Karan Bajaj is the #1 bestselling author of Keep off the Grass (2008) and Johnny Gone Down (2010). He was selected among India Today’s 35 Under 35 Indians and nominated for the Crossword Book of the Year, Indiaplaza Golden Quill and Teacher’s Indian Achievers (Arts) Awards. Born and raised in the Indian Himalayas, Karan now lives and works in New York. His interests in travel and Eastern mysticism are key writing inspirations.
The Seeker (Penguin India, 2015) was inspired by Karan’s one-year sabbatical backpacking from Europe to India by road and learning yoga and meditation in the Himalayas. It will be published under the title The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Penguin Random House US in 2016, and is Karan’s first international release.
Tell us about your book, the Seeker. You took a long time to come up with a third book. How did you research for the book?
The Seeker is a pulsating, contemporary take on man’s classic quest for transcendence. It follows a Manhattan-based investment banker through surreal night markets, hidden ashrams, and freezing caves in India as he becomes a yogi in the Himalayas.
Growing up in the mountains, I was always pulled to yoga, meditation, and Eastern mysticism. But my mother’s young, untimely death from cancer forced me to confront questions about suffering and mortality that had been at the back of my mind for years. So in 2012, my wife, Kerry, and I quit our jobs and left New York to deepen our spiritual practice. We went from Europe to India by road with no possessions or plans, just the general goal of reducing our attachment to material comforts by taking the cheapest means of transport everywhere—buses, ferries, or walking—and staying in hostels, backpacker lodges, and other sparse accommodations. In India, we studied to become yoga teachers in an ashram in South India, spent several days in silence in Buddhist monasteries, and hiked through the Himalayas. Both the rugged external adventure and the inner transformation caused by my deepening practice of yoga and meditation became inspirations for The Seeker.
After your first two books that were fast paced, you have come up with a more sombre theme. How did that happen? What made you write a book with lot of character descriptions and development? Will you be returning to your earlier tried and tested genre?
My only goal as as a writer is to grow and become better with each book. So in a sense, I think The Seeker combines what’s worked for me in the past—a thrilling page-turning adventure—with greater depth and meaning. At its surface, The Seeker is an adventure of a banker who goes from the dark underbelly of New York to a world of hidden ashrams and remote caves in India. But what makes it meaningful is the protagonist’s seeking answers to questions that have bothered all of us at some point or the other—why is there so much pain and suffering in the world, what would a modern day version of the Buddha’s classic quest for enlightenment look like and the end of it all, what makes for a meaningful life?
Tell us about the character of Max. How did you develop the character?
Great question. When I starting planning the novel, I didn’t want to send a hippie stoner to India in search of meaning. He needed to have experienced success in the material world before rejecting it. I also didn’t want the character to be over-priveleged and lacking depth. That’s why Max is a successful banker, yet with a gritty backstory—he grows up in the violent Bronx projects of the 1970s.
The character was greatly influenced by Vivekachudamani, an 8th century classic Indian poem, where Shankara, the poet, says that man’s cry to understand the reason for his existence is the roar of a lion. It is man’s birthright to ask “Who am I?” and force the silent universe to give him an answer. The sages of the past went through extreme physical and emotional hardships to answer that question. Unfortunately today, the search for the soul has become new agey and warm and fuzzy with people throwing around words like “enlightenment”, “vibrations”, and “chakras” without understanding or intent. I wanted to make it sexy for a man to search for his role in the universe, sexier than spending time drinking beer, watching football and setting up a new sound system in his man-cave. As a result, I wanted Max to be rugged, brave, a man-of-the-world.
The writing life is full of uncertainty. Why did you decide to become a writer and did you face any struggle initially?
For me, writing is an expression of my deepest ideas, thoughts I can’t even articulate verbally to myself. Six years after leaving India for the first time and living a nomadic existence in Philippines, Singapore, Europe, and the US, I felt a deep stirring within me that I had stories to share and my own unique insight into the messy, glorious human condition. The need to express these ideas got me interested in writing. Over the last eight years, it’s been satisfying to see my writing evolve as my ideas have deepened—and there is so much more ground to cover.I had beginner’s luck of getting an immediate publishing deal for Keep off the Grass and a subsequent deal for Johnny Gone Down with HarperCollins. Things got more challenging with The Seeker, because my ambition was to get a US/ international publishing deal, so all of the sudden I was pitching my book as a debut novelist to the best publishing houses in New York City, which is needless to say, extremely competitive.
I was rejected sixty one times before signing up with an agent. Shortly after though, I got multiple publishing offers and chose Riverhead, a terrific imprint within the Penguin Random House. So net, I had to pay the dues, not in the first novel but in my third novel.
Take us through your writing process. Do you write in fits and spurts or in a well planned manner?
I start with a broad theme which is of great meaning in my life, then wrap it in a pulsating, page-turning story. Once I have that, it’s just a matter of discipline. I write an hour a day when I’m working and four to six hours when I’m not working—and just keep plugging away. For The Seeker, I was able to have several months of dedicated full-time writing in isolated spots like the Himalayas and a forest in South India with no Internet. Many readers have told me that they’ve experienced a deep sense of calm while reading the book, and I believe that’s related to my state of mind while writing. I was meditating for two hours a day, practicing yoga for an hour a day and writing with no contact with the noisy, chaotic world.
The Seeker is a bit refreshing because unlike other books on the subject, it does not get preachy. Did you intend to write the novel in a simple manner to connect with a range of audiences?
Thanks for the compliment! I just followed Max, the protagonist, and saw the world through his eyes, completely eliminating myself as an author. This spirit of becoming just a medium for the story to express itself without any active sense of authorship keeps it simple, I think.
What do you do when you are not writing?
Lots! The main activities that I move beween are: working at my corporate job as the CMO of a start-up, working on my writing, meditating, reading, yoga, and hiking. I don’t draw a major distinction between “work” and “free” time, preferring to live in a state of complete presence and flow instead. When I work, I work. When I write, I write.
Any advice for upcoming writers?
To live a big, interesting life, unfettered by the dictates of convention. Ultimately, a great life isn’t dissimilar from a great story—the hero reaches for a lofty, unattainable goal and gives all of himself to achieve it. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn’t but at least he lives a life of meaning because he’s in pursuit of that big goal. The more you do so in real life, the better your stories. So travel, hike, backpack, quit your job, find another, always keep learning, reading, and pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.