Review & Interview: “Family Planning,” by Karan Mahajan

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. mahajancover.jpg

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 mahajan.jpgtheir 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.

177 thoughts on “Review & Interview: “Family Planning,” by Karan Mahajan

  1. Now go tell your ma, bhabi, bhein, or bibi to serve you up some hot roti and chai!

    I live alone and do my own cooking, cleaning and washing. Thank you for the suggestion anyway. Does that advice come from personal experience?

    Besides, I am not unaware of the numerous versions of the Ramayana. Many have widely differing stoylines and gender equations. I was just mentioning some facts about the original version, written by Valmiki.

  2. Something tells me that you were not born and raised in India — no Indian Hindu would have made such a basic mistake, unless their knowledge of Sanskrit/Hindi was non-existent.

    Because all Indian Hindus speak Hindi? When did this happen?

    I also appreciate how instead of actually attacking the argument, you chose to attack the people making it as if that proves anything. Well done.

  3. I also find it curious that self-described “liberals,” who are so eager to import sociological, political, and other various frameworks from the West suddenly become so reflexively opposed when the opinions out of the West come from people with feet in both worlds.

  4. So you don’t think that people from the East are capable of coming up with their own frameworks?

    Please don’t tell me that you think the “values” found in Ramayana with regards to Sita would fly in India today.

  5. Please don’t tell me that you think the “values” found in Ramayana with regards to Sita would fly in India today.

    What are these values that you refer to in quotes, and which part of India do you think they would fly or not fly in? Goa? Meghalaya? U.P? Bihar? Kashmir? a metropolis? a tier 2 city? a village?

  6. So you don’t think that people from the East are capable of coming up with their own frameworks?

    Not “people from the East.” Just you and your fellow travelers. See, when I said “feet in both worlds” that comes also from reading the independently derived frameworks of “people from the East.”

  7. I don’t think a leader such as a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister abandoning his wife after she has been kidnapped by terrorists would be tolerated anywhere in India, from Mumbai to Mangotreepura. What to speak of if she was pregnant.

    Some values of the Ramayana may hold today, and some others don’t. The above is one that definetly would not fly anywhere.

  8. I don’t think a leader such as a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister abandoning his wife after she has been kidnapped by terrorists would be tolerated anywhere in India, from Mumbai to Mangotreepura. What to speak of if she was pregnant. Some values of the Ramayana may hold today, and some others don’t. The above is one that definetly would not fly anywhere.

    And that brings us back to….square one

  9. And that brings us back to….square one

    so older = more authentic? other parts don’t count? when is the cutoff point at which history stops?

  10. Haroun, See, it works this way- Suppose I write a biography of King Haroun the wise. He was a great chap, a good egg and a vanquisher of evil. He ruled justly and wisely and had a happy marriage. A few centuries later, another guy picks up my narrative, and bored with the traditional story of Haroun the Wise’s life, decides to add a new portion. In this, Haroun kicks out his pregnant wife and then sets her on fire. This entertains many people, stimulates much thought and acts as a catalyst for many ‘hate Haroun’ movements, but it does the real Haroun great injustice. You are free to your own favourite version, but it is always helpful to know the real story.

    so older = more authentic?

    No. You are using sophistry here. Original = more authentic

    when is the cutoff point at which history stops?

    History stops at the intersection of the past and the present.

  11. disclaimer: this is merely my opinion. anyone can take away whatever they want from the Ramayana, from whatever viewpoint, or reject it in parts or whole. doesn’t matter.

    “I don’t think a leader such as a Prime Minister or a Chief Minister abandoning his wife after she has been kidnapped by terrorists would be tolerated anywhere in India, from Mumbai to Mangotreepura. What to speak of if she was pregnant.”

    i think you’re focusing too much on the literalness of the story. the situation in the Ramayana was just a means to illustrate a larger point – it could have been any situation, but that one is more in tune with the norms of that time and not all aspects of it will be appropriate for our times/mores. today, the story would be different, but the point would be the same. In your example above, of course leaders would try to save their kidnapped wife if possible. but what if the kidnappers said they had rigged a whole city with bombs that would explode if the leader tried to rescue his pregnant wife? what if they detonated one just to show they mean business? what should he do then? does he go after his wife or save the lives of thousands, perhaps millions? which relationship or duty does he consider the more important one? leaders often have to make such choices. don’t they send men and women to war, probably to die? what about their families and pregnant wives left behind?

    in last night’s episode of “24″ the president had a choice: either to destroy evidence that would send her daughter, whom she loves dearly, to jail, or to turn her daughter over to the police. she chose the latter, surely the most difficult decision she has probably had to make. she has already lost her son. she could have easily hushed it up, as the father begged her to do, exhibited what we consider one of the most important instincts of a mother: to protect her children. what if her daughter was pregnant? should the president still send her daughter to jail or hush it all up? life is full of these questions about what our duty is and it’s not always clearcut, especially for leaders.

  12. I don’t know what “24″ is, but assuming its a TV drama?

    If her daughter committed a heinous crime like murder – send her to jail.

    If she was a victim of the crime of kidnapping by terrorists – don’t send her to jail and don’t banish her.

    Sita committed no crime, rather she was the victim of a crime. Still, she was cast out, for no reason. It doesn’t make any sense.

  13. but it is always helpful to know the real story.

    so ramayana evolved over multiple centuries, but everything after 7th century should be discounted. seems like applying 7th century standards to ramayan, mahabharat, indian culture etc. is appropriate since it is “more authentic”.

    No. You are using sophistry here. Original = more authentic

    again, story evolves over multiple centuries. anything that is inconvenient is labeled inauthentic. especially interesting since the oldest manuscripts of ramayan date from 11th century ad. i mean, going by the original stories, sri lanka’s location is very ambiguous (and ravana is worshipped in chattisgarh), which makes the entire ram setu thing questionable, but that’s ok.. heck, even ram navami is based on bala kanda, which is also considered a later addition, elevating ram to a god based on narada’s answer to a question from valmiki… i don’t make the claim that these things are all or nothing, but selective reading is a tricky business.

  14. “Sita committed no crime, rather she was the victim of a crime. Still, she was cast out, for no reason. It doesn’t make any sense.”

    i don’t disagree but again i think that storyline is a product of its time, and of time immemorial (but with different details), whether we like it or not. fate is always going to be unkind to some people, for no apparent reason. don’t innocent people suffer all the time? fate will always impose certain difficult choices on people, seemingly wrong/immoral/selfish choices, that seem especially so in hindsight. there would be no literature otherwise. the idea of suffering/sacrifice is an enduring one. but it’s how we deal with either being a victim of fate or being in charge of the fate of others whilst having to balance many concerns. people who are great leaders may not have been that kind to their families but were necessary people for their time and place, perhaps needed for the greater good whilst their own families hated them. people who may have been kind to their own families may have been terrible leaders who put their family’s concerns above the concerns of others.

    i know i sound simplistic but it think both overly “chauvinist” and “feminist” interpretations of the Ramayana story that focus too much on the details of what made an ideal wife or ideal husband centuries ago miss the point. as yoga fire said above, its not about the details of who did what to who but the intent/reason behind it.

  15. Suppose I write a biography of King Haroun the wise. He was a great chap, a good egg and a vanquisher of evil. He ruled justly and wisely and had a happy marriage.
    A few centuries later, another guy picks up my narrative, and bored with the traditional story of Haroun the Wise’s life, decides to add a new portion. In this, Haroun kicks out his pregnant wife and then sets her on fire. This entertains many people, stimulates much thought and acts as a catalyst for many ‘hate Haroun’ movements, but it does the real Haroun great injustice.

    what if you were afraid of being beaten up by king haroun or his followers unless you expunged the crazy stuff he did? maybe your biography was forced to be a hagiography… (again, i am not saying ram or his sena was threatening valmiki -importantly, valmiki clearly did not create the ramayan characters who existed in vedic verses long long before the ramayan was written, but embellished their stories possibly based on contemporaneous statements, i just want to point out the difficulty of discerning context and, shudder, “authenticity”!)

    sitayana’s acceptance of the uttarakanda as a part of the ramayana is no different than unquestioning acceptance of various aspects of epics, cultural phenomena and taboos by hindus (for eg.the gita was written over three decades and it is often even believed to be a later addition to the mahabharat, and you can identify several other evolving aspects of hindu belief systems)

  16. Man! Does every discussion have to turn into arguments? Can’t you all grow up. Mr. Wry, I was loving your posts until you turned into a patronising Dickhead – what gives?

    To the rest of the Ram Sita crowd – Sure, Hinduism loves its women. But then why do women get such a raw deal in this day and age? Why can’t we walk down the street, travel on public transport, or wear a sleeveless dress without getting ‘eve-teased’? Where is all that much vaunted respect? Anyone who spouts off about how much India reveres its women needs to look around them & take off the blinkers. That one thing right there is the biggest reason I would never go back to live in desh – symptomatic of lack of respect and just basic humanity.

    Anyway – I’m just pleased to know there’s another indian authour out there I can read. Looking forward to the book. Story sounds interesting – and funny. Always a good combo.

    PS: I vote Congress – nyah nyah they won suck it up :)

  17. sitayana’s acceptance of the uttarakanda as a part of the ramayana is no different than unquestioning acceptance of various aspects of epics, cultural phenomena and taboos by hindus (for eg.the gita was written over three decades and it is often even believed to be a later addition to the mahabharat, and you can identify several other evolving aspects of hindu belief systems)

    I really don’t give a rat’s ss about when something was written. What I do give a rat’s as about is what effect the particular ethos of a written work has had on the populace – whether that effect be negative or positive.

    Whether agni pareekhsa section was written one thousand or one hundred years ago – what is the effect on the populace? That is the question.

  18. Thanks for calling me a dickhead, Tarmon. Nice to meet you too. As for the change in tone, i think when people are falsely accused of misogyny or attacked by trolls (garv was a multi-thread troll), i’m sure you can understand the decision to defend one’s self. hopefully you yourself are not a member of that brigade, in which case, we can have a polite and substantive discussion.

    Sitayana,

    The effect of the Ramayana as a whole on hindu society has been an emphasis on duty, a reverence of mother and father, younger brother for older brother, and the exhortation for good to stand up against evil. Rama and Sita have been celebrated for their dedication to each other in spite of royal polygamy being the norm. For the sake of argument, even if we assume that the Uttara Khanda should be considered a part of the original, the message in it is not for men to not stand by their women. As I noted above, the message is that a king’s duty to his subjects come even before his queen. Sita was no doubt blameless and was obviously wronged, but that’s also why Rama was heartbroken when he let her go and begged her to return when he found out about Lava and Kusha. That was what yoga fire was trying to say. Either one can continue to focus on individual motifs and use irrelevant constructs to develop a template of misogyny (aka a stick with which to beat hinduism), or one can view the entire epic holistically and imbibe the real message that comes through.

    In essence, you find the things you are looking for. If you are looking for misogynists and wronged women you will always find them. If you are looking for morals that can help better your life and your familial and personal relationships, you will also find it. The choice is yours.

    To answer your question, contrary to what you are probably looking for, the agni pareeksha was, for obvious reasons, never really practiced in hindu society. There is absolutely no link to Sati. For that, you would have to refer to the Puranas where Sati (Shiva’s first wife) first committed the act of her own volition in her anger at Daksha’s(her father) treatment of Shiva. She no longer wished to be his daughter and was later reincarnated as Parvati. If you are really that interested in trials by fire in society, you would have to refer to European Civilization and Christianity. The Inquisitions and witch-burning that took place, would I am sure, be an interesting study for gender sociologists everywhere. As to whether Christian holy books, rather than depraved and power hungry abusers of religion, were responsible, you would have to confer with a biblical specialist.

  19. Well, well. I was waiting for the indictment of the West and Christianity. I guess that is supposed to silence me. I guess I’m supposed to get offended either defend them (the west and christianity) or agree with you that yes, the East and it’s religions are better.

    Well guess what – they all got issues!

    My point is this – the media shapes minds. The Ramayana was media way before it ever reached Doordarshan and despite the fact that most people who believe in it could not read. It was and remains an oral tradition. Oral traditions are media. Media has an effect on the minds and ethos of a people bit by bit, over time. Some of those effects are good, some are bad, most are a combination. All cultures practice mind control. All controls seek to brainwash. All cultures want conformity.

    See here;

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CWMCt35oFY&feature=related

  20. I never said one was better than the other. I think all societies have, by and large, made positive differences to the human experience as whole. European civilization has obviously made great contributions that don’t need to be recounted. My only point is that Hindu/Indic Civilization has made tremendous contributions across the spectrum as well. What you choose to make of that is up to you.

  21. Oh little complan boy, are we back from sulking? We missed you so much! We were worried that you had gone off and cried to Mummy. I thought you said you were going to “stick to your promise” of bidding everyone “adieu”. I know you like to think that you’re “punching holes”, but I’m afraid the object is your own credibility. The only person that was “devastated” was Abhishek who was caught in his own lie. But that’s ok, it’s good to see you have such a healthy imagination in your attempt to spin reality for your buddy. Oh did you little bacchas make friends in LKG?! So cute! Our little complan boy. Bolo, beta, bolo: “I am a complan boy”…

  22. Really? “Complan boy”? This is your best shot now that you’ve been repeatedly exposed and excoriated for being lying and abusive by so many different commenters and bloggers, and you turn around and complain that they are all lapdogs…

    All it took from the moment you started commenting on this blog was a couple of comments questioning your claims and your petty, abusive, mendacious nature was laid bare, despite your best attempts. Well, I guess it is 5 more years of frothing at the mouth for you, good luck with continuing to spout your lies to whomever will buy your garbage :) I did want to bid adieu, your pathetic whining was too hilarious for me to resist. But since you are begging and pleading for me to desist, I cannot but pity you at what must be such a dark moment for you given that your favorite party (which, of course, you are not peddling) was soundly routed, and will let you proceed with your falsehoods.

  23. Arey beta, so angry. So offset. Kyon? I know, let’s play a game before you have your complan. Come sing and we’ll teach you how to count:

    Ginti Geet Nursery Rhyme Ek do, kabhi na ro theen chaar rakhna pyar paanch che, mil kar rakh saath aat pad le paat nov das jore se hans.

    Did you learn you numbers? Yaaay!

  24. satyajit, now going with a fake handle and possibly ip switching to think you have supporters? i guess that is the logical extension of the sangh mentality of spinning newer and newer groups for plausible deniability…

    oh “gby”, what lie? you, i meant wry, said the supreme court found her guilty of perjury. this is plainly false. the toi reporter’s credibility has been successfully questioned – what he claimed was the sit report was merely the gujarat counsel talking about the gujarat govt’s (gosh! self serving report), as newspapers and commenters have observed. even if that was in question, the supreme court has not found her guilty of a single thing – instead it has acquitted her of similar charges in the past, and both the supreme court and the head of the sit have taken great offense to leaking of comments made in court.

  25. Oh beta, there is your imagination yet again. So much gussa. So offset. So desperate. Unlike Abhishek, I didn’t cut anything out. All the links are there for people to see here. I know your imagination is running away with you, again. here let’s try and find a new song. maybe hindi wasn’t your cup of tea. let’s try malayalam:

    Kochu poocha kunjinoru kochamali pattil Kachi vacha choodu pal oodi chenu nakki kunju navu polliyappol kunji poocha kenu Myau.. Myau.. Myau.. Myau..

    here’s the translation in case you can’t understand

    The cute little kitten met with a small accident It ran and drank the boiled milk in a hurry The little tongue was burnt and it started crying Myav…Myav….Myav….Myav….

    oh beta, so many lies. Did your little tongue get burnt from all those jhooths? it’s ok, we know how unhappy you were after you got humiliated here last week. we know you want to try to redeem yourself. don’t worry, we still love you. now ja, have some ice cream and come back when you are not so offset…

  26. This conversation is spiraling into major tangents. Time to shut it down.