For some, enlightenment and happiness comes easily. For others, it never does. And then there all those in between — like the featured character in the new novel, "Professor Chandra Finds His Bliss."
Author Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s (@Rajeevbalasu) story is of a conservative, internationally renowned economist, Professor Chandra, who in a single day doesn't win the Nobel Prize, gets hit by a car, has a heart attack, and doesn't receive a condolence call from his estranged daughter.
But after a seemingly endless list of downfalls and unexpected life events, Professor Chandra finds himself at a meditation retreat. And thus, his spiritual journey begins.
“I think it is a novel which encourages the reader to go on a healing journey with the character,” Balasubramanvam tells Here & Now’s Robin Young.
The novel is loosely based on Balasubramanvam’s personal experiences growing up in London, where he says everything in his life was “achievement based and not emotion based.”
“I neglected the inside and I focused on achievement,” he reflects.
And in the novel, Professor Chandra experiences an emotional disconnect from who he truly is — and decides to do some internal searching through meditation.
“The tragedy is that Professor Chandra is such a high achiever and has gained so little joy from life,” he says. “His achievements have been at the expense of joy. His relationships are so weak. So finally at the age of 70, he begins to realize that.”
On why Balasubramanvam sought out meditation to begin with
“I went because my life was in crisis and it seemed like it was the only thing that I hadn't tried yet. And this was so extreme. And I felt that I was in an extreme position in life and needed an extreme solution.”
On Balasubramanvam’s personal experience going on a meditation retreat
“I was more terrified than skeptical. I was very, very, very nervous. But I went there and I managed to survive the 10 days and I meditated as best I could. And I thought, well that's that. That's the end. And then a few days later, I started to fall apart in a spectacular fashion. It was really like starting from the beginning again. I had to figure out who I was from day one. It felt as if a mirror had just been held up to my face. And I was being forced to see everything all at once. Then slowly over time that became a process that I work through.”
On where Professor Chandra found enlightenment
“Professor Chandra goes to California to find his place. He doesn't go to India. I mean, in a way, you could say that the two continents are sort of switching places. India is becoming full of billionaires. Its GNP is rising very fast. It’s becoming much more materialistic. And Americans are looking for spirituality increasingly.”
On the parallels between Professor Chandra and his son, and Americans with economists after the economy crashed
“Well, I think until 2008, 2009 there was a broad consensus — the neoliberal consensus — of what used to be called the “Washington consensus.” And then after the crash, it simply broke down. We had Occupy [Wall Street], we had Bernie Sanders, we had Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K., and now we've got [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and everything's changing. We're getting young socialists — millennial socialists and Generation Z socialists — and economists are suddenly realizing that they're no longer being treated like the noble gods that they used to be and that they're having to depart from the consensus, too. I think that they spent such a long time being the leaders of the tribe and suddenly, they're being dismissed and so they have to deal with that.”
On his novel being genred as ‘up lit’
“Well, I hadn't heard of [the genre] either. I suppose if I had to characterize this novel I would call it “heal lit” as opposed to “up lit.” … There was no prescribed response that I wanted, but I was very, very happy when readers read the book and said that they felt that it helped them to heal a little bit or to think about healing or to think about their relationships.”
On whether meditation can completely get rid of negativity
“Negativities come back all the time. I think I've just captured a snapshot of something very positive in me. But if I felt that I had overcome all my negativity, I don't think I'd care about writing novels anymore, to be honest. But I'm certainly very, very far from from from that place.
“... That's why people who meditate can be so obnoxious or so terrifying because they're trying to tell you that they're better than you are. And I think it's about the shadow, this character Sonny [Professor Chandra’s son], my German translator said to me it seems to me that he's your shadow. And I thought that's a really great observation because the creativity I think comes out of the shadow. It comes out of our dark places. If we estrange ourselves from our shadow then we estrange ourselves from our creativity.”
Book Excerpt: 'Professor Chandra Finds His Bliss'
by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
It should have been the greatest day of his life. His youngest daughter, Jasmine, had flown from Colorado to share in his triumph. There had been pieces in the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal which were all but premature celebrations: “Like Usain Bolt in the hundred,” the former read, “like Mrs. Clinton in November, this is one front-runner who cannot lose.” The Academy were famous for their secrecy, their cloak-and-dagger strategies to stave off leaks, but this time even the bookies agreed—the Nobel Prize in Economics 2016 belonged to Professor Chandra.
He did not sleep that night, only lay in bed imagining how he would celebrate. There would be interviews, of course, CNN, BBC, Sky, after which he would take Jasmine out for an early brunch before her flight, perhaps allowing her a glass or two of champagne. By evening the college would have organized a function somewhere in Cambridge. His competitors would be there, all the naysayers and backstabbers and mediocrities, but Chandra would be magnanimous. He would explain how the million-dollar check and the banquet in December with the King of Sweden meant nothing to him. His real joy lay in being able to repay the faith shown by his departed parents, trusted colleagues, and his old mentor, Milton Friedman, who had once helped him change his tire in the snow in the days when Chandra was still a lowly Associate Professor.
By midmorning he had rehearsed his victory speech a dozen times. Still in his dressing gown, he brought a cup of coffee to his bedroom and placed it by the telephone before stretching out on the bed, his hands behind his head, in anticipation of the call. An hour later his daughter entered to find him snoring on top of the covers.
“Dad, wake up,” said Jasmine, shaking his foot. “Dad, you didn’t get it.”
Chandra did not move. He had waited so long for this, suffered through so much; his BA at Hyderabad, his PhD at Cambridge, his first job at the LSE, that punishing decade at Chicago and, after his return to Cambridge, the crash of 2008, the instant vilification of his tribe, the doubts, the pies in face, and every year afterward the knowledge that though his name had been on the committee’s longlist in April and their shortlist in the summer, that 18-carat-gold medal had still ended up in someone else’s fist. This was the year his ordeal was supposed to end, the year that should have made it all worthwhile.
“And who, may I ask, was the lucky recipient this time?”
“There were two of them,” said Jasmine.
Chandra jerked his body erect, shoved two pillows behind his back, his reading glasses onto his nose.
“Heart and Stroganoff, something like that.”
Chandra groaned. “Not Hart and Holmström?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“So who will it be next year? Starsky and Hutch?”
“I don’t know, Dad. Maybe.”
“Well, that’s that, then,” he said, pulling the covers over his body and realizing that, were it not for his daughter, he would probably remain in that position until next year.
Ten minutes later Jasmine returned to tell him that a group of journalists were outside the house. Chandra met them, still in his dressing gown, and politely answered their questions. It was his daughter’s idea to invite them in for coffee, which meant he ended up sitting at his kitchen table with four members of the local press: one from the Grantchester Gazette, one from the Anglia Post, and two from the Cambs Times.
“We’re so sorry, sir,” said a young woman from the Gazette, who appeared close to tears.
“It was yours,” said the man from the Times, who smelled of gin. “We were hoping for a fine party tonight.”
“Well, now, now,” he replied, touched by their kindness. “C’est la vie.”
“It should have been you, sir,” said the woman. “It simply should have been you.”
“Oh, de rien, de rien,” he said, wishing he could stop speaking French, a language he had no knowledge of at all. “Laissez-faire.”
Before the journalists left he assured them he was delighted for the winners and was glad it was all over and was looking forward to seeing them again next year. His performance fooled everyone except for Jasmine who for the rest of the morning repeated the same sentence with a seventeen-year-old’s mercilessness, asking, “Are you all right, Dad? Are you all right?” keeping at it no matter what he said until finally, on the way to the airport, he lost his temper and shouted, “Can’t you see I’m fine?”
In the past he would have assumed Jasmine’s inquisition was motivated only by sweetness and concern, but now Chandra was convinced there was malice involved, that Jasmine had finally entered into the family tradition of torturing the patriarch, if this was what he still was, for she was a teenager now and lived with her mother in Boulder who blamed him not only for the divorce, three years old now, but also for the rise of Ebola and Boko Haram.
As soon as he reached home the phone began to ring with a stream of condolence calls that continued throughout the day and then, more sporadically, for the rest of the week. For the following month people he barely knew stopped him in the street to offer their sympathies, men and women who couldn’t have named three economists had their lives depended on it.
By November the hysteria had died down, replaced by horror at the U.S. election, and it was then that Chandra realized, in all probability, he would never win the prize now. The odds had gone down a decade before when the Bengali had worked his unctuous charm, but even if time enough elapsed for another Indian to win, the field had changed. For years economists had wantonly obscured their profession, rendering everything absurdly technical with incompressible logarithms such that they were treated more like mystic seers than social scientists. Economics was little more than a poor man’s mathematics now, but Chandra still struggled with calculus, considering it beneath him, a task for a penniless research assistant.
In any case, his slide to the right was hardly something the Scandinavians were likely to reward; that sub-subcontinent of mediocrity would consider it a signal of intellectual and moral deviance. It was what Chandra loathed most about liberals—their shameless self-righteousness, as if the species’ failings were always someone else’s fault, while anything they did, murder and arson included, were heroic acts in the service of liberty and justice. In point of fact, the Swedes weren’t even liberals. They were neutrals, abstainers who behaved as if they had deliberately chosen not to become a superpower in the interests of preserving their objectivity.
Chandra wished he had just one Swedish student he could torment mercilessly, but the closest thing was a Dutch girl with an American accent who was, regrettably, quite bright. And so he went on giving his lectures and affecting the appearance of a man too wrapped up in his own research to notice that such a petty and trivial thing as the Nobel Prize even existed.
Excerpted from Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam Copyright © 2019 by Rajeev Balasubramanyam. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on April 9, 2019.
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