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New Delhi Dad Has Big Family, Bigger Problems

Karan Mahajan was born in Stamford, Conn., and grew up in New Delhi.
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Karan Mahajan was born in Stamford, Conn., and grew up in New Delhi.

Most of us can't bear to think of our parents having sex. Yet our very existence is proof that they do, or at least once did.

Karan Mahajan's entertaining first novel, Family Planning, takes this conundrum as its starting point. Sixteen-year-old Arjun Ahuja, the oldest of 13 children, walks in on his parents while they're doing it on the nursery floor. Nothing about "Papa bubbling uncertainly beyond [Mama's] huge stomach" seems appealing. "Was this sex," Arjun wonders, "or — swimming?"

Confronting his father at the bus stop in their Delhi neighborhood the next morning, Arjun wants to know why his folks keep having babies (read the ). Mr. Ahuja pretends that he believes it's his duty to help keep India's Hindu population up. He doesn't know how to tell his son the truth — that he wedded Mrs. Ahuja to spite his decorous, marriage-arranging parents, that he's only attracted to her when she's pregnant, and that she is his second wife, the first being Arjun's biological mother, who was killed in a car accident in America.

Mahajan, 24, reveals in his end notes that Family Planning "began with a question: What in the world would prompt a middle-class couple in contemporary, urban India to have a large family?" If the answer appears particular to this one family, the specificity of the Ahujas and their predicaments is intentional, a step away from what Mahajan sees as the trend in fiction from Indian authors writing in English. "I wanted my novel to generate all its heat internally through the frustrations of its characters and not with the aid of serious riots or political strikes or gangsters or fallouts of globalization," he explains.

The fall of Mr. Ahuja, the minister of urban development, may be a little small-time, but as his schemes and lies collapse, his trajectory mirrors that of the highway overpasses that he's pushed into construction throughout Delhi. Once favored, their purpose is increasingly unclear, their future in jeopardy. Arjun, meanwhile, expresses his contempt in that time-honored teenage tradition: by starting a (terrible) band.

The level of concision, insight and humor on display in Family Planning is rare from any writer, but particularly one so young. While the plot twists occasionally feel strained and the end comes a bit abruptly, in Mahajan's hands there is none of the bloating, trailing off, or elliptical indulgence that often characterizes first novels.

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