Karan Bajaj is the 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 (2015) was inspired by Karan’s one year sabbatical backpacking from Europe to India by road and learning yoga and meditation in the Himalayas.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Karan. How did you land up with a corporate job in New York after relishing the blissful calm of your native Himalayan hometown?
Karan Bajaj: The pursuit of growth! I believe in Yoga Sutras ethos that man’s purpose is first evolution, then involution: an eagle in perfect rhythm flaps its wings high, then brings them down gracefully. So should man first push himself to stretch, grow and experience the world, then detach from it. I’m still in the growth phase so traveling and living in different countries helps with that. Later, I may go back when I want to retreat into myself again.
Vinita Kinra: The main protagonist of your latest novel, The Seeker, seems to share your life journey in reverse. How much of this novel is autobiographical?
Karan Bajaj: I think all novels are emotionally autobiographical. In The Seeker too, the questions the protagonist asks are similar to the questions I have wrestled with: What makes for a meaningful life? Why is there so much suffering in the world? And what would a modern day version of the Buddha’s classic quest for enlightenment look like? After my mother’s young, untimely death unsettled me quite a bit, I took a year-long sabbatical which led me from a Buddhist monastery in Scotland, to going from Europe to India by road with no possessions and learning yoga and meditation in the Himalayas. Both the internal and external journeys are reflected in The Seeker.
Vinita Kinra: You call yourself a “Striving Yogi”. Is it possible to become a Yogi without renouncing the material world of attachment and longing?
Karan Bajaj: Yes, if you identify yourself as a yogi first. As Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar says in Light on Yoga, the householder “should remain in society, but not have his heart in it.” In other words, you should not renounce your duties, but rather perform them without attachment to the results. Identifying myself as a yogi first allows me to play the roles of writer and corporate career person most effectively. So I wake up each day with the intention of performing all activities of the day without the narrow thought of self-interest. When in office, I do the best I can for the company without thinking of my own promotion or material gain; when I write, I try to become a mere channel for words to express themselves without a sense of authorship. This is not to say I’m perfect. I stumble every day, but at least striving to live with the yogic ideal of complete selflessness allows me a daily framework to approach life.
Vinita Kinra: Share with our readers some experiences from your recent sabbatical.
Karan Bajaj: My wife Kerry and I left behind our jobs, apartment, friends, iPhones, dogs, security, predictability and convenience. We each carried a small backpack with all our belongings for the year. First, we went to a Buddhist retreat center called Dhanakosa in the Scottish Highlands. The setting was remote and it was a good place to decompress from our fast-paced lives in New York and settle into the slower and more contemplative pace of our sabbatical—spending days in silence, nature and meditation. Next, we traveled from Europe to India by road in buses, trains, ferries and hiking with no particular destination in mind, deciding each day where to stop for the night and where to go next. Our general goal was to take the cheapest mode of transport available and stay in hostel dorms and other bare accommodations to reduce our attachment to material comforts, since we both felt that our life in New York had become a little too privileged for our liking. We stopped in rural Italy for a 10-day silent meditation in the Vipassana tradition taught by S.N. Goenka. Without intending to focus on my book, I had a number of insights during those 10 days of silence, many of which found their way in The Seeker. It was the early brainstorming stage. I was so inspired after those 10 days that we stopped backpacking for a bit and spent the next few weeks in hostels in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey, planning and plotting the novel. From Turkey, we went to India for a month-long Yoga Teacher’s Training Course (TTC) at the Sivananda Ashram, which gave me a thorough grounding in yoga. Next, we went up to the high Himalayas practicing yoga and meditation on our own, synthesizing our learnings and reading hundreds of books on ancient Buddhist and yoga philosophy. En-route back to the US, I lived in artist residencies in Goa, India and Portugal, finishing The Seeker.
Vinita Kinra: What prompted you to write your first novel, Keep off the Grass?
Karan Bajaj: 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 the book. Writing is wonderful because it’s such a democratic process—anyone who works hard at their craft can get published and have this amazing platform to touch an unlimited number of people. So I decided to go for it.
Vinita Kinra: Give us a brief synopsis of your second novel, Johnny Gone Down.
Karan Bajaj: Johnny Gone Down is the story of an innocent vacation turned into an epic intercontinental journey. The main character, Nikhil Arya, was an Ivy League scholar with a promising future at NASA, who becomes first a genocide survivor, then a Buddhist monk, a drug lord, a homeless accountant, a software mogul and a deadly game fighter. It’s the story of a life that knows no limits, a world that has seen no boundaries, and an ordinary man fighting an extraordinary destiny.
Vinita Kinra: Was your publishing journey fraught with challenges when you first set out to establish yourself as a writer?
Karan Bajaj: Quite the opposite: I had beginner’s luck of getting an immediate publishing deal for Keep off the Grass and a subsequent deal for Johnny Gone Down. Things got more challenging with The Seeker, because my ambition was to get a US/ international publishing deal, so all of a 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 my first novel, but in the third.
Vinita Kinra: Our readers would like to sample an excerpt from your latest book, The Seeker.
His ATM access had indeed been blocked due to account inactivity. They needed the exact amounts and dates of his last three ATM withdrawals to verify his identity.
“Is there another way?” said Max. “I haven’t withdrawn money in years. It will be hard to tell the exact dates.”
“I realize the difficulty, Mr. Pzoras, but Capital One bank’s international fraud protection policies aim at safeguarding customers’ interests first and foremost,” said the efficient male voice. “Alternatively, we request a notarized letter stating your reason for not using the bank account. We will process it within seven business days of receipt and reopen the account.”
Fraud protection. Safeguarding. Notarized. Process. The words of the world sounded heavy and difficult. Max paused, trying to understand everything.
“Notarized by whom?” he said eventually.
“Any recognizable US body. Like an embassy or a consulate in your country of travel,” the voice said.
The nearest consulate was probably in Chennai, another ten hours away and there would probably be more red tape there. Nor did he have money to get there. The yogic test had been performed. Max was now clear that it would utilize far less prana to perform samyama, a blend of deep concentration and meditation resulting in complete merging with the object of focus, on the withdrawal dates. In the last year, Ramakrishna had taught him to practice samyama on his body to understand the working of the cells that made up his vital organs and the interconnected masses of veins and nerves that supplied blood and nutrients to them. Knowing his body would allow him to keep it fit and functioning, making it a sturdy temple to worship the soul within. Now, Max would concentrate on his memory with the same intensity.
“Could you hold for just a minute?” he asked.
Max closed his eyes, shutting out the curious crowd outside. He inhaled and exhaled, concentrating on the Ajna Chakra in the center of his forehead, the storehouse of all memory. First, he drowned out the lingering images of leaving Ramakrishna and the previous twenty four hours of walking and bus journeys. Next, he zoned in on the ATM trips he had made more than three years ago, and finally, he retained his breath, flowing his entire living, breathing energy, his prana towards the Ajna Chakra, merging with the man who walked into the ATMs many years ago.
He opened his eyes, weak and breathless. His shirt was soaked with perspiration. He gripped the phone tight so that it didn’t slip from his sweaty grip and rested his head against the stained glass door.
“Dec 3rd, 2010, 4:57 p.m. EST. New York. $200.
Dec 9th, 2010, 12:31 p.m. Rishikesh, Indian Rupees 20,000, US $443.75.
July14th, 2011, 2:19 p.m. Pavur, Tamil Nadu, Indian Rupees 100,000, US $1907.30.”
“Yes, yes, yes, exactly right. Date and withdrawal amounts are both correct. I don’t have the exact time or place printed in front of me. Thank you for confirming, Mr. Pzoras. Your account is now unblocked,” the customer service representative said. He paused. “I can’t believe you’ve kept the receipts all these years. I wish I was that organized,” he added in a slightly embarrassed tone.
Max thanked him and set the phone down. The crowd watching him outside had swelled.