Dodging the second draft

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KARAN MAHAJAN’s debut novel, Family Planning, is written in a hurry. While this has the advantage of preserving the undeniably fresh pitch of Mahajan’s voice, that it’s also hurriedly edited doesn’t allow that voice to enunciate very clearly. A particularly frustrating example occurs half-way through the text, after Sangita Ahuja delivers her first child.

Sangita is Rakesh Ahuja’s second wife. His first, Rashmi, died soon after their son Arjun was born. When the book opens, Arjun is 16, the eldest of a pack of 13, Rakesh is Minister for Urban Development, supervising the erection of flyovers across New Delhi; and Sangita is both hideous and perennially pregnant. Frequent flashbacks explain how this came to be; while the plot circles Arjun’s — and his father’s — coming of age.

In one such flashback, after the birth of their first child, Rakesh surprises Sangita with an “elderly lady” who turns out to be Rashmi’s mother, and whom Sangita is now to address as “Mama”, and introduce to her children as Nani. “Rakesh seemed to see the cruelty of this arrangement because that night… he started sharing with her… his feelings for Rashmi”. In the next paragraph, however, “Apparently, [Rakesh] didn’t see the cruelty of talking about Rashmi”. More worrying than this sudden about-turn is that Rashmi’s nameless mother never appears in the story again. It may be that the much put-upon Sangita took a blunt instrument to her, or that she fled the house of her own volition, or, even, that she fell off a flyover. We are not to know.

This is unfortunate because Family Planning has, hidden deep within it, a very funny book. The farce is grotesque and very faintly reminiscent of Tom Sharpe — or even the brilliant joint-family scenes from VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. The characters and their troubled associations — the Super Prime Minister Rupa Bhalla, who’s husband was mowed down by a terrorist in a harvester and who now compels her ministers, Rakesh included, to drink the rose water in which she washes her feet; the mixture of disgust and affection Rakesh harbours for Sangita, whom he keeps pregnant because he cannot have sex with her in any other shape; the chain of bullying and revenge that binds the Ahuja brood in manic solidarity — these are pungent ingredients.

But lazy writing (Aarti “thought and thought and thought”; Rakesh “drove and drove and drove”) and only a firstdraft grip on his characters’ motivations destroys much of the humour. Farce doesn’t need realism like literary fiction — perhaps — does, but even one-dimensional characters require attention to — in the words of one of the greatest one-dimensional characters of all time, Jeeves — the psychology of the individual. In this book, this attention acquires the form of interspersed exposition, which would have served more use as background notes, and should certainly have been lined with blue pencil. As it stands, the novel is only an indication of what, given the author’s undeniable flair, may have been.