What's bliss? Well, for some of us, it's losing ourselves — or maybe finding ourselves — in an appealing book, like Rajeev Balasubramanyam's smart, intentionally comforting fourth novel.
Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss sets the tone with its first line: "It should have been the greatest day of his life." Instead, we meet the eponymous 69-year-old Cambridge University economics professor in a state of barely concealed irritation at once again being passed over for the Nobel Prize in Economics.
The snub underscores other disappointments in the professor's life, including his wife's abandonment for a grating, more-holistic-than-thou American therapist, and his eldest daughter's refusal to have any contact with him. P.R. Chandrasekhar — Chandra for short — is in a funk, which only deepens after the 2016 U.S. election and a health scare. His doctor prescribes a complete change of diet, exercise, and attitude. "You need to cut back on everything," he says. And then the transplanted Californian adds, "You gotta follow your bliss, man."
In other words, this is a quest novel — a Scrooge's mission to discover and reconnect with what's important to him before it's too late. Chandra, dubbed "an unreconstructed market fundamentalist," by The Guardian, has had spectacular success shaking up his field with unorthodox takes on globalization, wealth, and corporations, spelled out in books like Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Market? and Globalize, Mobilize. But despite his renown, "he could not shake the feeling that he had squandered his years, drained them of all that was worthwhile. Fun! Joy! Laughter! Play! The same qualities he had so derided in his colleagues, even in his children."
Balasubramanyan, peripatetic and highly educated like his characters, was born in Lancashire in 1974 and holds degrees from Oxford, Cambridge and Lancaster University. He currently lives in Berlin and, clearly no stranger to meditation, is a fellow of the Boulder-based Hemera Foundation — whose aim, according to its website, is to "help people reconnect with the innate goodness and sanity of the human person."
So, warning: This novel involves meditation and yoga. But it isn't all silence and asanas. These characters talk a lot, sometimes in thera-speak, sometimes angrily. Sometimes even in hot tubs.
The narrative follows Chandra's rocky road to enlightenment, which takes him far from the exalted halls of Cambridge, where the Master of his college delicately (and hilariously) wonders if Brexit will leave the world "up manure creek." The malcontented economist heads first to a visiting professorship in southern California, with its bone-soothing sunshine and welcome proximity to his struggling younger daughter, a high school senior who's flying off the rails in Colorado, where she's living with her happily remarried mother and the sanctimonious man Chandra thinks of as "his cuckolder."
The most uncharacteristic stop on Chandra's itinerary is an Esalen workshop in northern California on "Being Yourself in the Summer Solstice." I won't divulge why he lands there, or what happens, but I can say that Balasubramanyam plays all this with a combination of gentle satire and sincerity that sometimes dips more than just a toe into schmaltz. There's lots of inward reflection, "emotional striptease," and confrontational group exercises that involve exposing "strings ... the beliefs we have about ourselves that hold us back."
What makes this mostly okay — even for the spiritually-averse — is the meatiness of the arguments Chandra gets into with his children, his brother, and some of his fellow workshop participants. They tussle over Marxism versus capitalism, identity politics, and the relative merits of happiness versus productivity. We come to understand that these clashes are ultimately about power and respect and are an expression of the damaging effect of internalized critical voices.
Balasubramanyam knows how to flex irony as if it were another bendable body part. Arrogantly opinionated Chandra scorns his "brash and opinionated" students and children, who "seemed to come pre-offended, forsaking any analytical content in favor of emotion and outrage." He also disdains his children's choices, including his son's "deviation toward the mystical" when he leaves his lucrative finance job to open an even more lucrative Institute of Mindful Business in Hong Kong. Chandra pushes back against his son's teaching that "you can be whoever you want to be. There are no mediocre people, only mediocre expectations." He counters, "Much of success is just luck, or having the right parents, or being in the right place at the right time. Nobody tells you this, but it's true."
Professor Chandra is a wonderful character — stodgy, flawed, contentious, contemptuous — yet vulnerable, insecure, lonely, repentent, and ridiculous enough to win our sympathy. In other words, as one of his children responds to his apologies, when they come, "You weren't pathetic, Dad. You were just human."
In the end, Balasubramanyan's novel is a sort of Christmas Carol for a new age — in which uplifting sentiment comes drenched not in treacle but in potfuls of soothing organic herbal tea.