When you’re visibly pregnant and riding the NYC subway with a book titled “Family Planning” in hand, you’re bound to draw stares and curious gazes. Such was my experience earlier this month as I traveled on the downtown 1 with 25 year old Karan Mahajan’s laughter-inducing yet tender first novel in hand. In this Brooklyn-based, New Delhi-born author’s debut work (HarperPerennial, 2008) set in contemporary New Delhi, family life, politics, adolescent love, and prime time soap operas intertwine in entertaining and unexpectedly moving ways.
At the heart of this story is the chaotic household of Rakesh Ahuja, a hard of hearing, America returned engineer who holds a prestigious position as New Delhi’s Minister of Urban Development. Apart from the bureaucratic and political challenges that face him at work (he’s in charge of a laborious flyover construction project and part of a political party that sponsors intolerable bills such as the Diversity of the Motherland Act which calls for the compulsory registration of all Muslims “for reasons of diversity and national security”), Rakesh is beset by his own personal dramas at home.
The father of 13 children (and one more en route), he must deal with the trauma of having had his teenage son Arjun walk in on him having sex with his wife in the baby nursery. Understandably, Arjun asks, “Papa, I don’t understand–why do you and Mama keep having babies?”
While he has to figure out a way to explain himself to his son (“Obviously, Mr. Ahuja couldn’t tell his son that he was only attracted to Mrs. Ahuja when she was pregnant” reads the first line of the novel), this is not the only secret Mr. Ahuja has been keeping from his son, master babysitter and eldest of 12 younger siblings and darling of his mother, Mrs. Ahuja, an unattractive woman whose days are spent changing diapers, managing her vast household, knitting, and recovering from the loss of her favorite TV character Mohan Bedi from Zee-TV soap opera, “The Vengeful Daughter-in-Law.” There’s also the bit of information about Rakesh’s first wife, Arjun’s mother, who suffered a tragic death and who continues to haunt his unhappy existence. Meanwhile there’s Arjun, an awkward teen so madly in love with Aarti, a Catholic school beauty who rides the morning bus with him that he’ll do anything to get her attention–even start a rock band with a bunch of classmates.
Yes, there’s a great deal happening in Mahajan’s novel; many competing heartbreaks and dramas. And yet, as a reader, I was pulled in just as much by Mahajan’s observant and sensitive eye as I was by his ability to create satirical scenarios that reflect some of the complexities and paradoxes of social and political life in today’s India.
Read the rest of this review and a Q&A with Mahajan, whose sense of humor is as refreshing in the interview format as it is in his prose, below the fold. None of the Ahuja family’s plans go quite right during the course of this tale. When Minister Ahuja writes his resignation letter to protest the “Diversity of the Motherland Act,” he expects to be supplicated to stay in his position. Quite the opposite. He discovers that his authority means little in a system wrought with personal power struggles. As for Arjun, his rock band has its own set of challenges, not the least of which is the fact that none of its members can really carry a tune. And, Mrs. Ahuja watches as her eldest son assumes the persona of a “stepson” and distances himself from the rest of the family.
If you’re in the midst of stocking your summer bookshelves (or perhaps are looking for something to read during the ongoing Indian elections?) and want a book that manages to be both humorous and insightful, “Family Planning” may well be for you. While offering us a charming comic tale of crossed wires and family drama, Mahajan simultaneously (and subtly) examines the theme of power — the power that is wielded in the outside world versus what is wielded at home; the power parents wield against children versus what children wield against parents; and the power politicians wield against citizens versus the power wielded by politicians against their very own.
Q&A with Karan Mahajan
Q. You describe the experience of discovering a school of Indian authors once you came to college in the US and describe your childhood reading as a “fairly standard colonial diet of Enid Blytons, P.G. Wodehouses, and Agatha Cristies.” What was it like to come upon novels by Indian voices when you did? How did that shape or inspire you as a writer?
I only began reading Indian writers after I went to the US for college, and my approach to them was very argumentative: I saw in their way of relating to western readers–whether through cultural exposition, exoticism, Indian-isms, or a complete denial of the issue of audience altogether–strains of my own (initial) discomfort about being a foreigner in the US. Which is why it was thrilling to read Rushdie, Narayan, and Naipaul in close succession. These writers had solved the problem of audience by being utterly singular, and pouring their self-consciousness into style and story, and the lessons I learned from them are invaluable. I read them now as I did then because they are brilliant writers, not because they have Indian surnames.
Q. Would you describe the literary scene in India today as different than what you were exposed to during your childhood? What are your observations about your generation of Indian writers?
Great question. There are just so many Indian writers in English now. It drives me crazy. I want to be special again.
But in all seriousness, Indian writing in English is much more of a homegrown phenomenon than it was in the past, and this means that we’re going to see fresh writing come out of the provinces in addition to the metropolises. Many of these writers will be writing for an Indian audience, and this will mean that they can be far more topical and contextual in their subject matter. But I can’t make any guesses about the quality or universality of these books.
Q. The novel is about the English-speaking middle class (of which you are a part), but from what I understand you have no connection to political life. What were the opportunities and challenges of writing a novel about a political figure, set in a subculture of which you were not a part?
The main challenge was being authentic about the milieu without being constrained by reality. I find among Indian writers and editors a complete mania for authenticity: they’d rather describe with painful exactitude a religious ritual or the passage of a Parliamentary bill rather than alter details to suit their story, and I wanted to know enough about politics to take liberties with it. So I took the usual steps: I researched, I interviewed, I eavesdropped, I Googled, and then I threw it all away and did exactly what I pleased. I write fiction, not documentary, and I want to keep the world safe for fabricators.
Q. American educated, Indian returned administrative official and politicians like Rakesh Ahuja are rare, are they not? Do you know any?
I wish I knew some! But a lot of politicians—Nehru, Manmohan Singh, even the aspiring Shashi Tharoor—have had stints abroad and there’s the recent trend of IIT graduates starting their own idealistic political parties, and so the idea of the America-returned political animal didn’t seem totally implausible. That was my point from the outset: to insert a man with the qualifications of a Rajiv-Gandhi-crony into present-day Parliament, and to see how he’d use his “outsider” status effectively, or, as in the case, of Mr. Ahuja, ineffectively, by descending into hubris and trying to impose an upper-middle-class idea of order on a crazed city.
Q. The book, you say, “began with the question: what in the world would prompt a middle-class couple in contemporary, urban India to have a large family?” Though you were aiming not to perpetrate stereotypes, isn’t the stereotype of the large Indian family and lack of family planning in India is one that exists in the West?
I’d disagree that it’s a stereotype, but even if it is one, I go to great lengths to paint the family as unique in its strangeness and dysfunction.
Q. Writing about sex and sexual dysfunction: Was that something you consciously set out to do? What do you anticipate the response will be to these themes in India when your book is published there? Were editors in India open or skeptical?
It’s difficult to say, but I do think people will have a hard time with the book, and many will dismiss it as unsavory. Uncles and aunties will talk about me behind my back, and say, “Look what happens when you people send your children to US.” Offers of arranged marriage will be withdrawn. My mother and father, ever supportive, will be mercilessly interrogated. Eventually I hope there will be book-burnings.
There are things about my book, looking back, that I would perhaps do differently–I started writing it when I was twenty–but the sexual content is not one of those things. I am drawn to writing about the private lives of individuals; I want to burst through their doors and into their bedrooms. And that desire is enhanced by the fact that there is almost no serious discourse about sex or sexual dysfunction or gender dynamics in middle-class Indian media, and that books, written by individuals, free from the snarl of commerce or committees, allow us to say things that TV or film simply cannot.
Whether anyone wants to hear these things is another matter.