6 September 2009
Book Review: Karan Mahajan's Family Planning
Karan Mahajan's debut novel Family Planning is an ambitious tragicomic amalgam of themes that might conceivably be listed under the umbrella moniker of Contemporary Urban India: our manic cities, with their ballooning populations and even more swiftly escalating traffic; our obsession with high-pitched television soap operas; our political leaders, whose real-life performances are more dramatic than those on our soaps; our love-hate relationship with America. But at the core of it all lies that staple of Indian life – and consequently, Indian novels: a family.
And it is no ordinary family. A brood of thirteen children sired by Rakesh, the still black-haired but already pot-bellied Minister of Urban Development, aided by the labour (yes, both kinds) of his placid, mattress-like wife Sangita, the Ahujas are a kind of crazed contemporary take on the great Indian parivaar: nuclear in name but not in numbers, modern in form but not in content. There are no grandparents in the book, for example – but the idea of the joint family haunts the characters. Rakesh Ahuja, IIT-trained and America-returned politician, gives the redoubtable Mrs. Rupa Bhalla, doyenne of the KJSZP(H202) party and Super Prime Minister (SPM) of the country, the status of grandmother to his children. "Look, my children don’t have anyone except their parents. My whole family is gone. I was an only child. My father was an only child. No grandparents on either side. They love you. They want you to be their Dadi. Over time, the children had become a cult; Rakesh’s party had become a family. Governors and chief ministers and party secretaries and freedom fighters and judges were known not by name but by their prefixes: Mama, Mami, Dada, Dada, Chacha, Chachi, Taiji."
Meanwhile Rakesh’s eldest son, Arjun Ahuja, St. Columba’s School student, ministerial scion and aspiring rockstar, has so long led a secret life as nursemaid to his parents’ ever-increasing battalion of babies that he is never comfortable “until he had at least three younger siblings to order around and collectively corner the waiters who never otherwise served snacks or drinks to children”. Mahajan captures with a ferocious truthfulness what belonging to a large family can feel like: that sense of one’s fate being irrevocably bound up with the fates of others, while simultaneously being the lone actor perpetually performing on an imagined domestic stage. But while Ahuja senior has spent a lifetime wreaking revenge on his parents without quite understanding why, Ahuja junior recognizes early on that the family may be a mirror in which one sees oneself reflected, but the distance is crucial. "He had had a vision [of] Mr. Ahuja driving up on the opposite slope of the flyover, …the lights of the vehicle floodlighting the band as the eight children huddled inside screamed with delight – those children that were his audience, his fans, his dire siblings. The family at its most pleasant: watching from a distance while you sank into yourself, you imploded, you were finally alive."
Karan Mahajan’s surefooted prose leads us carefully through a madcap maze of a plot, cajoling us into a suspension of disbelief with an exaggeratedness carefully calibrated to teeter on the brink of our reality without quite tipping over the edge. The reason for the continuous production of little Ahujas is that Mr. Ahuja is only attracted to Mrs. Ahuja when she’s pregnant; a whole cabinet of Central Government ministers resigns because a character in the television series The Vengeful Daughter-in-Law has been killed off by the producers; in an act of sweet revenge, Mrs. Rupa Bhalla installs the actor who used to play that character as Prime Minister of the country… Mahajan taps brilliantly into the stream of insanity that runs through Indian lives, both domestic and public; just turning the tap on full, so that his characters remain real and vulnerable even as they bob up and down on a crazed tide of events. The comic image of Rakesh Ahuja, hurtling towards his wife in helpless lust as he blitzkriegs through a nursery full of babies, becomes suddenly poignant as he faces the realization that he knows practically nothing about this woman, his wife of fifteen-odd years. “Vague details, yes – the tough jackfruits of her elbows, the sullen hump of her jaw, the bulbous nose she had proudly passed on to each child except for Arjun, TV, clean clothes, T-series cassettes, a fierce protection of her Right to Eat at the table – but nothing more.”
But Mahajan’s real success lies in his brutally honest (but never unsympathetic) unpacking of Delhi, that city so reviled by those who live there – and even more by those who do not. The unquestioning acceptance of hierarchy that characterizes social life in Delhi is sharply pointed out in every context that the book touches upon. For instance, Mahajan’s description of a road accident involving underage driving and the consequent episode in hospital, where the lines between victim and perpetrator, guilty and innocent, right and wrong, are subjugated to the unfailingly superior criteria of power, connections and “smartness”, is painfully accurate – but also achingly funny. “A smart father would have avoided the inevitable chitchat with the policeman who would register the accident. Failing this, a smart father would take the policeman aside and thrust a folded one-thousand-rupee note into his grubby hand. A smart father would not argue with authority. Arjun knew because he had a smart father. Genetic impulses propelled him to intervene.” Another arena of entrenched, almost ceremonial hierarchy is the political-bureaucratic world of the government office: the touching of feet, the requisite flattery, the pressing of the buzzer – Mr. Ahuja’s “preferred weapon of choice for reprimanding and demanding” (One thinks here of another tragicomic Delhi fiction, Uday Prakash’s Dattatreya ke Dukh, which dwells on the buzzer rather more seriously as a dehumanizing form of technology.) The world of the Lutyens’ bungalow is also deftly evoked: “its awnings and verandahs making it a haven for loiterers, right-hand men, chamchas, servants, maids, shawl-sellers, bored bodyguards...” Domestic conversations between the minister and his wife are most naturally peppered with references to the misdemeanours of maids and drivers. (One must note here that, as always, the wife emerges as petty and miserly while the husband, who never has to deal with the grubby everyday business of running the household, can be both politically correct and benevolently patriarchal towards domestic help). Mahajan is clearly insider enough in an upper middle class world built upon the services of servants to be able to draw an intimate, dark and funny portrait of it – though he strives to be outsider enough to be able to make us register its strange, invisibilising violence.
Astutely having made his protagonist the Minister for Urban Development, Mahajan is able to explore the city as a series of images that are also an extension, an echo of the ministerial state of mind. In one particularly unforgettable image, Rakesh Ahuja looks at his reflection in the tinted glass of his ministerial window and observes that “if you brought your face closer and closer to a glass, you would stop seeing your own reflection; eventually you’d be so close to your own ghost in the polished surface that you could… only see the city spread out ahead of you, a palimpsest for the cities to come, a teeming, fertile ground where you could sow concrete and watch it sprout into strange, often hideous shapes.” Elsewhere, sixteen-year-olds play desultory video games in GK parlours, a man “loads five children mass-suicidally onto the back of his scooter”, a pretty convent schoolgirl walks around Nizamuddin and declares she’d like to be Muslim, a government peon lures wasps onto the illuminated surface of a photocopier in order to hammer them to death. Out of this mass of almost-but-not-quite realistic details emerges a knowing, deeply felt portrait of a Third World city at the beginning of the twenty-first century, careening crazily as it is catapulted simultaneously towards several conflicting visions of the future.
The most concrete – and the most deeply symbolic – of these futuristic images is the flyover. It is the sublime and ridiculous acme of our – and Rakesh Ahuja’s – ambitions for the city: a distraction so stolid, so undeniably real, that we are unable (or unwilling?) to see the escapist fantasy on which it is founded. Ahuja (and is it entirely a coincidence, this naming of the flyover-building technocrat Minister by the same name as the also flyover-building, corrupt businessman in the 1983 cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron?) remains somehow wide-eyed about flyovers while recognizing that they are not the panacea he is presenting them as. At one point, he ascends the Jangpura flyover, built in 1982 before the Asian Games, “a wide concrete lung that gently breathed the car up eye level with treetops and flocks of pigeons” to realize that he is crawling. “This was to be the simultaneous beauty and tragedy of the flyovers: you’d escape the red lights, but the traffic was growing so fast that you’d still be jammed, your only consolation a view of Delhi from a height.” But he still experiences a pride in having created a whole new monumental network of columns and arches which beggars and runaway children could shelter under, a sense “of having recolonised the city”, of having built a set of future ruins that would tower over the rest.
There are some glitches unforgivable in a book that gets so much right – Lodi Estate Road on p.1 becomes Modi Estate Road by p.209 (not to mention that there are at least three Lodi Estate Roads, Nos. 1, 2 and 3), Paranthewali Gali is referred to as Paranthe Wale Kee Gulley, why on earth is Mrs. Ahuja described as wearing as a grey sari and having her head covered with a dupatta, and what is Arjun doing with a butter knife when he’s eating dal and alu-gobhi? But these are minor quibbles. Mahajan’s debut novel is both assured and refreshingly irreverent, and he succeeds in creating a blend of the farcical and the thought provoking that would count as ambitious for writers far more experienced.
First published in Biblio VOL. XIV, NOS. 7 & 8, JULY - AUGUST 2009