In conversation with... Rajeev Balasubramanyam

Hi Rajeev! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss! Can you please briefly tell us what it is about?

A: Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss is the story of a neoliberal economics professor at Cambridge who, every year, expects to win the Nobel Prize and is continually disappointed. He has a huge ego and is very identified with his prodigious intellect. As a result, he has severely damaged relations with his family. One day he is hit by a bicycle and wakes up in hospital alone. After his Californian doctor tells him he’ll die if he doesn’t reform his approach to life, advising him to “follow your bliss”, Professor Chandra relocates to California where he has a series of life-changing encounters. 

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: I had it roughly planned in three broad sections, but these were very broad strokes. The details all filled themselves in as I wrote, and rewrote.

If this novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Professor Chandra?

A: Irrfan Khan would be my immediate thought (he played the older Pi in Life of Pi, as well as many other roles I really liked, particularly in The Namesake and The Lunchbox). But I’d be interested to see what any talented actor brought to the role. He does feel like a very cinematic character.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: I don’t know if any of it was difficult to write. It wasn’t that sort of novel. Somehow it was easy all the way, even though I had to write several drafts. The scene I enjoyed writing the most was the group therapy at Esalen. That also came out very clean, didn’t require much editing. It was fun to write something with so much dialogue, but dialogue that was so pointed and focused, so intense, a confrontational group therapy scene.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: Yes, quite a few scenes. Sunny had a wife and children originally. They got the chop. And Radha had long and brutal tales of abuse at the hands of the police; they also went. All of this would have unbalanced the novel.

Can you please describe your journey to publication?

A: It took a long time. My agent submitted it in May I think, and I got the offer from Chatto & Windus in October, by which time I was very anxious. I was on a 10-day silent meditation retreat, and turned my phone off, An hour after Chatto & Windus were trying to call me with the offer. I turned my phone on ten days later at five in morning under a tree in rural Sweden, and read a four page letter from my editor, Becky Hardie, which made me cry. She was so in love with the novel and the letter was so heartfelt.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I am, yes, but I don’t want to say much, or anything, about it. I’m still finding my way and can’t confidently say what it’s about until I’ve at least finished a first draft. 

What are you reading at the moment?

A: Angie Thomas’s new book, ON THE COME UP. A YA novel about a young girl who wants to be a rapper. I loved THE HATE U GIVE (I don’t often read YA novels), and the film was beautiful too, so I’ve been looking forward to this. 

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: It definitely can be disruptive and we’re all having to figure this one out together, as it’s such a new thing, though there seems to be an emerging consensus now that social media is bad for mental health, that it induces anxiety, low self-esteem, envy, and aids perfectionism and procrastination, all demons for writers. It can, however, give writers a sense of community; that’s a wonderful thing, and is a superb tool for networking, particularly for introverts. I don’t think using social media to interact with readers needs to be harmful at all – the problem isn’t social media, per se, the problem is addiction. And as always with addiction, there’s no point in blaming the drug. We have to go to the root, to the trauma; we have to heal our wounds if we want to overcome addictions, because otherwise, if we cut out social media we’ll just become addicted to something else, and starting the day with a Facebook binge is probably better than starting the day with a couple of beers. I find that social media becomes a problem for me when I’m at my weakest, when I’m off balance; and it’s then that I have to seek to restore balance to my life. But if I’m balanced, then it’s a useful resource to have. 

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: More than anything else, I’d advise looking after mental and physical health. In fact, I find that when I start talking about writing I use the same language as when I talk about addiction. I have no evidence to make up this assertion, but I strongly believe that the overwhelming majority of addicts and writers are traumatised; and that trauma comes from keeping our pain, and our memory of painful experiences, locked inside; writing helps us let it all out, helps convince us that we exist and that we matter, that our pain matters. As a result, writers tend to be far more honest than most people, at least in their work, and this runs counter to social convention and, quite possibly, isn’t all that sensible. Sometimes we let our demons out of the box when we aren’t ready to face them. So when I say 'look after mental and physical health', I mean make yourself strong enough, healed enough, to be able to face the things that terrify you as and when you let them out. I used to use alcohol, drugs, tobacco, none of which really worked, at least in the long-run, and now I use meditation. I’d advise all artists and writers to do some sort of awareness practice and to be wary of addiction, to which I think, as a tribe, we’re particularly prone. We need to try to make that transition from wounded child to loving adult.

Thank you for your time!


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