The Rumpus Interview With Karan Mahajan


[This interview was first published January 2, 2009, while The Rumpus was in its beta period. –Ed.]

Karan Mahajan’s new novel, Family Planning, has been described by The Rumpus’s own Stephen Elliott as as “the full band announcement of a major talent.” It tells the story of Rakesh Ahuja, a government minister in New Delhi who is only attracted to his wife when she’s pregnant, and of his family.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Mahajan and I have been mortal enemies since we took a writing class together six years ago.


The Rumpus: The last few weeks must have been pretty crazy for you. How has the book tour compared to your expectations?

Karan Mahajan: I was flabbergasted, to be honest, by the idea of reading from pages I wrote almost three years ago—and worse, of being encouraged by friends who had believed in those pages three years ago, but might have outgrown them as well.

But reading itself, the experience of it, of being forced to enunciate all your intentions and not have them mumbled forth from your head onto the page, actually renewed my faith in what I had written. After the first two readings, when I was jittery and embarrassed by a few of my sentences, I think I was able to successfully back myself into the mindset that I’d been in when I wrote the book, and meeting an old version of myself was pleasing, because for the first time it wasn’t a version that was defunct and only worthy of self-hate.

Rumpus: You seem to explicitly position yourself as an Indian writer, albeit one who’s rebelling against certain elements of that tradition. Was that something you planned? I’m very conscious about not wanting to be seen as an Asian writer per se.

Mahajan: There’s this great fashion among writers, especially those who follow the transnational conservatives like V.S. Naipaul, to disavow one’s place in the world as a sort of box that has sprung you but is only worthy of your scorn, because it once contained you. And I’ve been tempted to say foolish things, like “I am an American writer” or “I belong nowhere,” but the truth is I’m perfectly proud of identifying as an Indian writer, even if that might hurt my bottom line.

We’re at an interesting phase of Asian and Asian-American writing, where we might succeed in having readers look at us as creative individuals who write with fury and fire about the world, and in new ways, without having them say things like “I read a really good Indian book,” or “That Malaysian fellow writes very well.” So I hope by identifying as Indian I can get people who don’t usually read “ethnic” or “Indian” literature to read that literature and enjoy it.

Rumpus: When you were at Stanford, you taught a student course on Indian literature, right?

Mahajan: Yes.

Rumpus: Did that influence the book?

Mahajan: I think it did. It’s rare that you get to read, let alone teach, an arbitrary canon of your choosing in a tight time setting, and I tore through a fairly wide range of Indian writers, some contemporary—like [Arundhati] Roy and [Salman] Rushdie—and others older, like [R.K.] Narayan. And I think what happened at that stage was that I was forced to take a position in my own writing style that was more fixed, as opposed to reading a book at a time and defining myself in opposition to or in awe of it. And reading Narayan, Rushdie, and Naipaul together, with their conflicted politics and similar compulsive humor, was a treat.

Rumpus: Do you remember what the reading list was? If you were teaching it now, would it be different?

Mahajan: The writers we read were Rushdie, Roy, [Jhumpa] Lahiri, [Bharati] Mukherjee, [Anjana] Appachana, Narayan, Naipaul, Anita Desai, Vikram Chandra, and others in small doses. It’d be different—I’d include Kiran Nagarkar, Upamanyu Chatterjee, and Mulk Raj Anand—but I was also constrained by length of text and by the guest speakers who’d attend, and so maybe the class wouldn’t be so different after all.

There hasn’t been a great literary work about contemporary India in the last decade, save for Suketu Mehta’s [Maximum City], which is nonfiction.

Rumpus: Seriously?

Mahajan: Quite serious. I thought highly of Altaf Tyrewala’s No God in Sight, and Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, but everything else has been a mediocre reenactment of either Rushdie or Roy, or just mediocre. Roy’s novel [The God of Small Things] in 1997 was a true original, I think.

I say all this with a tiny bit of authority because when I worked as an editor, I read new novels being published in India every few days. They excited me tremendously for the first fifty pages or so, and boasted some true linguistic genius at times, but none of those writers could occupy more than one mind at once.

Rumpus: Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

Mahajan: It’s economic, as most things are. People are rushed and inspired by the success of Indian writers, and are falling over themselves to write novels. Every Indian is writing a novel right now. No one wants to revise.

Rumpus: So if you think Family Planning is a good book, does that mean you’ve written the best Indian novel of the last decade?

Mahajan: No.

Rumpus: I want to hear more about how you found the book’s structure. A lot of reviewers have described it as pretty zany, yet in the P.S. section, you say you didn’t want this to be a sprawling novel.

Mahajan: What’s funny is that I see it as very disciplined and structured in my mind. Almost too structured, if someone had asked me what my major complaint was against the book. So yes, it’s been surprising to see the book described as overflowing or antic or madcap. But I like those words, I take them as compliments, and it makes me glad to be writing.

Rumpus: It must have been challenging to find the right ending.

Mahajan: I did it a day or two before the final draft was due. And yes, the last chapter was the hardest one to write, because I had about twenty-six unresolved threads, and no possibility of being rescued by sprawl over time. I had to end it near the present. And I still worry about that last note, but I know I ended on the right character.

I have to admit that I was terrified of ending the book, precisely because I go around saying about pretty much every book I read, “It fell apart at the end.” I have friends who are waiting to ridicule me forever.

Rumpus: You’ve said in interviews that Jewish-American writers like Philip Roth were an inspiration, and I can’t help thinking about Portnoy’s Complaint as a point of comparison.

Mahajan: That’s a much harsher, braver book.

Rumpus: True.

Mahajan: I could never write that, because I’m not gutsy enough. That said, I think maybe both books had similar engines. I’m more interested than Roth in understanding women, even if I do it imperfectly. But that book is literary punk in this way that is rare.

As for the Jewish-American question, what’s funny is that I grew up in India, and the Jewish-American comparison is better for second-generation Asians, like you. I’m sure there’s something about globalization that has globalized our neuroses, so that I, growing up in India, somehow turned out very similar to you. It’s a weird thing, when you think about it, but everyone now is exposed to a mainstream white American world, wherever you are. And so there’s this need to belong or measure yourself up to that white world, which leads to all sorts of straining.

Rumpus: Did you write Family Planning for white America, or for Indians?

Mahajan: I’d say both. I thought about both, constantly—and not white Americans, just Americans! I think Indians will pick up on a lot of the direct commentary on Delhi, which Americans will obviously miss, while Americans might get more out of watching pop-culture play out in unusual ways in a foreign country. Who knows?

Rumpus: Are you worried that people will read the book as explicitly autobiographical? That people will think your dad is really into pregnant ladies? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Mahajan: I’m very worried, but in a sort of helpless, comedic way. I’m pretty private as a person—people generally think they know more about me than they do, because I gregariously advertise what I want known. So it pains me to think people might feel they have an insight into my personal matters, which they most certainly do not.

Rumpus: Changing the subject a bit, I know that you had a strong reaction to the attacks in Mumbai (which is, I realize, an incredibly facile way of putting it). Not just to the attacks, but to how they seem to be understood in America.

Mahajan: The problem of empathy is pretty universal, and pretty much breaks down across country. People can’t feel beyond their drawn borders. And skin color and culture have a lot to do with that.

Post-9/11, and with the turn towards India in foreign policy, it made sense that the attacks were covered so well. And I have to say, some people surprised me with their prompt empathy—they’d certainly been watching and watching on TV. But there was an equally large number of people who didn’t think to bring it up. Is that worth taking offense to? Should they see me as a representative of India to whom they offer condolences? It’s a little ridiculous, I admit, but that’s how I felt.

Rumpus: I don’t know how I would have reacted if you hadn’t brought the attacks up on your own. There is that whole issue of not wanting to treat you like “Mr. India.”

Mahajan: Exactly—and I wouldn’t have held it against you. But I think I know a lot of fake two-faced Ivy League liberals, and I am constantly testing them to see if their liberalism is a conversational liberalism, one that depends solely on what will fly at a party. And I can tell when stuff like this happens, I swear to God, they are tomorrow’s conservatives.

Rumpus: Well, I think that has less to do with politics, and more with basic empathy.

Mahajan: Probably true. I guess my point in general is that you can tell, if you look closely, who is in politics to self-identify (these are the people who flip easily, from right to left, pro-Muslim to anti-Muslim, etc.) versus who, whether on the right or left, is moved by genuine interest and empathy.

Rumpus: People have probably noticed that you’re pretty young [twenty-four] to be publishing a novel. How the hell did this happen?

Mahajan: You know I’m a fake. I was writing as stupidly and sentimentally, without a sense of language or structure, when we took that first class, as anyone else. And I was only marginally better when I started the novel. So I’d say I was probably just the most hubristic, and then of course I had a piece of luck I couldn’t have imagine for myself in a million years: I got an agent. That sped up the process. I’d say it’s a good idea, getting an agent.

Anthony Ha lives in San Francisco. He covers technology and business for the news site VentureBeat. More from this author →