This book is funny, insightful, and the main protagonist, Professor Chandra (short for Chandrasekhar), is one of the most endearing, albeit curmudgeonly, characters I have encountered in my reading all year.
Chandra, 69, is an emeritus professor of economics at Cambridge in London. He considers himself the foremost trade economist in the world and fully expects to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2016; he is devastated when he is passed over. In his distraction after finding out the bad news, he walked into an oncoming bicycle while crossing the street and ended up in the hospital. Furthermore, as his doctor told Chandra, he had suffered a silent heart attack. The doctor advised him to take at least two months off from work. He suggested Chandra eat healthier foods, exercise, and relax: “You gotta follow your bliss, man. That’s all there is to it.” (The doctor was from California.)
Chandra decided to go to Los Angeles, for three reasons: it was warm; it was relatively near his youngest daughter Jasmine who lived with Chandra’s ex-wife Jean and her second husband; and he could get a visiting professorship in Orange County.
Jean left the marriage because felt she and the children were invisible to Chandra – he was obsessed with work. All his children were alienated from him in some way or another as well. Sunny, the oldest, lived in Hong Kong and saw his father as a rival. His oldest daughter Radha once said to him, accusingly: “God forbid you actually notice anyone else’s existence, or listen to anyone, or give a shit about anyone except yourself and your oh-so-important career.”
Jasmine was uncommunicative and had developed a predilection for taking drugs. She explained to her dad, “I’m the only one who isn’t anything. . . . Sunny’s trying to be you. Radha’s trying to be your opposite. Me, I’m not anything. I’m not like you. I’m not like Mum. I’m just nothing.” In addition, her grades, something her father always harped about, are bad and she feels like a failure.
Jean later confessed to Chandra that throughout most of her life she felt similar to how Jasmine feels – just drifting. She faked a fondness for what everyone else liked, without any awareness of what she herself wanted.
Since his accident, Chandra can relate to all of it:
“And now he was a year away from being seventy and had set not only the department but the world on fire, and yet 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.”
Or as someone pointed out to him that biologist George Wald, who had won the Novel fifty years earlier, had said:
“What one really needs is not Nobel laureates but love. How do you think one gets to be a Nobel laureate? Wanting love, that’s how. Wanting it so bad that one works all the time and ends up a Nobel laureate. It’s a consolation prize. What matters is love.”
Chandra goes to Boulder, Colorado for Jasmine’s high school graduation and celebration party at Jean’s house. Jean is now married to Steve Benowitz, a child psychiatrist and an annoying ex-hippie that no one likes but Jean. During a confrontation between Chandra and Steve over Jasmine’s taking drugs, Chandra punches Steve in the nose. Afterwards, out of revenge, Steve pressures Chandra into signing up for a course at California’s Esalen Institute everyone thought Chandra would hate, “Being Yourself in the Summer Solstice.” Chandra agrees because anything would have been worth it to punch Steve. It made him feel giddy, alive: “I’m doing it,” he thought. “I’m following my bliss.”
At the Institute, which Chandra refers as “the Technicolor Funny Farm” (flowers in vivid hues are everywhere), he confronted his fears and inner demons, and against all of his expectations, actually learned a lot about himself. His instructor, Rudi Katz, encouraged the participants to explore the negative beliefs they internalized and then projected onto others.
As Chandra thought about it, he became cognizant that it was his father’s voice he heard all the time in his head, calling him stupid, pathetic, lazy, idiotic, etc. He realized he had called Sunny those names, and had spoken to him with similar contempt. In essence, he was parroting the criticisms his own father made about him so many years before. When he spoke about his fear that he had also made Jasmine feel bad about herself, one of the participants who was around the same age as Jasmine pointed out to him he clearly had judged his kids by his own standards but “she’s not you.” Moreover, even now, she said to him, Chandra was focused on himself instead of trying to see and hear others:
“You are self-important, superior, and pompous. You think everything is about you. You never listen, and you don’t get women. You think you know everything. You think you’re right all the time.”
Meanwhile, back in Colorado, Jasmine got arrested for drug use and Chandra was able to get her admitted to Cove Zen Center for rehab, run by a woman he met at Esalen, Dolores Blum. [This fictional zen center was probably modeled after Deer Park Monastery, a 400-acre sanctuary in California which the author mentioned in the Acknowledgments. He wrote that he also spent time at Esalen and other zen centers.]
The story ends at Christmas time, after Chandra has turned 70. Jasmine invited everyone in the family to the Cove Zen Center in Colorado. There Chandra discovered that escaping old negative patterns is harder than he would have thought, but at least now he is self-aware. And they all benefited from a message etched in wood at the center (that you can buy online for yourself, here):
“Let me respectfully remind you, life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken. Awaken! Take heed! Do not squander your life.”
Evaluation: There is so much I appreciated about this story. For one thing, while there are many messages about “finding your bliss,” they are so deftly woven into the story and couched in so much humor that one never feels lectured at. Second, I loved the realistic look into “self help” and “self improvement.” Psychologists cite two main reasons there are so many self-help books on the market [known in the business as “shelf-help”]. One is that many believe it is because of their own shortcomings, rather than say, factors related to race, social class, educational opportunities, or connections, to name but a few, that their lives – and the behaviors they adopt to cope – aren’t better. The other is that the mostly bromidic books rarely work, so consumers are always looking for the next, best fix. The author honestly acknowledges and addresses the difficulties with changing, and evinces compassion for the situation. Finally, Chandra and his family, with all their flaws, are so charming and consummately human, I found them irresistible.
Published in the U.S. by The Dial Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, 2019