Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss by Rajeev Balasubramanyam
Without treading heavily in religious domain, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss depicts the classic story of never feeling satisfied despite having it all. The titular Chandra enters a late-life crisis, at the tail end an endless pursuit for status at the gross expense of the interpersonal relationships that should be sustaining his home life. Rajeev Balasubramanyam’s fourth novel employs plenty of dialogue and lots of short paragraphs, making for a pleasing, breezy experience yet without dumbing anything down. Chanrda’s spiritual adventures lead to multiple valuable lessons and thoughtful observations, but the novel doesn’t do all that much to distinguish itself from A Christmas Carol or other tales about realizing what’s important. You’ll enjoy Chandra for the duration that it lasts, but you won’t be pondering it two years from now.
Professor P.R. Chandrasekhar recently missed out on the Nobel Prize—again. Do first world problems get more first worldly? Though he’s sorely disappointed, even he admits that winning the prize would not have been the final piece of a perfect life. Chandra is the father of three children, the oldest two departed in varying degrees of estrangement. Divorced as well, his former wife is now remarried to a peace-and-love hippie named Steve. Sensing Chandra needs to break the cycle of endless aspiration and discontent, Steve signs Chandra up for a retreat of spiritual workshops that investigate the self and promote thought techniques for mindful balance. The obviously reluctant Chandra agrees to attend, and uses the insights obtained as the catalyst to reconnect with his family and clearly determine what’s truly important.
It’s evident that author Balasubramanya’s well-developed storytelling chops are on full display. The nuances of Professor Chandra’s initial discontent are beautifully portrayed, and tragic in their believability. The estrangement from his children comprises a particularly well-told layer of the narrative, impactful in all its recognizable cringeworthiness. Chandra’s eldest daughter won’t even disclose where she lives. His middle son lives in Hong Kong, the distance serving as emotional insulation to pad the tense professional rivalry between them, a competitive dynamic that can be described as counterproductive at best. Chandra hasn’t yet managed to completely damage relations with his youngest daughter, who nonetheless struggles to thrive in her college-bound years, stumbling in the search to find and sustain purpose and motivation. Through these initial chapters, the narrative mostly withholds the why behind all this familial tension, wisely giving readers an impetus to read on and figure out how such a mess within a seemingly successful family situation could have arisen.
What readers will find is a more diffuse attribution of blame than expected. Sure, Chandra does have his polarizing flaws of stubborn arrogance, and witnessing his many unfortunate parenting decisions involves a tragic awkwardness that is sure to make you wince. Yet his children aren’t blameless saints—particularly his eldest daughter. In flashbacks we see how she grew up to define herself as a defiant rejection of “the system” that Chandra represents. It’s nearly impossible for her to carry out even the simplest interaction without invoking the sociological macroeconomic implications. The social justice talking points she touts reach parody level, though in the age of Poe’s law it may be folly for readers to attempt to distinguish between satire from the real thing. Regardless, whenever she ratchets up the ante her father takes the bait, snowballing a tumultuous relationship that was inevitably bound to break off into distinctly separate orbits.
Balasubramanya’s craft invokes the prose style of Yann Martel, pleasing and accessible without any cheap shortcuts. The narrative also pursues a worthy interest in the order of the universe and inner peace, without relying too deeply on dogma to an extent that obscures the original goal. The plot structure bears vague resemblance to Gary Shteyngart’s recent and excellent Lake Success, in that it employs an episodic sequence of the protagonist’s encounters with different characters, each in their own geographical setting, yet never feeling like an overstretched potpourri of short stories. Unfortunately, unlike Shteyngart’s memorable wit, Chandra’s narrator tries to make deliberate quips, many of which fall flat. Even still, it’s not enough to severely distract from the engaging dialogue and noteworthy thematic material.
If you’re concerned that a plot trajectory like this inevitably ends in all smiles and hugs, fear not. Sure, Chandra makes noteworthy progress in repairing relations with his children and acknowledging his past hostilities. But as he acknowledges, with some people, you’re just “too close” to suppress the automatic chemistry reaction that results when the two people are in a room together. To some extent, they will always slip into the same established patterns of snappiness. But this is much like anyone’s relationship to the world at large; no matter how good things get, the mind’s mechanisms always find a grievance to file. The good news is, there’s always an opportunity to drop back and thoughtfully observe the state of your life. Those who make good faith efforts in the examination, as Chandra does, can reliably find life’s reaffirming wonders.