Family Planning

November 27th, 2008 by EVENTS

By Karan Mahajan

In a family of thirteen children, privacy is a thing of the past. After the oldest, Arjun Ahuja, walks in on his parents attempting to conceive their fourteenth on the floor of their ten-crib nursery, he vows to carve out an niche for himself. Guaranteed to provide the perfect amounts of parental anguish, teenage rebellion, and assorted female groupies, Arjun and his friends decide to form a rock band. With little regard for musical talent or organizational skills, The Flyover Yaars quickly devolve into gossip fodder and grandiose dreams. Arjun uses these plans to his advantage in order to impress Aarti, a cute girl with an unlikely Bryan Adams obsession. Unfortunately for Arjun, an Ahuja family secret threatens to collapse the fragile domestic network.

Rakesh Ahuja is the Minister of Urban Development in Delhi and serves as the patriarch of the Ahuja clan. Confronted with a rebellious son and a fraying political party, Rakesh faces several difficult decisions. Does he break the Delhi political tradition of corruption and graft, reveal Arjun’s true lineage and his own marital history, or continue toeing the party line? With little support from a constantly pregnant wife currently mourning the death of a television sitcom star, Rakesh turns to Arjun for an attempt at some decades-late father-son bonding. Arjun, unaccustomed to so much individual parental attention, retreats further into his fantasy world.

Mahajan’s debut novel is filled with the Ahuja’s personal and political secrets, and the consequences that threaten to tear them apart. The novel is emotionally astute, as Mahajan gives equal attention to Rakesh’s adult turmoil and Arjun’s teenage angst. Set against the relentlessly crowded backdrop of India’s capital city, Mahajan provides a microcosm of Indian society in the Ahuja clan. With members questioning fate, romance, history, and future plans at every opportunity, the Ahuja family is alternatingly comforting and unsettling.

Mahajan’s vivid prose magnificently captures the sensual details of urban Delhi. His precise use of perspective is reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri’s work, as they have no trouble switching seamlessly between markedly different characters. The crowded Delhi traffic and unused highway flyovers perfectly mirrors the constant chaos within the Ahuja household. In this excerpt from Chapter 9, Mahajan invokes a sense of choreographed chaos by combining detail about the boisterous family’s eating habits with calming descriptions about Arjun’s clothing and the precision maneuvers required to share food at the Ahuja table:

Mr. Ahuja was soon to learn about his eldest son’s band. It was past normal lunchtime and everyone was starving. He was sitting at the head of the long rectangular teak table that had been reinforced by two smaller tables at the ends. These two tables were at least six inches shorter than the main table, and so, to compensate for the makeshift extension, the taller Ahujas sat at the ends, carefully passing steel plates over the wooden drop. Today, however, everyone was concentrated toward Mr. Ahuja’s end. Mama was missing, probably tending to the babies in the nursery. The children chewed boisterously. They stopped for an instant to acknowledge Arjun’s presence as he glided in on his socked feet, the last to arrive. Then they gobbled. That was one feature the family shared: they were a platoon of gobblers, consuming food with a speedy, scavenging relish.”

Family Planning focuses on a family held together by little more than luck, and a son’s reluctant dreams of fame and fortune. Readers will appreciate Mahajan’s treatment of the teenage protagonist, as Arjun is well-drawn; he’s adolescent boy who never seems as one-dimensional as so many adolescent boys are, a wonderful character. Mahajan vividly illustrates the smells and sounds of urban India, echoing some of the quietly lyrical passages in Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. The conflicts between father and son are tentatively resolved, but Mahajan’s ending doesn’t leave the cloying taste of a happy ending in the reader’s mouth. Much like Lahiri’s skill with the hauntingly incomplete ending, Mahajan follows in a similar tradition. Arjun’s romanticized view of Delhi contrasts beautifully with Rakesh’s uneasy acceptance of the recent concrete modifications. Mahajan brilliantly blends elements of traditional Indian culture like aloo gobi and Ring Road with modern Western artifacts like Radiohead and Harry Potter. Overall, Karan Mahajan’s novel is a deeply satisfying piece of writing, and I look forward to reading future works by this highly talented and imaginative author.

Reviewed by Stephanie Turza

Family Planning by Karan Mahajan
HarperCollins, 2008
Paper, 266 pp, $13.95.
ISBN-10: 006153725X

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