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Family Planning

by Karan Mahajan

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Family Planning

© Harper Perennial

Harper Perennial, 2008

It has been estimated that India reached 1/6 of the world's population in June of 2008 when it exceeded 1.1 billion people -- and this with a history of family planning since at least the early '70s. While traveling in New Delhi in January 1971, I remember seeing ads and billboards in Hindi and English urging families to use condoms and limit the number of children. As Malthus said, population increases geometrically even when the usual number of children per family is limited.

As this comic tour de force says, "A family of thirteen in modern-day India was a disaster, a game of marbles that had lost its marbles ... a pack of wolves with no Mowgli to raise, a team of jihadis so bored they'd declared holy war on one another." The family that Mahajan so succinctly chronicles is a disaster before it even becomes a family.
Rakesh Ahuja is a government minister in New Delhi, an engineer who has proposed and built flyovers to alleviate the stymied traffic in the city. "They filed into an endless queue of cars, rolled the windows down, joined the slow pilgrimage to lung cancer." Ironically, his first wife was killed by a vehicle in America; his second wife (Sangita) is not the woman he thought he was marrying, but she has borne him 13 children. He is aroused by his wife's pregnancy and they make love in the nursery surrounded by crying babies which drown out the sounds of "that strange, noisy lovemaking camouflaged by the wails of babies..." The oldest and most beloved child is Arjun who is just 16. He does not know that his mother was his father's first wife, but he does have definite opinions about family planning, especially after seeing his father and Sangita one evening in the nursery.
There are other complications. Rakesh frequently resigns (67 times) from his ministerial post. Sangita's favorite soap opera star has "died" in a bathtub when he dropped his "cell-o-phone" into the water. She and the women of India are in mourning and a nation-wide strike is threatened. Arjun is in love/lust with a girl on his school bus and very confused about what to do. Seeing his parents had "completely shattered the part of him that had been taught - mainly by America - that sex was the spontaneous transfer of fluid between very attractive, naked, blond people. Clearly, Mama and Papa were (still!) horny for each other." With three friends he forms a band in an effort to catch Aarti's eye. Unfortunately, he is possessed of a voice that had the "quality of the first leak in a massive dam, terrifying because it promised much worse."
This is no American sitcom set in India. Family Planning sounds right. One can "hear" the characters speak with an appropriate accent and rhythm. The descriptions of marriage mores and family life ring with authenticity as we learn about the Ahuja family. Mahajan has a keen sense of how to put us into a realistic milieu. He pokes fun while maintaining the integrity of his characters. His send-up of Indian politics is spot-on. The finished but unused flyovers - except by Arjun's awful band - turn up at crucial points, representing both the promise and the futility of dealing with overwhelming population and stifling bureaucratic issues. They remind us that all politics is local, that even national policies succeed or fail in the community. There really are flyovers in New Delhi but the traffic is just too heavy. As recently as October 2008, four persons were killed when one collapsed.

Karan Mahajan is 24 years old. Born in New Delhi, he is a recent graduate of Stanford University where he began writing this Family Planning. Now living in a Brooklyn "neighborhood where everyone is a writer, a baby, or both," he is working on his second book. One expects that it will be as well-written and entertaining as immensely entertaining debut novel.
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