A quirky novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss takes the reader into the life of a highly successful Indian born emeritus professor of Economics at Cambridge. Chandra, as he is known, is a contender for the Nobel Prize in Economics, and at the beginning of the novel, he finds himself overlooked yet again by the Nobel committee. After swallowing his disappointment and putting on a brave front for the reporters with a nonchalant “C’est la vie” as his comment to them, he heads off to a conversation with the Master of his College. The Master reprimands him for his brusque and rude treatment of some students and Chandra decides to assuage his sorrows with some chocolate covered gummy bears before heading to the office.
As he crosses the road, he is hit by a bicyclist and ends up in the hospital where his doctor tells him he has had a heart attack, is overstressed, and needs to follow his bliss. When taking stock of his life, Chandra realizes that as a divorced father of three, his 17th-century cottage “was now the dark retreat of a tragic recluse, an Indian Miss Havisham with an Emeritus Professorship and a takeaway menu.”
Chandra follows his doctor’s advice and heads to sunny California for a stint as a visiting professor and to find ways to relax.
What follows is a series of comic yet poignant moments where Chandra learns to reconnect with his family. His ex-wife has moved to Colorado with her new husband and has taken their youngest daughter, Jasmine, with her. Chandra’s son, Sunny, lives in Hong Kong and has morphed into a new age corporate coach/guru and his older daughter, Radha, has left home and not communicated with her father for years. Chandra imagines that living in California would allow him to bond with Jasmine.
Not surprisingly, Chandra’s life takes unexpected turns. Jasmine has a drug problem and Chandra takes her to a zen retreat center in the mountains of Colorado with the hope that she will be rehabilitated. The crisis with Jasmine brings the family back together including the estranged daughter, but nothing in their life is predictable, and the novel follows Chandra and his travails with an exquisite combination of irony, humor and empathy.
Balasubramanyam’s novel is not a typical diaspora novel about people struggling between homeland and hostland but much more of an examination of the existential challenges of the highly successful immigrant. What does it mean to dedicate one’s life to work and success, and where does it take us as parents and spouses? Who are we when we strip away our work identities? These are some of the questions that the novel takes us through with gentle humor and surprising insights.