidal Chastanet. In his response to Stanton’s question (“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”), the 13-year old describes his principal, Ms. Lopez and how “…she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.” Well, lo and behold, someone tracked down Ms. Lopez, and HONY then initiated a meeting with Lopez, dedicated a number of posts profiling Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and subsequently, through HONY’s followers, raised over $1MM. That’s enough to allow incoming 6th grade classes trips to visit Harvard (to broaden the horizons of her “scholars,” according to Lopez) as well as other enrichment programs. The momentum didn’t stop there: Chastanet, Lopez, and Stanton made an appearance on The Ellen Show, and then, in the ultimate affirmation, were received in the Oval Office to meet President Obama. In an interesting and poignant denouement to a heartwarming story, Stanton interviewed the POTUS himself for a few posts on Humans of New York. There are three posts (and in one, Stanton asks Obama the same question he originally presented to Vidal: “Who has influenced the most in your life?”), but my favorite response of Obama’s is this one:

 “You don’t do things alone. Nobody does things alone. Everybody always needs support. For a young man like you [Vidal], you should never be too afraid or too shy to look for people who can encourage you or mentor you. There are a lot of people out there who want to provide advice and support to people who are trying to do the right thing. So you’ll have a lot of people helping you. Just always remember to be open to help. Never think that you know everything. And always be ready to listen.”

This is a great feel-good story, isn’t it? I think that the way Stanton has harnessed his skills as well as his immense social media following speaks to the value of empathy and initiative. But I know there are probably detractors, and their arguments perhaps go a little something like this: “I didn’t get those types of opportunities; I had to work for everything myself.” Or, “What happens when this support ends?” There’s also an argument for lauding Stanton, but simultaneously wondering if better overall systems would prevent the need for this type of grand gesture in the first place. (Fair point.)

These types of arguments play a prominent role in the immigration debate. There’s one extreme camp that says that “model” immigrants “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and never expect any help whatsoever, and then there’s the other side that claims that immigrants, no matter who they are, suck America culturally and economically dry and rely on every available – or unavailable, for that matter – resource to survive. So we’re stuck with a bit of polar situation: Either a migrant to America miraculously assimilates, prospers, and thrives all by himself; or she inhibits and chips away at others in order to survive.  Is it possible that both scenarios can co-exist since, after all, migrants are people and not programmable robots?

I just finished Family Life, the second novel by Delhi-born author Akhil Sharma. (This novel is also based heavily on true events of his life, so there is a very real sense that readers are faced with actual people and their scenarios.) As with other books depicting the life of an immigrant, Family Life delves into the pros and cons of cultural assimilation, the struggle to find one’s place, and how a family unit slowly morphs into something different while withstanding all this emotional and psychological pushing and pulling.

What Family Life does, however, is place a lot of emphasis on the notion of hope, which serves as a survival mechanism in this novel. Instead of a calm assurance, hope stirs up images of jumping off a cliff, fingers crossed and wishing for a good outcome. We all do what we can to prepare in this life, but a level of uncertainty in how this life plays out will always loom. Here is the story of Ajay, who moves from Delhi to America with his parents (his father who “had wanted to emigrate to the West ever since he was in his early twenties” and “saw the West as glamorous with the excitement of science” goes first) and his older brother Birju, who “appeared to be somebody who had a destiny.” The family is hoping, I suppose, for something “better” – to make its mark in a world that represents the way of the future. Birju studies fervently for admission to Bronx High School of Science, and his parents’ demanding study schedule no doubt springs from the hope of a strong education that many immigrant families see as a pathway to success. After the envelope from the school – wherein all the family’s hopes supposedly reside – arrives, they take it to the temple and pray over its contents. The hope comes to fruition, as they celebrate over Birju’s acceptance. However, this notion of placing one’s outcome in the hands of others isn’t just relegated to a deity. Once tales of Birju’s success make the rounds in the Indian community, he himself is seen as a bit of a good-luck charm, and although “pilgrimage” may be too strong a word, families do make efforts to visit with and learn from this success.

Work hard and keep one's fingers crossed?
Work hard and keep one’s fingers crossed?

When tragedy strikes Birju and, subsequently, his family, the “immigrant ideal” crashes. They are now at the mercy of a hospital, science, and yes, God – or maybe a more generic “luck.” Ajay “had never prayed like this before, every day, hour after hour, praying till [his] throat became raw and even my tongue and gums hurt.” When Ajay and his mother pray before the altar every morning, Ajay “traced an om, a crucifix, a Star of David onto the carpet by pressing against the pile. Beneath these [he] drew an S inside an upside-down triangle, for Superman. It seemed to [him that they] should flatter anyone who could help.” Interestingly, despite his situation, Birju and his family are seen as “holy” themselves. When a man comes to their house before his son is scheduled to take the SAT, he asks for a blessing. According to Ajay, “He was asking for a blessing so that something specific would occur and this felt closer to us being treated like we were holy.” People in their community began to see the mother’s blessings “as a form of insurance.” According to Ajay, his “…mother, because she was considered holy, was also seen as someone who would be compassionate and whose very presence might be calming.”

Hard work is important, but isn’t the ability to place one’s hopes on something or someone else a nice security measure? And I think that ultimately this notion of hope puts a blip in the “good immigrant” narrative. Here is a family from the type of non-native demographic that Americans love to trot out as “desirable.” Yet the ways that the characters Sharma writes place their hopes partly on things out of their control allow this notion that people may actually need a little help once in a while to gain momentum and traction. Birju, unfortunately, runs out of luck, and even the hardest, most dedicated work can’t reverse that fate.

There’s a deep belief in the “harder the work, the luckier you get,” which, of course, acknowledges an aspect of success that’s out of one’s control: luck. There’s a dynamic tension in that phrase, and Family Life illustrates that’s there’s often a deep belief in both.


{Around the same time I read Family Life, I was also reading The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success, by Amy Chua (you know: Tiger Mom) and Jed Rubenstein, as well as Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America & The World, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Both gave me a lot to think about as I wrote.}





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