BY VEENA RAO
The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is New York based author Karan Bajaj’s third novel, and his first international release. Published in the US by Penguin Random House, the novel is about a young American’s spiritual journey to India in search of answers to questions about suffering and mortality. It is also a gripping adventure story that takes the reader from the night markets of Mumbai to icy caves in the Himalayas to a hidden ashram in South India.
“I think all fiction is emotionally autobiographical and Max’s deepest questions about suffering and its meaning are my questions,” says Bajaj, who took a year off from his corporate job in NYC to travel by road from Europe to India, learn yoga, meditate and write.
Excerpts from an interview:
Max, the protagonist of your novel, is quite different from Karan Bajaj, the author. He is Greek-American, was raised in the projects, and is a first time visitor to India. What connected you to him? Did you, at any point of his journey, have trouble relating to him or his problems?
I think all fiction is emotionally autobiographical and Max’s deepest questions about suffering and its meaning are my questions. His physical quest that takes him from hidden yoga ashrams to caves high in the Himalayas was also my own quest for a year as I went from Europe to India by road and learnt yoga and meditation in a forest ashram in India. Max’s background is different from mine because I wanted a character who had a very direct, personal exposure to suffering which makes him ask questions about why the world is so fundamentally unjust. In India where I grew up, you can’t help but ask these questions because of the abject poverty all around you, beggars, orphaned children, entire families sleeping on the roads for years, and such. Here in the US, you’re very shielded from it unless you’re unfortunate enough to be in the thick of it like Max was in the housing projects.
Max Pzoras is the poster child for the American Dream. The child of Greek immigrants who grew up in a dangerous New York housing project, he triumphed over his upbringing and became a successful Wall Street analyst. Yet on the frigid December night he’s involved in a violent street scuffle, Max begins to confront questions about suffering and mortality that have dogged him since his mother’s death.
His search takes him to the farthest reaches of India, where he encounters a mysterious night market, almost freezes to death on a hike up the Himalayas, and finds himself in an ashram in a drought-stricken village in South India. As Max seeks answers to questions that have bedeviled him—can yogis walk on water and live for 200 years without aging? Can a flesh-and-blood man ever achieve nirvana?—he struggles to overcome his skepticism and the pull of family tugging him home. In an ultimate bid for answers, he embarks on a dangerous solitary meditation in a freezing Himalayan cave, where his physical and spiritual endurance is put to its most extreme test.
By turns a gripping adventure story and a journey of tremendous inner transformation, The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is a contemporary take on man’s classic quest for transcendence.
You took a year-long sabbatical to write, learn yoga and discover yourself. How much of Max’s spiritual quest was your own journey?
I’d say that the beginning of the quest was very similar. I didn’t take a sabbatical to write or take a break from work as much as I was possessed by this very fervent desire to experience satori, a glimpse of enlightenment, a moment of complete dissolution of my sense of self. Like Max, I also wanted my journey to be as hard and uncomfortable as possible because I wanted to shed off all layers of identity and preferences. In sleeping in train stations in Europe and taking cold showers for months in the Himalayas, I was trying to free myself from the burden of all likes, dislikes, all preferences altogether. Somewhere in the mid-point of my journey though, my quest softened. In the six months I spent in a Himalayan ashram learning yoga and meditation, I started to realize that the quest for enlightenment isn’t my dharma in this lifetime. I was just not in my element renouncing the world. Max’s journey is different in that way because he gets deeper and deeper into the quest though even he learns things about himself that surprise him.
Unlike Max, you decided to come back to your corporate career in New York. How have you evolved as a yogi after the sabbatical?
I’ve made a little progress. There is a slight delay in my action-reaction cycle, a moment of pause in which the intensity of the reaction decreases. If something is upsetting me at work, for example, a spontaneous noting happens within me—“I’m getting upset”. In that noting, I’m not as upset anymore. This pause, this slight delay, throughout the day, day after day, allows for a lot of space and silence in life. I’d been trying hard to be a yogi in work or my writing for many years which for me means just being a medium for my work to express itself without thought of self. Now the “trying” has softened, the selflessness has become just a tad more spontaneous.
The first four chapters of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent are set in New York. What kind of research did it take to describe life in the gang-infested Bronx projects- the language, the ethos?
I read more than one hundred books and as many articles researching the first thirty pages of the novel which are set in the Bronx and only five books for the next 270 pages that are in India! So indeed, a lot of research went into the beginning of the novel. But it’s more than just about writing the beginning. Max’s childhood in the Bronx impacts his reactions to much of the events in the book so I had to truly wrap my head around each day in his life even though just a glimpse of it actually appears in the book.
Towards the end of his spiritual journey, Max walks over water, glides down icy mountains, sees people in his mind. It would have taken tremendous grounding in yogic scriptures (or research) to make all this seem scientific, believable.
The whole idea of the novel came to me while reading Vibhuti Pada, the 3rd section of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Unlike the rest of The Yoga Sutras, which is incredibly profound philosophically yet a little hard to access, Vibhuti Pada is a page-turner with its descriptions of yogic superpowers. For years, I’d been reading terse, thick books on spirituality and mysticism. I wanted to write a spiritual quest that had the manic pace of a thriller. After reading Vibhuti Pada, I had a frame to attempt it.
While The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is about one man’s journey of inner transformation, it is also a highly entertaining adventure story. Was it a challenge to write a story that is at once educational as well as interesting to the international reader?
Indeed, I think this was the greatest challenge for the book. In the US, there’s a big divide between literary fiction and commercial fiction. I wanted to break the boundary completely and write a book that was unflinching in raising the deepest questions of what it means to be a human yet keeps you up all night because you can’t stop turning the pages. That’s why I made sure that all of Max’s internal questions were reflected in an external quest that takes him from surreal night markets to hidden ashrams to caves high in the Himalayas. His revelations had to come as much from physical experience as mental contemplation, which is hard to pull off, especially in the last section of the book when he’s all alone meditating in a cave.
You’ve said in your NY Times essay that your writing used to be very outline driven, but The Yoga of Max’s Discontent was written more intuitively, because you wanted to experience a glimpse of transcendence in your writing. What was this process like?
I wanted to lose all sense of author-ship for the novel and become just a medium for the story to tell itself. In practice, it meant that each day when I approached the writing, I became the character and the setting, and just wrote what the character would do next. The story had its own propulsive force and was a closed system in itself. That’s why when I read the novel now I often wonder how I could have written this scene or that scene or the whole ending. It doesn’t seem like me at all. The character’s choices, even their words are entirely their own, you can’t detect the presence of an author-puppet-master manipulating the story in any way.
Max finds a great guru in Ramakrishna who sets him on the path of yoga. How important is it for a striving yogi to have the right guru?
For me, the whole idea of a Guru is to have a person you can fully surrender to. Your ego, your sense of self, your petty likes, dislikes, and judgment, dissolves complete in love and reverence for this person, giving you a glimpse of what infinite love could look like. So yes, a Guru is important, but you can’t rush it. You have to reach a point in your sadhana, your practice, when you’re ready for that surrender. Until then, I feel you should train yourself so you don’t become dependent on others to show you the way—and fortunately, we have access to a wealth of ancient resources whether it’s the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads or the Dhammapada, for the same. If you depend on people too early, you won’t build the viveka, the discrimination, required to separate the wheat from the chaff and there is a lot of chaff in the Guru world.
Throughout Max’s spiritual quest in India, he is lucky to meet people who point him in the direction of transcendence. However, modern day India is no different from modern day America, where materialism rules. (Even well-known Indian spiritual gurus are forever making trips to America to raise funds for their causes or to increase their follower base here.) How does a striving yogi balance materialism with yogic principles?
I think the Yoga Sutras says it best when it says that the yogi’s actions are neither white nor black, they are colorless. A yogi isn’t trying to do good or bad in the world, he’s just acting spontaneously from a place of deep silence and purity. So I think the best way for a striving yogi to act in accordance with his dharma, his natural tendency, and keep purifying his actions there. If your natural thrust is to be in business or law, you shouldn’t quit to become a yoga teacher. You should act with as much selflessness and purity as you can in your field. That’s yoga. I think too many times in the West people wear the monk’s robes before they’re ready to become monks.
As they say, in yoga, life’s journey is like the flight of an eagle. First, you flap your wings high, as high as you can flap them, growing with experiences in the world. Then, you gracefully bring the wings down, go within and complete your journey. If you’re still in the growth stage and experiencing more in the world, there’s no shame in it. You shouldn’t wear the monk’s robes too early.
Last year, the United Nations declared June 21 as the International Day of Yoga. While yoga and meditation are getting more popular in the West, there are pockets of America that are offended by these concepts. An elementary school in an Atlanta suburb was forced to alter its yoga program recently after complaints from some parents who felt it was promoting far-eastern religious beliefs. How would you respond to such criticism?
Yoga, as defined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the original text of yoga, is chitta vritti nirodah, the silencing of the restless thought waves of the mind. The integrated set of practices from the Hatha Yoga, the physical practice, to meditation as a mental practice is meant to accomplish that goal. Anything beyond that is not essential to studying the practice and as a parent of two kids myself, channeling the restless energy of a mind into a space of productive silence seems very desirable indeed, no matter your religious beliefs!