BOOK REVIEW: Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma’s ‘Cosmopolitan’ is a story of overlaps, or perhaps, multitudes. Part of the Faber Stories series – celebrating 90 years of their publishing – ‘Cosmopolitan’ is a piece that speaks to numerous intertwined narratives. As the synopsis will tell us, ‘Gopal Maurya’s wife has left him, preferring to seek enlightenment in an ashram in India. But when his neighbour comes to borrow his lawnmower, Gopal thinks he might find something similar right here in New Jersey […] he embarks on a quest for suburban romance’. Yet there is more to this tale than just an attempt at suburban romance.

At the heart of the piece is Gopal. 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. We learn too, that his daughter has waved her goodbyes as well.

This is surface level stuff. The sort of thing you could run a knife over and have it skim the top. Yet what Sharma does throughout, as he does with much of his work [see his collection ‘A Life of Adventure and Delight’ for more] is never waver on the ethnological root of his character. Though we strive to be equal [I’d hope] we too should strive to recognise our differences. No one person is the same, no two cultures or nations are the same either, and this should be noted, and celebrated or explored, either one. Here Gopal is coming to terms with being totally un-Americanised as he lives alone in New Jersey. His way of thinking, his approach to love [which I question at times, there’s a certain amount of boundary crossing without permission early on] and indeed the comical moments – he reads Cosmopolitan, Elle, Glamour and the like for tips on love, are important markers in understanding who Gopal is, and what sort of work Sharma writes. This too, is extended into his relationship with his daughter. Though we never meet her, Gopal mentions their drift –

‘my daughter is an American […] she doesn’t know Hindi, and her parents must seem very strange.’

It makes sense then, that throughout ‘Cosmopolitan’, Gopal asks Mrs Shaw [Helen] to tell him about her life. Is this to understand her as an American or as a person, I’m unsure, but it certainly connects to his notion of ‘living in a world beyond comprehension’.

The romance between Gopal and Mrs Shaw drives the narrative. Eventually they get together, and see each other casually, though it is clear Gopal is far more invested than she. Towards the end of the piece, after Gopal has got his life into some sort of order, he confesses his love for Mrs Shaw, to which she doesn’t, at first, respond, to then offering a response via a kiss to his forehead [rejection indeed]. Here we learn more of Mrs Shaw – ‘to fall in love I think you need a certain suspension of disbelief, which I don’t think I am capable of.’ She tells him she loves him, loves how kind he is, and caring, ‘but I am not in love with you.’ Gopal doesn’t fully understand the difference, believing ‘that God would punish him this way for driving away his wife and child.’ Gopal is, at times, hard to truly empathise with, as is his occasional nature, this though, cuts through all that. It too, harks back to his roots.  

In the end Mrs Shaw suggests they see other people, or at least take a break from one another. Gopal is clearly devastated, though he doesn’t give up. The final scene is left open ended, thankfully. A story this short, with characters this big [in terms of history, life, etc] there’s no real way to tie it all together neatly without feeling like you’d been short changed.

And so, it is. ‘Cosmopolitan’ isn’t a piece of epic proportions, it’s quiet and, at times, mundane. Sharma borrows from the great Raymond Carver, in that life sometimes is just the everyday. Yet there is always more than just the surface – humans contain layers upon layers of traits, both character and historical. Sharma taps into that neatly in ‘Cosmopolitan’, keeping the prose simple but affecting, the dialogue of a similar ilk too. The consistency of Gopal and his ethnology is also important, and Sharma writes it well, with clarity and a clear understanding. An enjoyable piece, though surely not one to shake you, ‘Cosmopolitan’ is demonstrative of adept and neat storytelling, putting the characters to the forefront of each experience.

Cosmopolitan is published by Faber & Faber for more information about their Faber Stories and 90th Anniversary click here.

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Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma is an Indian-American author and professor of creative writing. His first published novel An Obedient Father won the 2001 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award. His second, Family Life, won the 2015 Folio Prize and 2016 International Dublin Literary Award.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison

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