May 2, 2014 12:35 pm

Akhil Sharma: The money myth

The banker-turned-novelist recalls the ‘mad excitement’ of his early years as a poor immigrant in America, ‘where everything was possible’. Or was it?
Akhil Sharma©Rosie Hallam

The idea that money reveals things that our words hide has been a part of me for as far back as I can remember. My mother tells a story of how, when my father was a child, his mother, my grandmother, cooked a dish with peas. Peas used to be meaningfully more expensive than other vegetables. This was in India in the 1940s and 1950s. My grandmother, who was a strange angry person, did not like my father as much as she did her youngest son and so she spooned the peas that were in my father’s portion of the dish and put them in my uncle’s.

My family came to America in 1979. I was eight then. To me the best thing about America was its vast wealth. Everything about the country screamed money: how people had cars; the fact that the buildings were tall; that stores turned on electric lights during the day. I remember how during one of our first days in America we opened our mailbox and found a shopping circular printed on coloured paper. We assumed this must have arrived by mistake because in India glossy paper was precious and could be sold for much more money to the recycler than newsprint. When we found it, we grabbed it and hurried back to our apartment.

There were four of us in our family: my parents, my older brother and me. Anup was four years older than I was. We didn’t have much money. I remember once going with Anup and my mother to buy a slice of pizza as a special treat and my mother asking the counter worker to cut the slice into three so we could share. My memories of those early years, though, are of an almost mad excitement. Everything was possible in America and that sense of possibility was like a constant roar. I used to wake in the middle of the night thinking of all the good things that were going to enter my life.

In New York City, where we were living, the government schools were mostly awful. I once had a teacher who declared that a kilometre was a little longer than a yard. There were, however, a few elite schools that one could enter by taking exams. My brother, less than two years after we arrived in America and still not completely in control of his English, did so spectacularly well on the maths and science sections of these tests that he got into one of the very best schools.

In 1981, during the summer between Anup passing the exams and starting his new school, he had an accident. He dived into a swimming pool, struck his head on the pool’s cement floor and lay underwater for three minutes. When he was pulled out, the brain damage was so devastating that he could no longer walk or talk, he couldn’t even roll over in his sleep.

Till then worry about money had, of course, been part of our lives. Now it turned into a sort of terror. Not having money during a medical emergency is like not having oxygen. My brother’s skin used to get dry in the heated hospital air and we couldn’t afford $4 for a tube of lotion.

These memories that I am putting down are so painful, and so many good things have happened in my life, that I want to look away from them; I want to say, let us focus on the good things.

Worry about money turned into a sort of terror. Not having money during a medical emergency is like not having oxygen

Here is something wonderful: during the first year after the accident, my sneakers became ripped. There was no money to replace them and I had to go on a school picnic on a day when it was raining. So my mother made me wear yellow plastic shopping bags over my socks and the other children made fun of me. Years later, in my first semester at Princeton University, I got all As. I remember walking to the library soon after I received my grades and it started raining. I began running. I burst through the library doors and looked down at my wet feet and remembered the picnic and felt enormously grateful that I lived in America where bad luck can be overcome.

After two years, my parents took Anup out of hospital and brought him home and we began taking care of him ourselves. All the time we worried about money. There were so many screaming fights.

Desperate people are rarely kind, rarely thoughtful. I certainly was not. All I really cared about was taking care of my own interests. Other people might have problems but I didn’t want to hear about them. After Princeton, I went to Harvard Law School. I remember standing outside a lecture hall and listening to a black professor screaming with anger about the American penal system. American prisons are, of course, worth being angry about. My response to hearing the man shout, though, was embarrassment. I heard him and my first thought was: now I have to pretend like I give a shit.

After law school I became an investment banker. I became a banker because I wanted to earn more money than I would as a lawyer. I was OK as a banker. Clients would ask to work with me. They did this because I was competent. They also did this because they knew I would do whatever they wanted. I once took a client to a brothel, one of those places where blonde women in swimsuits sit around on sofas. I found taking the client there intimidating. Would this be bad for my career? Later I discussed this with a vice-president. He appeared to find nothing wrong with what I had done. He said, “Now he’ll always return your calls.”

I feel embarrassed admitting all this. Admitting the truth, though, is the first step to changing. Also, it is almost 20 years since these events and I barely recognise the person I used to be.

I gave up being a banker. Partly it was because I found the work both tedious and stressful; I used to travel so much that I once sat down in a theatre seat and reached for a seatbelt.

Desperate people are rarely kind, rarely thoughtful. All I really cared about was taking care of my own interests

Even more than hating the work, though, the reason I gave up being a banker was that money didn’t make me feel any safer. No matter how much money I had, I found myself unable to accept the comfort money can provide. One February day, soon after my annual bonus of several hundred thousand dollars had been deposited into my account, I needed a pair of gloves. I was living in New York and since I wanted to pay as little as possible, instead of going to a store, I began looking for one of those vendors who sell gloves, hats and umbrellas near subway stations. For about a week, because I was leaving for work so early and returning so late, I didn’t see one of these vendors and so I walked around the city with my frozen hands in my pockets.

Not only was I unable to spend money to buy such simple physical comfort as a pair of gloves, I also found little value in the status that money conveys. To me making money only shows that you are good at making money, there is nothing else that it signals.

 

I quit my job as a banker soon after I got married. My first novel had come out and it had been well received. My wife says that she had thought she was marrying a banker and instead ended up marrying a writer. My wife has supported us for a long time now. She is a senior executive at a financial services company. She makes enough money that all my pyjamas are the pyjamas that airlines give their first-class guests: the black ones from Shanghai Tang that Cathay gives out, the grey ones from Qatar Air.

My wife says that she is glad to take care of me. It pleases her to do this, she says, because it is so hard to really show all the love we feel for the people in our life. I know that she means everything she says. I have a hard time spending the money she earns, though. I think a part of me is afraid that if I spend money, this will lead to my wife getting upset and then I will know that despite everything she has done and said, she does not love me. Fortunately, I know that I am crazy. When I told my wife what I was writing, she laughed and said to make sure I said “really crazy”.

‘Family Life’, by Akhil Sharma, is published by Faber & Faber (£14.99)

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