~Introducing the Ahujas~
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 16-year old with a crush on a girl on the school bus, must be in want of a less embarrassing family.
In the case of Arjun, his family is so embarrassing to him that not even his best friends know that in addition to the 6 siblings he admits to (the ones he can't deny since they go to his school) there are another 6 little ones at home. As if that wasn't embarrassing enough, his mother's about to add another to the collection. Arjun's father, Rakesh Ahuja, is the Minister for Urban Development and he has two great passions; his lust for pregnant women which leads him to keep his wife almost permanently in a state of pregnancy or lactation and his determination to improve the city infrastructure for which he is responsible by building lots of flyovers.
At 16 years of age, nobody wants to be confronted with evidence of parental sexual activity, so when Arjun walks in on his parents 'at it' on the floor of the nursery surrounded by howling little ones, he's forced to readdress his teen perceptions about his folk. Like most young people (though perhaps at a rather later age) he's comfortable that the parental sexual equation should run something like: number of children = number of sexual encounters. Or in this case = number of sexual encounters minus one since two of the children are twins. The discovery of just how wrong he is, comes at a time when the he is feeling the teen stirrings of lust for the girl on the school bus and it's all rather unbalancing for both father and son. Arjun's enjoyment of American media has led him to believe that sex is "the spontaneous transfer of fluid between very attractive, naked, blond people" and finding two old and unattractive brown people on the floor of the nursery has shattered his illusions. In case you are thinking 'Sixteen? That's a bit old to be discovering such things' I should mention that the book is set in India's capital city, Delhi where such things are a little less in your face and 'nice' young people are less sexually 'aware' than their European peers.
Arjun's father Rakesh is torn between sorting out his problems at home and polishing his 63rd resignation email which he assumes will not be accepted by his egotistical and power-crazed lady boss. Arjun is Rakesh's son by his first wife, a beautiful intelligent woman who was the great love of his life but was tragically killed when Arjun was a toddler. However, none of the children know about this and Rakesh realises it's time to come clean but he's not sure quite how to burst his son's bubble. When Rakesh married his second wife, her mother swapped her (the plain, chubby, less educated one) for the gorgeous, curvy beauty he had agreed to marry and only his own silly pride prevented him from saying anything at the wedding. Tragically he doesn't really love or respect the woman he married but he's in much too deep to do anything about it. He may tell people that's he's on a one man mission to repopulate India, but in truth he only fancies his wife when she's pregnant.
Twelve children later and pregnant with Rakesh's 14th child, the wife Sangita is hormonal and hysterical over the death of her favourite soap star (only on the soap, you understand, not in real life) after he dropped his 'cell-o-phone' in the bath. Young Arjun is trying to form a band called 'Flyovers Yaar' with a view to serenading his lady love with some of Brian Adams' finest compositions. The band is big on enthusiasm and exceptionally limited on talent.
Can Rakesh find a nice way to tell his children about his hidden past? Can a national strike by the fans of the dead soap star be averted? Will Arjun's band ever get to perform and help him to win the hand of the fair lady? And what would happen if THIS time the boss accepts Rakesh's resignation? You can be pretty sure on all points that whatever does happen will be funny.
~Does it Work?~
I have struggled with contemporary Indian humourous fiction. I'm not 100% sure how to classify this but it's not 'literary' fiction (which I adore - the Indian writers excel at serious writing) and not an all out belly-busting laugh a minute comedy. It's more a wry observational style of human-centred writing than any kind of knock-about. A lot of easy-going humour-led contemporary writing from India is absolute tripe (yes, I'm thinking of the execrable 'One Night at the Call Centre' by Chetan Baghat which should have been burned at source) but this is in a different league.
A lot of modern Indian novels only work if you know the setting. Since Delhi is a city I know pretty well, I generally have strong mental images when reading any book set there and I suspect I get more out of those books than people who don't know the location. During the same week that I read Family Planning, I devoured Khushwant Singh's classic 'Delhi: A Novel' and I know that if I hadn't been familiar with the city it just wouldn't have meant much to me. However, in the case of Family Planning, I don't think you need to know the city or the ways of life to get a good giggle out of the family traumas of the Ahujas. The city may play a large part in the events, but in reality, they could be almost anywhere and still the book would be just as funny and moving. However if you do know a little bit about Indian lifestyles and behaviour, you will get a bit more out of the book if only for being able to recognize the uncomfortable truths hidden in some of the passages.
The author is a good looking and ridiculously young guy who was born in the USA but brought up in Delhi and then headed back to the USA to graduate from Stanford University. I'm jealous! He wasn't even born until 1984 and already he's got a cracking good first novel on the market and his book is carrying cover endorsements by the likes of the great and ever-trendy Jay McInerney and fantastic Indian writer Manil Suri (author of 'The Death of Vishnu' and the even better 'Age of Shiva'). I couldn't help but wonder how many brothers and sisters Mahajan has in real life and whether his life-history was closely aligned with that of his young hero but in reality, it doesn't matter if this is fact or fiction, autobiography or sheer fantasy because the Ahuja family become wonderfully real on the pages of this book. Despite the absurdity of the characters and their extreme ways, I found that I cared about almost every one of them.
I wanted to hate Mahajan for his early success and to find lots of the normal idiocies that fill such first novels but I couldn't help myself, I loved it. Almost every page gave me passages that made me laugh out loud and tempted me to bore my husband silly by reading bits out to him.