Ajay is 8 years old when his family emigrates from India to America in the late 1970s. The attention excites him, makes him feel important, but he cannot believe that India, and his grandparents’ house with the gutters his grandfather cleans with soap every Sunday, will continue to exist when he leaves.
Ajay’s fathers sees America as an exotic place where a man is worth more because he earns dollars, a place of science and opportunity. Ajay describes the importance of science in his childhood when the radio feels like magic and the Green Revolution is changing everything.
“Even I, as a child of five or six, knew that because of the Green Revolution there was now fodder in the summer and so people who would have died were now saved.” Then comes the Emergency: Indhira Gandhi suspends the constitution and jails thousands. In 1978, Ajay’s father leaves for America.
He sends for his wife and sons after clerking for a government agency for one year. In India Ajay and Birju are frugal in a way that means they are “sensitive to the physical reality of our world in a way most people no longer are.” They split matches in half and save the cotton batting from pill bottles. In America they live in an apartment in Queens with television programming that runs all day and indoor plumbing that feels like something out of a fairy tale.
While Birju adjusts well in America, making friends, dating and earning a place at a top high school for sciences, Ajay struggles to fit in. The thought of losing his way in his large school scares him and all the Caucasian students look alike to him. He doesn’t even fit with other Indian immigrants (maybe 20 out of 500 students) because he stands up to bullies—”they saw me as a troublemaker for responding to the insults.” Other Indians in his class are “not Indian the way I was,” Ajay confesses. They don’t have accents and white children invite them to birthday parties. Ajay responds to rejection by rejecting the kids right back. He pretends the okra in his lunch is snake and maintains haughtiness over his grades and advanced classes.
The Mishras discover the true value of a dollar when Ajay’s brother suffers a tragic accident and all the money in the world cannot erase three minutes.
Ajay’s narrative is simplistic, honest and authentically childlike. His narration fits the pace of a young boy’s thought process and speech patterns, which makes him feel real. He reveals emotions and thoughts adults will ignore or batten down. Ajay feels the belief his mother holds that Birju could get better means she does not love Ajay and his father. He feels that his father’s indifference is his his fault. He is glad he is an only child after the accident, but feels guilty for thinking this.
Ajay’s emotions are childlike, but his observations are uncannily adult. He wears his guilt “like wearing clothes still damp from the wash.” Whenever he is not in Birju’s hospital room he feels guilty. Visiting homes for Birju feels like a holiday because, while they are not in the hospital room, they are doing their duty and that appeases the guilt of being away. He talks with God at night and God looks like Clark Kent. Originally God is Krishna but “it felt foolish to discuss brain damage with someone who was blue and was holding a flute and had a peacock feather in his hair.”
As Ajay grows up so do his observations about the world and his understanding of his place here. He finds escape, then solace, in literature. He finally comes to terms with both the man he is becoming and the man his brother will never become. Ajay’s narration subtly compares and contrasts Indian and American customs, reveals the immigrant experience, and sheds light into the murky world of living with disabilities.
Large and small disparities exist between being in India and being an Indian in America. There are not many other Indian immigrants for one, not enough role-models of “good” Indians. Before Birju’s accident Indian families with young children want to meet Birju, hold him up for their children as an example of the success available to them. After his accident the Mishra’s are still sought after, but as holy: “In India it is common to look at someone who is suffering and sacrificing and think that the person is noble and holy.” Other Indians treat the Mishras like prayer flags after the accident—as though their suffering waving in the wind absolves the sufferings of others.
Ajay’s mother takes him to visit the pundit at the temple, “another converted church with the musty American smell and a large idol-lined chamber with a refrigerator in the back for the ceremonial milk and bananas.” In India a pundit is a functionary and not a spiritual counselor. When they live in India Ajay’s mother tells disparaging jokes about pundits and teaches her boys to look down on them. In America everything is different. They adapt customs based on what is available, and Birjiou’s condition also requires an adjustment of expectations.
This novel closely mirrors the author’s life, but Sharma hesitates to call the work autobiographical. The order of events in the novel is different from the order of events in his life and the story leaves out many pieces. This is a novel about a young boy growing up in a claustrophobic family and situation, but this is also the story of a generation of Indian immigrants. This is an immigrant story, but also one about universal values of hope in the face of despair, about the fear of not being enough, and envy of others. Both the story and the writing are strong, and readers care about the characters deeply. This is a novel that explores the history of Indian immigration, clashing cultures, world issues, and of one little boy just trying to deal with the aftermath of three minutes.