The central character of ‘Cosmopolitan’ is Gopal Maurya, an Indian immigrant living in New Jersey. His wife has left him and gone back to India to seek enlightenment from an ashram. His daughter has left to live with her boyfriend in Germany. He becomes a recluse, longing for any kind of intimacy. He is a man who would “fantasise about calling an ambulance so that he could be touched and prodded.” The appearance of his neighbour – Mrs Shaw – into his life, sparks in him a type of yearning, not only for her love, but also as a re-invigoration after his wife has left him.
Armed with Cosmopolitan magazine as his bible, he embarks on a quest for suburban romance. Reading articles on topics like “what makes a woman a good lover,” the man is “reminded how easily one can learn anything in America.”
The romance between Gopal and Mrs Shaw drives the narrative, even though it is clear Gopal is far more invested than she is. I love Akhil Sharma’s portrayal of Gopal, a hapless individual muddling his way through life, well intentioned yet doomed to failure. Like the other characters in this book, he is flamboyant, self-deluded yet capable of tenderness and heroism.
Akhil Sharma’s writing, like Lahiri’s earlier work, explores what it feels to live a translated, transplanted life. His focus, like hers is on the lives of first and second-generation Indian immigrants to the US, but the similarity ends there. Whilst Lahiri’s stories have a meditative and reflective quality to them, focussing as much on the interior as the exterior landscape of her characters, Sharma employs a more playful and ironic take in his character portrayals. The eight stories in this collection are set in contemporary America and India and the setting is often the domestic, familial space. Sharma’s writing is direct and clear without any linguistic pyrotechnics. Yet this deceptively easy prose reveals the depths and shallows of life in all its Chekhovian technicolour glory.
The title is ironic as the protagonists in these stories try desperately to carve out a life of middle class aspiration and respectability.
First published in The Atlantic, January 1997, and available to read here. Collected in A Life of Adventure and Delight, W.W. Norton/Faber 2017. Also available as a Faber Single, 2019