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An Interview with Karan Bajaj

26 May
Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist in India. The Yoga of Max's Discontent is his most recent book.

Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist in India. The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is his most recent book.

Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist and striving yogi. Born and raised in India, he has trained as a Hatha Yoga teacher in the Sivananda ashram in South India and learned meditation in the Himalayas. He is the author of the novels Johnny Gone Down and Keep off the Grass, both of which were No. 1 bestsellers in India. His most recent book is The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. He’s been named one of India Today’s Top 35 Under 35. He lives in New York City.

To read an exercise on hooking the reader based on The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, click here.

In this interview, Bajaj discusses why he chose a white American character for a novel based on his own experience, the necessity of an author’s “message” staying out of a story, and the importance of taking a sabbatical.

Michael Noll

You’ve written that parts of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent are based on your own experience studying yoga and Buddhism and hiking in the Himalayas, and so I’m interested in your choice to tell this story from the point of view of a white American. On one hand, I can imagine some publishers preferring a white main character because it fits their idea of what sells. On the other hand, I’ve also had the experience in my own work of not being able to write about something until I distanced myself from it somehow. What went into the creation of Max?

Karan Bajaj

Thanks Michael. I made the choice of an American main character, less due to publishing practicalities, more to approach Max’s experiences in India from the perspective of an outsider. His “otherness”, be it an American in India or a white guy in the Bronx housing projects, is crucial to the core idea in the book of a man stripping off layers of external identity, first, physical, then, spiritual, to come closer to a more permanent reality. If I had an Indian protagonist, he’d have too many pre-conceived notions about concepts like karma, re-birth, yogic powers etc. that he uncovers in his journey.

In terms of creating Max, here’s a small anecdote: I read more than one hundred books and as many articles and papers to research the 1st 30 pages of the book that are set in the Bronx housing projects. Almost none of my research appears in the book but I had to truly understand each day in Max’s childhood to understand why someone would make the extreme decision to quit his job in Wall Street to become a yogi in the Himalayas. The next 270 pages set in India required almost no research at all. I’ve lived Max’s life myself and spent a lot of time in hidden Indian ashrams and remote Himalayan villages.

Michael Noll

Part of Max’s attraction to yoga and meditation is the possibility, learned from a street food vendor, that some yogis can sit in mountain caves in the winter in nothing but loin cloths and walk barefoot in deep snow. As a fictive device, this works well, creating intrigue and suspense in both the main character and the reader. But I also found myself wondering how it connects with the physical and spiritual practices that you’ve studied and that are important to you. Did you feel any conflict between the need to tell a good story and the desire to introduce readers to the very real practice of yoga? (Of course, perhaps some yogis really can walk barefoot in snow and across water!)

Karan Bajaj

The Yoga of Max's Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

Excellent question, Michael. My idea for this novel was to break the paradigm of spiritual/personal transformation novels as fables thick and heavy with messages. I wanted to write a page-turning adventure through contemporary India in which the reader melts into the story and doesn’t feel the presence of an author communicating any message. However, I didn’t exaggerate or falsely exoticize India for the sake of a good story. Yogis and their physical prowess are well researched and in the novel, I’ve treated it as a spontaneous by-product of a yogis’ journey from the finite to infinite rather than the goal of the practice. Yoga, as I’ve presented in the book, is chitta vritti nirodah, the complete cessation of the thought waves of the mind so that the individual dissolves as it were. Every practice referenced in the book is in service of that idea.

Michael Noll

One of the sources of Max’s discontent is his attachment to material things, and one of the realizations he has during his quest is that he actually requires very little in order to survive and be at peace. I think it’s natural for readers to wonder how the book connects with your own life. You’ve studied yoga, gone on a sabbatical, and meditated in silence for a year, but you also work with large corporations in New York and your personal website is no slouch as a marketing device. Do these roles ever feel like competing forces?

Karan Bajaj

As you get deeper into the book, I think the concept that emerges is one of dharma. The tree grows and bears fruit, the water quenches thirst, in the same way every living being has a dharma, a certain innate tendency. Purifying your actions in accordance with your dharma rather than taking someone else’s dharma serves you best. Max’s dharma was to live in the mountains and serve. My own dharma, I think, is to be in business since I feel a very natural inclination for it. So what I’m trying to do is to purify my life in that context by working without attachment to the results of the work. I slip and fall often but that’s the general idea I try to live by. Right now, for example, I’m focused on marketing the book and getting hundreds of people to read a story I think is pure and transforming, but if that doesn’t happen, I know a large part of me will remain untouched.

That’s why perhaps my 4,1,4 model of working for four years, then taking a year-long sabbatical, then working again for four years works for me. Being in the world starts to take its toll so stepping out of it regularly and doing deep meditation helps me return a little more grounded to it. Yet I do always return because I think my dharma is to be in the world of commerce rather than in teaching yoga and meditation in the Himalayas.

Michael Noll

I know that the idea of sabbatical is important to you and that your own sabbatical fueled your growth as a writer and in yoga. What advice would you give to people interested in taking a sabbatical but who also find it difficult for a variety of reasons: limited income, children, or parents or other family members who depend on them for care? I think a lot of people look at their lives and don’t see how they can extricate themselves from them for any long period of time. Is a sabbatical a possibility for everyone?

Karan Bajaj

It’s never easy for anyone, I think. It was difficult for me to step out of life for a year when I was alone, harder when both my wife and I had to plan it together, and will be harder still now that we have a toddler and an infant! But each time I’ve come back, I’ve transformed in so many dimensions from becoming more spontaneous and creative to a greater stillness in my thoughts that I make it a point to keep taking them. If someone is interested in the idea but struggling to make the time, I’d say start by taking deeper, more meaningful vacations. Rather than going to a beach resort or a comfortable destination like Florida, take vacations that dissolve your sense of self. I highly recommend the 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, for example or a tough hike like Kilimanjaro or the Grand Canyon where for a period of time, you just take one step, then another, and no other idea exists. Once you take a few such vacations, you start seeing the impact on your life and make the space to take longer and longer sabbaticals. In some ways, this is much easier than the dramatic re-inventions I see in American life. People are always becoming in the U.S.—from lawyer to yoga teacher; from marketing director to life-purpose coach etc. It’s perhaps simpler and more effective to go from point A to nothing at all rather than point A to point B.

May 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Hook a Reader with Cool Stuff

25 May
The Yoga of Max's Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontentthe latest novel by Karan Bajaj, tells the story of a “quest for answers that bother all of us at some level.”

I recently read a picture book version of The Odyssey to my 4 and 6-year-old sons. We read, of course, about the Cyclops and how Odysseus’ men clung to the bottom of sheep as they trotted out of the blinded monster’s cave. And how Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead, sacrificed two sheep, and let their blood pool because the dead love to drink blood, and how he saw, among the blood-drinkers, the shade of his mother. And how, when Odysseus finally returned to his homeland, only his old, sick dog recognized him—and then the promptly died. My kids were rapt. I could hardly read certain parts without getting choked up.

It’s tempting to forget amid the five-paragraph essays and multiple choice tests that we attach to literature that the reason certain stories stick around for years or millennia is because they’re freaking awesome. But their appeal isn’t based on “literary merit,” whatever that means. Odysseus watched a bunch of shades lap up ram’s blood so that he could get instructions from a dead, blind prophet—and his mother showed up, which meant she’d died in his absence. That’s great storytelling because of the emotion and because it involves dead people drinking blood. Without the latter part—and all the other crazy stuff in The Odyssey—Homer’s work likely doesn’t survive.

Great stories do cool stuff (to use the technical term). A perfect example of the power of cool stuff can be found in Karan Bajaj’s novel The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. You can read an excerpt at Riverhead’s website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about an American named Max who becomes disillusioned with his Wall Street lifestyle and travels to India to study yoga and meditation and discover other ways of viewing the world and himself. In short, it’s a story that, if you’re interested in spiritual enlightenment, you’ve probably seen before. So, the challenge facing Bajaj is to hook a reader who knows what’s coming. He begins to set the hook when Max buys falafel from a street vendor, who throws in some cool stuff about certain yogis:

“I don’t know, these yogis were superhuman, like God more than men, sir,” he said. “All Indian soldiers selected to go up to the high camps of Siachen had grown up their entire life in the mountains. On top of that, we were put through a year of survival training and a team of psychologists monitored us when we came back. And yet none of us had even a fraction of the yogis’ powers. We walked up and down the ice in our five layers of clothes all day to keep warm. But the yogis just sat in the caves, their eyes closed, meditating, and they would come out once in ten, fifteen days, wearing nothing but a loincloth. They walked barefoot in sixty or seventy inches of snow and we used heavy snowshoes with crampons imported from Russia. Yet their feet were quicker, surer than ours. Like machines their bodies were, not human at all.”

A little later we learn that bears and snow leopards guarded the yogis’ caves. Even if you’re not inclined to read about yoga and meditation, it’s hard not to be tempted by these details. It’s the same reason that, if someone says they saw a ghost—really saw one—you pay attention. You’re probably about to hear something cool and weird. At its heart, that is what stories are often about: the cool and the weird. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible, and while he applies that maxim to realism, it’s a natural fit for the sort of stories people have been telling as long as stories have been around.

When in doubt, throw in something that makes the reader go, “What?” At best, you’ll write The Odyssey. At the very least, you’ll keep the reader turning pages.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s add cool stuff to a story, using The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj as a model:

  1. Decide what sort of story you’re telling. Homer was telling (literally) a story about gods and men. Bajaj is telling a story about spiritual practice. Both imply a beyond-human element. As a result, it’s not shocking when superhuman and supernatural details crop up. But not all stories are this type. Some are romances. Others are mystery or crime stories. Others are sci-fi/fantasy. Others are dirty realism. All of them are about people doing things. The question is, what sort of things might be expected in this particular world? How do you answer that question for your story?
  2. Find your character’s discontent. It might be the threat of physical disconnect (the alien is going to eat me). Or it might be romantic, philosophical, cultural, economic, familial, or professional. This discontent is often the source of whatever cool stuff you’ll pull out of your sleeve. Rocky Balboa is discontent with his archenemy pounding his face, and so he gets up off the mat and takes it to Ivan Drago (leading to the great line from Drago, similar to Bajaj’s line about machines, “He is not human, he is a piece of iron”). Cool stuff is the stock-in-trade of sports movies: a character gets beaten down (becomes discontent) and then does something awesome. In bro movies (whether it’s Animal House or Fight Club), you know that as soon as things get tough for a character, something crazy is about to happen. What is the nature of your character’s discontent?
  3. What sort of cool would your character perform or seek out? Sports movies are about individual performance. Romances are about passion—and so the passion better be hot. When I saw Titanic in the theater, in a moment when we’re teased with but not given a glimpse of Rose’s nude body, a guy shouted out, “Oh, c’mon!” Shortly after, the handprint-in-steam scene arrived. Regular old literary realism does the same thing. Richard Ford’s collection, Rock Springs, contains stripteases, gunshots, and stolen train tickets. One approach is to ask, “What is the craziest, slightly unbelievable thing that could happen to the character right now?” Ask that question of third graders, and they’ll invariably answer, “Ninjas!” But you’re aiming for slightly unbelievable within the context of the story. We know that Bajaj’s novel contains a quest for spiritual enlightenment in India, and so it’s believable that the cool stuff will revolve around yoga and meditation and slightly unbelievable that it might involve superhuman elements of those practices.

The goal is to get your readers to say, “Oh, c’mon,” after teasing them with the potential for something cool and “Whoa,” when you actually deliver the cool thing.

Good luck.

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