Book review: 'Professor Chandra Follows his Bliss' is a fascinating look at the generation gap
There's enough heart and soul here to win over readers of all ages
With the death of Philip Roth last year, we lost one of the world’s great writers on old age, declining power and what it means to look back on a life, with all its regrets, vicissitudes and, perhaps, minor triumphs. As Roth so memorably put it in Everyman, “old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”
So it’s interesting that the writer willing to take up the baton in depicting an eminent academic unready to retire gracefully should be a mid-40s English author, Rajeev Balasubramanyam. His first novel in nearly 20 years can’t possibly live up to Roth, nor should it, but Balasubramanyam has fashioned a thoughtful family drama that steers a fascinating path between self-enlightenment and the age-old problems of the generation gap.
When we first meet professor Chandra, the foremost trade economist in the world, he is in Cambridge, recovering from not winning his expected and much-coveted Nobel Prize for the umpteenth time. Such recognition of his life’s work would mean, he firmly believes, “that he would join the ranks of the gods who never felt pain or cold or hunger or loneliness, who were drunk from morning till night on the heavenly elixir of absolute, unchallengeable intellectual superiority.”
If this makes our protagonist sound pompous, arrogant, unlikeable even, that’s the point; Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss is about a conservative man going on a journey to work out his place and meaning in the world. And that journey, naturally, begins at home.
It’s a broken home, however. His wife, Jean, has left him for a retired psychiatrist called Steve and now lives in Colorado. Sunny, his son, is in Hong Kong, running The School Of Mindful Business. Eldest daughter Radha has rebelled against the system to become an activist who is so frustrated with her father’s dismissive attitude to her beliefs she asks the rest of the family not to tell Chandra where she is. Meanwhile the youngest, Jasmine, is about to get in a lot of trouble with the law.
To Balasubramanyam’s credit, none of this extended cast list are caricatures; each is a well-drawn character whose actions make perfect sense when framed against Chandra’s increasing isolation. How this fractured family unit interacts is less reminiscent of Roth than Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections – witty, often acerbic and effectively the story of three children trying to free themselves from the influence of their parents.
And like The Corrections, the plot lines here also converge on that great set-piece in Western culture, the family Christmas. It seems an unlikely end point after Chandra punches Steve on the nose, “the first truly honest thing [he] had done in years,” and is part-forced to go to a spiritual retreat centre called Esalen Institute on the Californian coast. Nevertheless, he enrols in the $2,000 (Dh7,345), three-day course: Being Yourself In The Summer Solstice.
In the acknowledgements, Balasubramanyam reveals that he has been to Esalen himself – it is an actual retreat in Big Sur promising “deep change in self and society”. And though that gives the central section of the book some extra authenticity, there’s perhaps too much fidelity to the truth: Chandra’s daily counselling sessions with fellow course members do drag. There are only so many lines asking “Who am I?” and “Why have I allowed so much pain and sorrow in my life” that the reader can take before the book teeters on the brink of Eat Pray Love sentimentality, particularly in the way it fetishises Eastern culture and features well-off characters moaning about their difficult lives.
In fact, Balasubramanyam himself is a fellow of a foundation for writers with a meditation practice, and has been writer-in-residence at various Zen centres – but wisely, he makes professor Chandra incorrigible enough to see through most of the New Age enlightenment stuff, and Indian enough to be grounded in his own sense of what spirituality might mean. The stay at Esalen is not taken too seriously.
For professor Chandra, it is life itself which is the bigger, unanswerable question. By the end of Balasubramanyam’s novel, he is perhaps no closer to understanding how to navigate it – when his son asks “is anyone really alright, Dad”, he has no answer – but what he does finally recognise is that there are still things to learn in life, even at 70.
He does so amid his imperfect, fractious and caustic family. It’s a recognition that finding bliss is less about striving for perfection than enjoying the small victories of life when they come. A bit like this debut, in fact – uneven in places but with enough heart and soul to win its audience over, whatever their age.
Updated: January 11, 2019 03:25 PM