The story in family life revolves around the life of a young Indian boy and his family. It is the coming-of-age story of the main protagonist Ajay Mishra as he grows and has to deal with different situations in life. The novel starts with Ajay being forty years old and his parents complain that he never visits them. This makes him look back at his previous life, beginning with the time he was a little boy back in India. The family lived in a poor neighborhood in New Delhi but Ajay’s life was full of contentment and happiness. His father Rajinder was obsessed with science and cherished the opportunity to move to the West to engage in Science and live there. He later leaves India and moves to America, ensuring his family joins him a year later. The family settled in Queens, New York. In New York, Ajay struggled to settle in, often being unable to tell apart his white classmates. His elder brother Birju on the other hand settled in quickly and made new friends. Birju did well in school but unfortunately suffered an accident in a swimming pool which rendered him unable to move, talk or see. The family gets emotionally invested in taking care of Birju and grieving him, mostly turning to religion and praying that he be healed.
The way the author narrates the occurrences in the life of Ajay resonates with the reader. Akhil Sharma ensures the reader is engrossed throughout and one almost feels that they are a part of whatever happens to the protagonist.
Several family dynamics run through the initial part of the novel. While the family still resides in India, Ajay speculates to himself that his father was assigned to them by the government. This is as a result of the indifference which he shows his family members. A running theme throughout the book is the way the family responds to tragedy. Ajay’s mother gets lost in grief and resorts to religion to try and heal her son. Ajay on the other hand gets neglected by his parents and finds solace in talking to his disabled brother. His father turns into an alcoholic and engages in numerous fights with his mother. All these family dynamics play out as a result of the tragedy.
After moving to America, Ajay and his family experience different challenges in adapting to the new country. These challenges arise as a result of the new culture and environment. Titzmann & Fuligni (2015) contend that with increased immigration, immigrants are bound to experience such challenges of adapting to new cultures. In family life, Ajay complains about the difference in culture, particularly complaining about having to go to school on Diwali day. Ajay states “On Diwali, it was odd to go to school … In India, everything would be closed for the festival …” (Sharma, 2014, Pg 34). Ajay also struggled adapting to the new surroundings, often confusing his white classmates. In one instance, he was unable to recognize that the boy who asked him a question was one he had talked to previously: “It was strange to be among so many whites. They all looked alike” (Sharma, 2014, Pg 35).
Another challenge faced by Ajay was bullying in school. Talking about this, he states “I was often bullied. Sometimes a little boy would come up to me and tell me that I smelled bad…” (Sharma, 2014, Pg 35). The cultural challenges and other challenges with adaptation faced by Ajay and his family help to shape up the family dynamics. For Ajay, he feels out of place and craves for a return home. While his brother is flourishing, he is struggling to fit in and this has an effect on their school grades. Birju does well in school while Ajay struggles academically. At some point after Birju’s accident, when Ajay is arguing with his mother, we see that school grades play a part in their interaction. She yells at her son “Go with your stupid grades and die.” The challenges in terms of difference of culture and adapting to the new environment therefore shapes most of the subsequent family experiences that Ajay and his family go through. According to Treas (2014), the different challenges immigrant families encounter upon moving to new places define their identity.
The challenges faced by Ajay and his family therefore shape the course of the story in the novel. Had they still been living in India for example, and Burji got involved in a similar kind of accident, maybe Ajay’s parents would have reacted differently to the situation and handled it in a different way. Ajay’s father resorted to alcoholism and violence, while his mother was obsessed with religion. Both ignored the younger son. The pressure in dealing with such a delicate situation away from home probably got to them.
The second part of Akhil Sharma’s novel revolves around Ajay’s life after his brother got into an accident. His father had become an alcoholic and his mother was struggling handling the situation they faced. Ajay himself feels neglected by his parents despite his young age. In order to comfort himself in the face of rejection by his parents, Ajay works hard in school and his grades start improving. Later on, he finally gets a girlfriend who gives him care and attention that he always yearned for. This helps him to gain some sense of self worth. He excels academically, joins Princeton and becomes an investment banker. With the money he now makes, Ajay helps to pay for the care his brother Birju receives. The end scene goes back to the scene at the start of the novel where Ajay is forty years old. He has achieved most of his life objectives and lives a happy life. However, by his own admission, he is unable to experience the happiness around him. He believes that his childhood experiences made him so.
The latter part of the novel revolves around a child being neglected by the parents and that child’s quest to find self worth. It also involves the parents fighting to repair the ills in their characters. This is evidenced by Ajay’s father going to rehabilitation in an attempt to get over his alcoholism. Ajay’s mother on the other hand refused his help towards Burji but later gave in, probably because she realized her past mistakes. The latter part of the novel shows an improvement in the family bond within Ajay’s family. For Ajay himself, he was able to rediscover himself and his self worth after getting a girlfriend. Having been starved of attention by his parents, Ajay finally got that attention. The relationship between Ajay’s parents also gradually improves in the latter part of the novel. Shuba even encourages Ajay to accompany Rajinder to the rehabilitation center. The changes in family dynamics in the latter part is a typical representation of how they change over time. Family bonds, the nature of parent’s relationships and the strictness of parents is something fluid that changes regularly.
In West and Turner’s textbook, Margie Russo talks of the expectancy violations theory within chapter 8 of the book. The expectancy violations theory explains psychological and behavioral change in a person. The proponents of the theory attempt to explain social interaction by analyzing how different people react to violation of social norms and expectations that they had not anticipated. As a theory of communication, the expectancy violations theory explains communication as an exchange of behavior. One person’s behavior can lead to the violation of another person’s expectations. Such violation can be taken either positively or negatively by the person whose expectations were violated.
Several interactions within the family story in the Family Life novel illustrate the expectancy violations theory. Ajay for example had various expectations of life and the relationship with his parents. He hoped to go through a normal school life and that his parents would be supportive and attentive to him. However, this was not to be. The culture difference in the US did not go down well with him. In addition, his parents ended up ignoring him and not being attentive to his emotional needs at a young age. Ajay responded negatively to these violations of his expectations and social norms. He yearned for life back in India as opposed to American life. In addition he had several quarrels with his parents.
Another example that illustrates the expectancy violations theory is the situation with Ajay’s father. He had been craving to live in the West and to be involved in Western science for a long time. However, his expectations were violated when he eventually moved to America. He ended up being an alcoholic and severally contemplating suicide. For Ajay’s brother, the expectation was that he would go through school with top grades and join the science or medical profession but this expectation was not to be due to the accident.
All these instances illustrate the expectancy violations theory. The theory is exemplified all through the novel. The expectations of different characters in the story are violated. The social norms that they expected would be followed were also violated. This is especially manifested on the part of the main protagonist Ajay. The theory explains how the different characters then reacted to the violations of expectations and social norms.