Unlike my previous rant about book covers, I wasn’t really attracted to the cover for this book. What caught my attention, was the fact that the author of Family Planning, Karan Mahajan, was apparently only 24 when he wrote the book and the reviews on the back of the book claimed that it was amazing that the author managed to write such a well-written and humorous book, considering his age. As a 20-something who is still wondering where her life is going, the fact that a 24 year old had his life so put together and had managed to write a best-selling book, was simultaneously awe-inspiring and bitter. Feeling a bit down and depressed, I attempted to walk past the book and shrug off the feelings it inspired, but I couldn’t and succumbed to the temptation to read. And as always, here’s the spoilery review.
The book is about the Ahuja family, situated in New Delhi, India. It runs through the life of three main characters and features only their POV’s. The father, Rakesh Ahuja, is the Minister of Urban Development and has over 13 kids with his wife. The mother, Sangita Ahuja is the perpetually pregnant, tv-obssessed, placid wife. And the oldest son, Arjun Ahuja is a 16 year old with a lot of feelings. Simply put, the book captures a slice of their normal life, between some monumental moments.
While the book goes through each POV in an alternating manner, for the purposes of this review, I’ve decided to separate the alternating POV and instead focus upon the individual stories of the characters. Hence, the book begins with Arjun walking-in on his parents having sex and begins fantasizing about having sex with his crush, a girl who rides the same bus as him, Aarti. In order to impress Aarti, he lies and says he has a band. He then quickly forms a band with his friends. After a particularly uninspiring band practise, his friends decide to find a new place to practise and accidentally hit a girl with their car. The boys are scared but Arjun’s father comes to the rescue and uses his clout as Minister to make sure that no charges are laid and that the girl is taken care of. Arjun tries to act out in attempts that his parents will notice him, but things don’t go exactly as he hoped. He finds out about his parent’s past and begins training under his father, presumably to enter politics (despite his young age). In other words, the typical sort of boyhood story mixed in with some different elements.
Rakesh’s story is a bit different. In addition to worrying about Arjun, Rakesh has to contend with idiotic Indian politics. It turns out that despite his civil engineering degree, his idea of constructing flyovers to deal with Delhi’s traffic backfired and the city’s traffic is worser than before. Within his political party itself, he has to deal with increasing isolation from of his party members along with an enmity with a fellow Minister, Yogiraj. Rakesh attempts to double-cross his party members and party leader (the two are at logger heads) and ends up resigning and ending his political career. Along the way, we’re also introduced to his past. Turns out, Arjun was bourn from his first wife, Rashmi, who died while the small family was living in America. Unable to handle her death alone, he moved back to India with his son and began his descent into the world of Indian politics. Feeling he needed a wife for his political career and wanting to exasperate his parents, he meets a beautiful, busty woman and decides to marry her. On the marriage day however, he ends up marrying a more plainer bride and decides to stay with her, in an attempt to spite his parents and rebel against their expectations. The catch is, he is only attracted to his wife when she’s pregnant, hence the 13 kids.
Coming to the wife Sangita. Unlike what Rakesh believed, Sangita herself was seeming ‘tricked’ into the marriage. Growing up with a mother who abhorred her skin colour/ looks, Sangita always wanted to impress her/ gain unconditional love from someone. Rakesh was always wrapped up in the memories of his previous wife and so in her sort of ‘revenge-ish/ placid’ manner, Sangita decides to become an impassive statue. She remains calm to all of Rakesh’s outbursts and refuses to react (aside from when giving birth). She adores Arjun but fears that he’ll separate from her once he learns that he isn’t her biological son. In addition to that, she also spends large amounts of time watching television and having her kids help her with the younger kids. The book ends with her giving birth.
From the summaries, it’s pretty evidential that there isn’t anything sort of ground-breaking in the story. I mean, you could totally imagine some boy lying to impress a girl. A father trying to keep it together/ failing and saying the wrong words instead. Or even a tv-obsessed mother who bottles things up and never mentions how she feels. The three are stories that are easily imaginable and seem quite typical. But I think that’s actually where the ingenuity of the book lies. Despite its seemingly simplistic content, it actually provides a really interesting look into the psyche of India and it’s citizens and highlights the contradictions that make it up.
For example, for a country where talking about sex and being a sexual being are abhorred, the characters spend a lot of time talking and thinking about it. In fact, the whole Mr. Ahuja having 13 kids also seeming calls attention to the insane population boom India is going through. Of course that issue also has to do with lack of available birth control, but sexual desire is still a huge factor. Similarly, politics is also made into a joke through the mixing of money and entertainment. In the book, one famous tv character dies and people begin rioting in the streets. In fact, the reason Mr. Ahuja’s party (at least one reason why) is feuding with their party leader is due to the tv character’s death. The MP’s, people elected into government in hopes that they would improve the lives of ordinary Indians, focus their time and efforts into reviving a stupid soap opera character. This apparent mixing of entertainment and politics also signals to how many Indian bollywood actors use the entertainment industry as a stepping stone for politics. In an ironic twist, the killed tv character (in the book) actor actually ends up becoming the a new Minister in the government. And going back to politics, it also signals to what a joke politics can be in general. Of course, a lot of this is hyperbole and satire, but it still works very well. And finally, I thought the bit about the traffic problems was pretty spot on too. Despite the city being plagued with traffic problems, the people remain content because they believe their suffering will end with traffic efficiency, despite evidence proclaiming the opposite. Again, the story is actually quite riveting for what it reveals about its motherland than its characters.
Diverging from the deeper analysis, technically speaking, the book is also written in an alright manner. The writing is simple and easy enough to read. That said, I actually didn’t find the book to be as comical as other writers did. I read a few reviews online and a lot of people stated that they found specific lines in the book funny. Unfortunately, I don’t feel the same. I think the book is funny in its satire and ironical content, but I didn’t find specific words or phrases funny. I don’t know, maybe I have a different sense of humour but I found a few of the jokes to be more gross than funny. However, I think its still important to point out, that this doesn’t mean that the book was bad. As far as things go, the book was decent. Not laugh-out-funny, but still light-hearted and enjoyable.
My rating: Read it if you’d like to learn a little bit about India and its people in a more simplistic, light-hearted manner and/or if would you’d like to take a break from reading heavy (literally and metaphorically) material.