First Novel Attempts 'Family Planning' In Karan Mahajan's debut novel, nothing happens in the Ahuja family in small doses. Every day seems to bring a new breaking point — and sometimes, a new understanding.
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First Novel Attempts 'Family Planning'

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First Novel Attempts 'Family Planning'

First Novel Attempts 'Family Planning'

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a beatnik poet turned Woodstock rocker.

But first, nothing happens in the Ahuja family in small doses. They live in one of the most crowded cities in the world, New Delhi. They have thirteen children in a time when modern middle-class couples try to stop at two. Rakesh Ahuja, the patriarch, is a member of parliament and director of urban planning in a chaotic urban landscape and feels suppressed by a vast, choking bureaucracy. His son, Arjun, tries to escape the clatter and the clutter of his life with head-banging rock music. Every day seems to bring a new breaking point and sometimes a new understanding.

"Family Planning" is the title, the debut novel by Karan Mahajan, who now lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but he grew up in New Delhi and joins us from our studios in New York. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. KARAN MAHAJAN (Author, "Family Planning"): Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Could you delicately explain why Rakesh Ahuja and his wife have 13 children?

Mr. MAHAJAN: I'll try to be as delicate as I can - or rather, I'll be as direct as I can, which is to say that Mr. Ahuja is only attracted to his wife when she's pregnant and so has, you know, developed this really unhealthy obsession with having more and more children, not just because he loves children but because he wants to, you know, be attracted to his wife. So that's the primary reason he has 13 children.

SIMON: Any debut novel prompts the question as to what degree is it autobiographical. Would you like to clear that up for us?

Mr. MAHAJAN: Absolutely. I would love to clear that up for you. It isn't very autobiographical at all, surprisingly. I only have one younger sibling, but I was fascinated with the idea of what a large family would be like and the internal politics of such a family, and you know, especially played out against the larger politics of the city of New Delhi.

And as for the characters themselves, Arjun is a 16-year-old character who is into rock music. I would say that part is autobiographical, but he's much more of an interesting psyche, angsty character than I ever was. I was extremely boring, and you know, I still hope to be.

SIMON: Do I have this right? You - you learned the narrative form by writing a cricket blog?

Mr. MAHAJAN: Yeah, I think it was in a time before blogs, if such a time existed, really. When I was about 13 years old, my brother and I started a cricket Web site which, you know, covered the motions of the Indian cricket team, and we became very serious about it and it became one of the largest Indian cricket sites in the country at the time. But yes, I did learn how to write when I was working on that Web site.

SIMON: Now tell us how writing about cricket games that by and large you never saw might have affected your writing style or at least developing your writing muscles.

Mr. MAHAJAN: I think my writing style very much for the form of gossip, I would say. You know, I think I would pick up on what other people were saying about games. I would obviously form some of my own opinions, but really, my interest was in listening to how people were responding to cricket as a social forum. And I think the novel, essentially, is an excellent standardized form of gossip, and I hope, you know, that I havewritten 280 pages of really naughty gossip about the individuals.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Now, you began writing this when you were student at Stanford, I gather.

Mr. MAHAJAN: That's correct. I ended up writing the first 20 pages of the book in a class.

SIMON: And what was there about the novel that attracted you?

Mr. MAHAJAN: You know, I think more than any other form right now, the novel allows you to get really deep and internal into the lives of various characters and what, you know, how their insecurities play out in their heads, how they fantasize about various things. And so for me, that was really what I wished to do, and also, I think, to reveal to a degree how people have a tendency to abstract each other. So in this novel, you have Mr. Ahuja, who's abstractly thinking about his pregnant wife without really understanding her. And so you have three or four different consciousnesses - if that's a word - playing out again each other in a way that I think the novel is best suited for.

SIMON: Is it possible for a father to love all 13 children equally?

Mr. MAHAJAN: You know, that's a really good question and one that I thought about a lot while I was writing the book, and I would say the answer is actually no, but I think the father can pretend to love all 13 children by, you know, you know, just peppering in a few details about his children's lives, you know, flattering each of his children one by one. And I think that's what Mr.Ahuja...

SIMON: Well, he's a politician, too, so he know how to do that.

Mr. MAHAJAN: Precisely. So he knows how to, you know, just remember one or two details about each of his kids, hopefully he can remember their names, and to use that to get to a point where the children think they're all equally loved and are fighting for his affection.

SIMON: You - I gather you did a lot of research into urban planning to make Mr. Ahuja's character plausible.

Mr. MAHAJAN: Yeah, I was obsessive. I read, you know, hundreds of transcripts of parliamentary discussions. I read, you know, all sorts of - about construction materials, which was intensely boring and at one point, you know, formed an entire chapter, which I was smart enough to finally remove. And I also went and talked to a few members of parliament in India, which was fascinating because you realized that - you realized what theater(ph) Indian politics, not just urban planning but Indian politics is, that you need an incredibly smart, talented people who are aware that they are caricaturing themselves. And I think that was one of the big revelations for me in doing my research.

SIMON: And how are you living in New York? Mahajan, this is your first novel. Are you able to support yourself as a writer?

Mr. MAHAJAN: I was able to support myself as a writer for a while. And I was writing full time, but I think I'm too young at this point to actually stay - to have to stay at home and just, you know, toil away in silence. I really like being among people, and then after about six months of trying to write full time, and you know, driving myself nuts, I basically decided to take up a full-time job, which has been very productive because one, I work in a field I like very much, which is urban planning, actually, which is an interest I developed while writing the book. And I tend to write in the evenings and on the weekends, which means that I really don't have a social life or friends.

SIMON: Oh. You've started your next novel?

Mr. MAHAJAN: I have, indeed.

SIMON: And without asking too many questions, is it set in India or America?

Mr. MAHAJAN: You know, it's actually set in a sort of weird hybrid of the two places, and this is something that happened to me while writing. I was, you know, it seemed for a while there it would be set in the Delhi that I knew. And it occurred to me that my - very much my own head space at this moment, you know, having grown up in India but having come for college to the U.S. and spent many of my formative years here, that my own head space was very much between the two places. And given the fact that India is really becoming very Western in certain ways - urban India, in any case - it seemed like an interesting experiment to try. So we'll see how far I get with that hybrid and whether anyone wants to read about it. But I'm enjoying it at the moment.

SIMON: Mr. Mahajan, thanks so much.

Mr. MAHAJAN: Thank you. Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: Karan Mahajan, author of the new novel, "Family Planning," speaking with us from New York.

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