Interview with Harbhajan Sandhu

In this fascinating interview, the author of Wayward Brahmin talks about his novel, his characters, the underlying themes, self-publishing, the populist hunger for physics and astronomical knowledge, cosmology and a “theory of everything”, the possibility of finding life on other planets, the relationship between the physical universe and spiritualism and his novels in progress.

Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: There are quite a few biographical similarities between you and Mo. Did you intend for the book tobe autobiographical?

Harbhajan: I really did not intend for the book to be autobiographical, but there are, no doubt, many biolgraphical similaritites. As Thomas Wolfe, one of my favorite authors, said, in his “You Can’t Go Home Again,” “…if one wants
to write a book that has any interest or any value whatever, he has got to write it out of the experience of life.” Yes, like Punjabi and Mo, two main characters in “Wayward Brahmin,” I come from a small village in northwestern India, and came to Penn State in the US for a post-graduate degree in Physics. And like Punjabi, I taught Physics and Astronomy for many years before retiring. Like Mo, I often sat for lunch with an artist friend and colleague, one who frequently grilled me regarding Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and other topics in Astrophysics and Cosmology. The trials and tribulations of academic life and the vagaries if its trivial rivalaries embellished in “Wayward Brahmin,” are commonplace experiences on many college campuses, including the author’s. So, in those repects, there are close parallels between the author and the main characters. The rest of it, generally speaking, comes from authorial license to embellish, and to fabricate an interesting story. Yes, I also, like Mo, once went on a sabbatical journey of loneliness and self-discovery.

Magdalena: What about Punjabi? Where did he derive from?

Harbhajan: Punjabi, literally speaking, is someone who comes from Punjab, a province in northwestern India, where I come from.

Magdalena: What came first, the characters and the story, or the physics and theoretical philosophy? Or did the two write themselves concurrently?

Harbhajan: I just started writing, with a vague idea of the main characters, and what I might want to say. After that, the narrative took on its own life, sometimes going in a direction I would have never thought to go; no doubt, this is a common experience for writers; being possessed by one’s imaginary creations. Since the characters were academicians, who are generally prone to speculation, a physicist and an artist in this case, the subjects of physics, cosmology, and theoretical philosophy became the focus of their discussions. In that respect it all came together at the same time.

Magdalena: What would you describe as key thematics of the novel?

Harbhajan: The underlying theme, not envisioned initially by the author, is, “to live by one’s heart’s dictates” as Punjabi and Mo did. Mo would not go home and marry a Brahmin girl in an arranged marriage, against his heart’s yearnings, and he would not suffer academic subservience for the sake of early promotion. Later, he traveled to a distant arctic land in pursuit of his dream, to live happily ever after, or perish. In the philosophical discussions, there is an underlying theme of life’s meaning or its meaningless-ness; earth’s minute-ness, and our insignificance in the vast infinity of the cosmos.

Magdalena: What would you say are the most important things you learned publishing a novel yourself?

Harbhajan: I decided to self-publish “Wayward Brahmin” to quickly get it out there. It would have take many years to find a publisher and actually publish the book; for a new author, it is very difficult to break into commercial publishing.

Self-publishing is fast; it is exciting to see the process moving quickly, and see one’s work in a book form. “Marketing and promotion” for your book faces the same impenetrable wall as finding a commercial publisher, unless you have loads of money for advertising. Some have even said that a commercial publisher may not support the needed level of marketing for a new book either. Anyway, it was a new and exciting experience.

Magdalena: Would you self-publish again?

Harbhajan: Probably not. I will, at least, make an effort to find an agent or a mainstream publisher next time; one that might help promote the work more effectively.

Magdalena: You are a professor of Physics and Astronomy. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Harbhajan: Yes, absolutely. I always wanted to write fiction, and did some writing at various times. I had an article published in a college magazine (non-fiction) entitled, “Mysterious Universe,” during my second year of college in India. I also some short stories that have gotten lost, a play entitled “Vagaries of A Foreign Land,” that dealt with humorous anecdotes of adjustment by foreign students in a new country. It was performed by amateur, Indian Students Association student actors in a church theatre at Penn State; it was just a fun thing to do.

Magdalena: Do you think that there is a kind of populist hunger for more physics and astronomical knowledge?

Harbhajan: Yes, I believe so. But it is beset by its technical complexity; it would be of great benefit to present it in popular, simplified, understandable form. When I was writing the science-related parts of “Wayward Brahmin,” my wife, Dr. Carolyn G. McGovern-Bowen, author of a recent novel, entitled “Evil Seed,” would offer a critique when the scientific discussion was getting too detailed or too boring. I would work to simplify it, or break it up with some lighter moments. Sometimes science can be more exciting than any fiction in its fantastic imagery and speculation; just look at the seemingly endless layers of structure in particle physics, and in astrophysics and cosmology: Big bang, black holes, quasars, matter, antimatter, parallel universes, untold dimensions of space and time…It is replete with the most fantastic speculation that can be found anywhere.

Magdalena: What issue in the areas of Physics and Astronomy plagues/interests you the most? Do you believe that a “TOE–Theory of Everything” is possible?

Harbhajan: At the extreme edges of physics and astronomy, science and science-fiction have merged together. The reason I say this is that in the
current state of physics, many new discoveries are not discoveries in the ordinary sense, something that you can see or touch or test by three-dimensional models; they are deductions made from a blip on a screen based on some theoretical formulae. In cosmology, the notions of “dark matter,” parallel universes, and their theoretical formulations in multiple dimensions (ten, eleven dimensions) are really meaningless in our three-dimensional space. They are, for all intents and purposes, science fiction with the difference being that they have the backing of mathematically sophisticated and recognized scientists; ergo they are considered to be scientifically sound.

“TOE–Theory Of Everything” is possible only in this eleven-fold dimensionality; a mathematical construction, that really would mean nothing in the three-dimensional framework that we humans live in. So what of it? Nonetheless, these areas, although lacking test-worthiness and certainty, are of great interest to me, for their power of imagination, and in their conception of what possibly could be out there as a part our cosmic existence.

Magdalena: Do you think that we will find life on other planets in our lifetimes?

Harbhajan: I do not believe that we will find life, as we know it, on other planets in our lifetime, although there is no reason to think that life does not
exist on other planets. But to find these life-sustaining planets and to actually reach them, or even make a contact with them, is a task that is severely limited by physical laws. We know that the Earth is the only planet in our solar system that has conditions suitable for life, and many of the nearby stars have no planets around them. So, the planets that might have life-supporting conditions would be at such great astronomical distances that they are not reachable by the means available to us. It is like trying to find needle in a haystack, and the haystack is just too big. Surely, people have talked about the possibility of microbial existence deep under ice-sheets on other moons in our solar system, but the conditions suitable for life of our kind in those remote regions of our solar system do not exist.

Magdalena: One of the themes working through your novel is the relationship between the physical universe and spiritualism. Do you think that these concepts are at odds?

Harbhajan: Fritjof Capra in his “The Tao of Physics,” speaks of the parallels between Modern Physics and Oriental Philosophy. This parallelism is becoming clearer in recent speculations in the field of Cosmology and Unified Field Theories, especially now that we have gone so far afield from sensor ally perceivable, three-dimensional entities. The new theories and the imaginary reality they promote e.g. unperceivable eleven dimensions, sound much like what ancient sages have said: World is Maya, an illusion, it is Lord Brahma’s thought process casting its shadows etc. The domain of eleven-dimensional reality, within which we are searching for TOE–Theory of Everything, is as much a conjecture or thought as is Maya of Hindu origin. Not exactly though, because the latter is supported by mathematical equations, and the former is just an idea. But the mathematical equations without any sort of solid, verifiable proof is also, just an idea. In this sense, the continually diminishing materialism of Physics, is approaching some sort of spiritualism, not in the religious sense, but in the sense of the cosmological models of the East.

Magdalena: Are you working on something new? Tell me about it.

Harbhajan: Yes, I am completing my second novel, tentatively titled “Face of Darkness.” It is about an illegal immigrant from India who is killed in a racially motivated assassination because of his relationship with a local woman. His folks financed his journey to England, land of great riches, he was told, by mortgaging their farmland. His journey takes him along an underground route, through the city of Lahore, Kabul, Samarkand, Krakow, Amsterdam, and then to Coventry (England). Being a very sensual being, he seeks out and experiences the loves of equally sensual ladies along the way. He is also chased by the authorities at various ports, and finally, as he travels across the English Channel, he is forced to be trapped in a wine cask to avoid the Customs patrol, and then cast into the sea. Not having been retrieved as he was promised, he comes face to face with the agent of Death. However, his cask is pulled out by a fisherman and he is saved; but only to face death soon after at the hands of ignorant bigots. This novel also has several scenes filled with unspeakable pathos related to the mass migration of refugees during the 1947 break-up of India into two separate countries, during which an estimated fifteen million people were killed; it also contains tales of ancient Hindu mythology as told to the hero during his youth by a blind, old matriarch neighbor.

Also, at a preliminary writing stage, is my futuristic sci-fi novel, entitled “2184; A vision of man’s future.” It will deal with a futuristic society peopled with a part human, part robotic species.