WHAT COULD MAKE a better breeding ground for modern fiction than a tumultuous democracy of competing ethnicities, an economy caught up in whirlwind technological change, and a culture gripped by satellite media and moving pictures? Though this may sound like the setting for the Great American Novel, it actually describes another nation, India, which has in recent years churned out a ream of exciting new fiction. Add to this potent mix 28-year-old Akil Sharma, an American-raised investment banker whose first novel An Obedient Father takes us into the heart of a man and a country wracked by corruption.
Set on the eve of Rajiv Gandhi's 1991 assassination, An Obedient Father is equal parts character study and political novel. Sharma's narrator, 57-year-old Ram Karan, is one of the more engrossingly sinister antiheroes in recent memory. Ostensibly a physical education inspector for the Delhi school system, Karan in reality cadges bribes for a local politician. He has done well, and he lives in a comfortable apartment with his daughter and granddaughter. But this tidy domestic tableau hides a dark secret. Long ago he repeatedly molested his 12-year-old daughter Anita, placing newspapers beneath her small body to keep blood off his bed sheets.
Now Anita is a poor widow forced to live with her daughter in Karan's apartment. Wary of this arrangement, Anita polices her father's behavior. Karan placates his daughter with financial support, a bribe that ultimately leads to his undoing.
Reminiscent of characters from works by Dostoyevski and Kazuo Ishiguro, Karan has spun so many lies that he has begun to believe himself. Recalling how he treated his daughter, he demonstrates the same twisted logic that enables him to steal with impunity: "I reasoned that since I was not harming her physically, the only danger I posed was to her mind....How could I be responsible for the way she interpreted what I was doing?"
In a sense, Karan's abuse is the bitter fruit of a poison tree. Remembering his childhood, Karan brings to life an India that is both gritty and unabashedly chauvinistic. "Violence was common. Grown men used to rub kerosene on a bitch's nipples and watch it bite itself to death....When the father of a friend of mine clubbed his wife's head with a piece of wood, her speech became slurred and she started having fits but not even the village women, friends of my mother's, found this to be an unspeakable evil." By entering these provocative details into the record, Karan clearly desires that the world treat him leniently in its judgments.
Though Karan's most grievous offenses may be against his own blood, the corruption runs throughout his being. In the novel's gruesome denouement, his personal and public transgressions converge--and ultimately implicate the world around him. Sharma constructs powerful connections between how Karan has built his home on a bedrock of lies and how India has mortgaged its future to a venal political system. By keeping Karan's soiled character within the realm of credibility--he's no mythological monster--Sharma makes his criticism of Karan's country both literal and damning.