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After four or five months of reading Hemingway, I decided to write a story. I had in the past written stories for English classes. These had all been about white people, because white people’s stories seemed to matter more. Also, I hadn’t known how to write about Indians. How would I translate the various family relations, the difference between an uncle who is a father’s brother and an uncle who is a mother’s brother? Having read Hemingway, I knew that I should just push all the exotic things to the side as if they didn’t matter, that this was how one used exoticism—by not bothering to explain.

The first story I wrote was about my brother coughing. I woke one night to the sound of Birju coughing downstairs and then could not go back to sleep. To be woken this way and not be able to return to sleep struck me as sad enough to merit a reader’s attention. Also, Hemingway had written a story about a man being woken because somebody is dying nearby, and the man is forced to witness the death.

I got up from my bed and turned on the light. I then returned to bed with a spiral-bound notebook and placed it against my knees. I began my story in the middle of the action the way Hemingway did. I wrote:

The coughing wakes me. My wife coughs and coughs, and then when her throat is clear, she moans. The nurse’s aide moves back and forth downstairs. The hospital bed jingles.

I wrote that it was a spouse coughing because that seemed something a reader could identify with, while a brother would be too specific to me.
I lie here, listening to my wife cough, and it is hard to believe that she is dying.

It was strange to write something down and for that thing to come into existence. The fact that the sentence existed made Birju’s coughing somehow less awful.

As I sat on my bed, I thought about how I could end my story. I held my pencil above the sheet of paper. According to the essays I had read on Hemingway, all I needed to do was attach something to the end of the story that was both unexpected and natural.

I imagined Birju dying; this had to be what would eventually happen. As soon as I imagined this, I did not want him gone. I felt a surge of love for Birju. Even though he was sick and swollen, I did not want him gone. I wrote:

I lie in my bed and listen to her cough and am glad she is coughing because this means she is alive. Soon she will die, and I will no longer be among the lucky people whose wives are sick.

Fortunate are the men whose wives cough. Fortunate are the men who cannot sleep through the night because their wives’ coughing wakes them.

Akhil Sharma

Akhil Sharma
Akhil Sharma

Born: July 22, 1971

Profession: Author