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Three Generations, Two Dogs, and the Search for a Happy Life
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 5, 2010. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Gotham Chopra considers himself a pretty average guy. He devours pizza, lives and dies by his hometown teams, and watches Kung Fu Panda with his son–daily. But his childhood wasn’t quite so average. Growing up, Gotham was exposed to the deepest reservoirs of knowledge that his famous father, Deepak, could find; his childhood was part spiritual, part scientific, and totally unique. Now a newly minted father himself, he’s contemplating the influences he wants to draw on for his own son. The first was no surprise: his father. The second was unexpected: his dogs.
From Nicholas, the blaze of energy and anarchy who turned the family upside down, to Cleo, a rescue mutt with food issues, the Chopra dogs taught the family about curiosity and wisdom, open-mindedness and passion, not to mention loyalty and pig’s ears. But what else, Gotham wondered? And how did these lessons compare to the ones that Deepak himself imparted?
Gotham would soon find out. When his mother took an unexpected trip to India and leaves instructions to look after Papa, father and son have an opportunity for male bonding on a big scale. That this bonding takes place on their daily walks seems almost natural. After all, Gotham also had in his care a nervous dog and an exuberant toddler, both with an insatiable need for exercise and exploration. So Gotham and Deepak walk and talk, discussing the laughs and licks that come with having a dog, along with the contradictions, complexities, and consequences of having children. They soon realize the qualities they observe and admire most in their pets are values we humans would do well to nurture within ourselves. They discover that our best friends have a lot to teach us.
Gotham and Deepak’s message may seem simple, but therein lies its brilliance. Heartfelt, endearing, and above all down to earth, Walking Wisdom offers readers both enlightenment and comfort, with a little bit of mayhem thrown in for good measure.
Are you a dog person, Papa?
I’m supposed to say yes, right?
Yes, I am. I was not a dog person until you guys showed up.
And . . . the more I’m learning about animals in general, the more I’m understanding that most of them are emotional beings. They form social hierarchies. They build closely knit and nurturing bonds with their offspring. They sing and play. And some have a degree of awareness, almost to the point of self-awareness such that they have a sense of humor. Animals and humans also form special connections through limbic resonance, cementing their physiological and emotional well-being. Mammals have a limbic brain and develop emotional and spiritual relationships with us. I probably should spend more time with animals.
IN MY FAMILY, THE FAMILY IS THE THING. WE ARE PROfoundly close. I live a block and a half from my sister. I take my son to her house for breakfast pretty much every morning. Our families have dinner together about three days a week, and at least once over the weekend. Our children refer to each other as siblings and not just to each other. “Cousins” is an awkward term to them because it implies an emotional distance beyond brother and sister, which is how they’ve felt about one another from the moment they entered the world.
Mallika and I grew up much the same way with our so-called cousins. Even though we are separated by continents, we still refer to one another as siblings. Growing up with so many “brothers” and “sisters” was a thrill. Entire generational factions formed amongst older siblings, younger ones, tomboyish ones, girly ones, sporty ones, geeky ones, and so on and so on. Splinter groups formed between baseball fans and cricket fans, football fans and fútbol fans—there was even the Barbie bloc, with Diwali Barbie facing off against Malibu Barbie.
These days, most of us have gone beyond those mere surface differences to once again count ourselves as siblings. And now our kids, who I suppose are technically “second cousins,” refer to each other as siblings too.
When it comes to adults, the same familiarity applies. Mallika and I call my father’s younger brother “Chota Papa,” which in Hindi means “small papa.” His children call my father “Bara Papa,” or “big papa.” All of this can cause considerable confusion around the dinner table. Tara—Mallika’s older daughter, a little more than eight years old and one of the elders of this generation—recently fielded the question from one of her classmates: Are Indians like Mormons? The girl had heard Tara reference the exploits of her countless “brothers” and “sisters.”
“You mean like on the HBO show?” Tara responded.
And about “big papa,” in this case the guru otherwise known as Deepak Chopra. Mallika and I have always called him “Papa.” We never really got into the whole “Dad” thing. These days both of us talk to Papa at least four to five times a day. We are the reason wireless carriers created family calling plans. You’re welcome.
But there really is only one anchor in the family. Mom. We’ve often joked that while my father talks it, my mom walks it. He may be great at coming up with lessons and laws that solve everything from stress management to existential madness, but it’s Mom’s grace, compassion, selflessness, and softness that are a shining example to everyone she comes into contact with. I am clearly my father’s child—a dreamer, a creator, a wanderer with hopeless impatience and driving ambition—but the reason I am the way I am goes far beyond genetics. The mere fact that I’ve made it this far, succeeded in finding an amazing woman to be my wife, and together with her started a family, is due to the emotional tapestry that my mother has woven. She’s the one, not only in our immediate family, but also all throughout our extended family and our many siblings, who provides the emotional bedrock on top of which we all stand. When the shit hits the fan, no one calls Papa for advice. We call Mom.
So in May of 2009, when my mom got a call that her father had been admitted to the hospital, it took her just five minutes to contact the travel agent and book her flight to New Delhi.
Nana, as we called him, had been on his early morning walk when he collapsed.
New Delhi in May is feverishly hot—intolerably so—with temperatures in the triple digits at the crack of dawn. Despite this, both my nana and my grandmother, Nani, insist on going on their daily walks. Of course, considering that they are both almost ninety and still active, it’s hard to argue that they should let up on their routine. (That routine, by the way, involves their going on separate walks at separate times so they can meet up with their respective cronies and gossip while they stroll leisurely around the circular park.) Nana, in particular, brings a dry realism to these walks, as he does to most everything else at this stage of his life. Often when we talk on the phone he will tell me about the latest member of the group who has failed to show up. No further explanation required.
Nana and the rest of his buddies accept each absence with a stark detachment that is both ironic and comical. They are resigned to their stage of life and watch and comment on the world with this in mind.
“I don’t know why we even tolerate Pakistan,” Nana had remarked to me on a recent trip to India. Politics—especially its role in the strained relationship between India and its neighbor—is a constant source of discussion and debate for Nana.
“Maybe because it is a nuclear power,” I proposed. “And any act of aggression could quickly escalate to something far more dangerous.”
Nana waved his hand dismissively. “That would take years to happen.” Years, Nana had clearly calculated, in which he would likely leave us.
Nana has been preparing for his own demise for some time now, something not uncommon within his group of buddies. Nevertheless, because the walkers take the narrow path two at a time, their fleet requires recalibration when one of their crew fails to show.
“It’s not easy,” Nana once told me. “Who walks alongside whom depends on who is a talker and who is a listener. Take Ramesh,” he said, referring to a friend he’d had for close to forty years. “He passed away two months ago. Well, Ramesh walked with Arun, and he’s always rattling on about this, that, and the next thing. No one wants to walk with that fellow, so now I have to.”
“Your grandfather says he likes to listen,” Nani interrupted us. “But he’s only doing it because he’s losing his hearing.”
Nana smiled and nodded. Indeed Nani knows all his tricks.
Because he walks every day, we like to take Nana a new pair of sneakers when we visit him in India. But since Nana has been convinced for roughly the last decade that he’s going to die imminently, he now refuses to accept new sneakers, which, he believes, will be wasted on him. He’s nothing if not frugal. Since I have the same shoe size as Nana, I will often wear a new pair of kicks for about a week . . . or until they are no longer new. I’d gotten used to skidding through dusty construction sites, moonwalking down grimy parts of Hollywood Boulevard, or doing my best Kobe Bryant imitation on the Venice Beach basketball courts before packing them into a box that doesn’t match their brand. All this so that Nana can accept the shoes with minimal guilt.
But for this trip my mom didn’t have the usual time to gather gifts and plan her trip. As she rushed to gather her things in San Diego, where my parents have a home, she called to say she would be leaving from LA the following morning.
“Gotham,” she said, waiting a beat, “I may be gone for a while this time.”
“Okay,” I murmured back on the phone. “We’ll be fine, I think.”
“Yes, you’ll be fine. Candice takes care of everything,” she said warmly.
The moment lingered.
“It’s your father I’m worried about.”
. . .
AS FAR BACK as I can recall, my father has always worked, and worked hard. Chief of staff at a prestigious local hospital and an associate professor at an equally highbrow university in Massachusetts where we grew up, he focused on moving forward with a singular fixation on his own professional path. Somewhere along the line, this obsession took a more spiritual shape, and his life and ambition were transformed. No longer part of the traditional medical community, he pioneered a new one that bridged conventional treatment with the ancient healing wisdoms of the past. As he blazed a trail through that wilderness, at times called out by cynics, skeptics, traditionalists—and dare I say racists—he did it with a passion and zeal that may suggest he was impervious to their rants. But he wasn’t. So even as Mallika and I struggled to maintain some level of normalcy to our lives in suburban Boston, where being the children of an Indian doctor was unique enough, let alone one who was gaining notoriety for talking about such quasi-fringe practices as yoga and meditation, it was my mom who stood loyally by my father’s side.
It was the commitment she had signed on for when the two of them were married when he was twenty-four years old and she was twenty-two. It was the commitment she had determined to honor. Within months of their marriage in India, my parents took off to a new life in glamorous Plainfield, New Jersey. They built that life in earnest, my father working all day in the hospital and then moonlighting in the emergency room on the night shift. Within a month, they bought a color TV and a Volkswagen Beetle, and the rest was history. Sure, there were a few bumps along the road, but nothing too catastrophic. And here they were almost forty years later.
So as my father gained acceptance through many of those years for the work he was doing, traveling to every corner of the globe to speak and teach, it was Mom who reminded him where he had come from, and equally important, where he was to come back to.
Later that evening, my parents arrived in Los Angeles. We all got together at Mallika’s house for dinner. The most recent word from India was that Nana had stabilized but was still unconscious in the hospital. His heart was weak and he might need bypass surgery. His age, however, made the decision less certain. My mother’s older sister was hopeful my mom would be there soon to help—check that—to make the decision.
“Is Bara Nana [big nana] going to die?” Tara asked as we silently ate dinner that night. My mother looked at her with tears in her eyes.
“No, Bara Nana will be just fine,” Papa said, holding his grandaughter’s gaze.
“Can I have strawberry milk?” little Leela (Tara’s younger sister) asked. Since birth, she’s had a knack for timing and getting the things she wants, including knowing when the adults’ defenses were down.
“Sure.” My sister nodded and got up to retrieve the milk.
“I want strawberry milk,” little Krishu piled on, always echoing his older sister, whom he worships.
Mallika glanced at Candice, who shrugged her approval.
“I can make more saag curry,” my sister’s husband kindly offered, noticing the somber tone around the table. He’s the undisputed top chef in the family. Like in most Asian clans, good food is the way we navigate through life’s ups and downs. But not tonight. Our appetites were clearly off.
“No thanks.” My mom got up from the table. “I’m going to call India again and check in.”
Later, after the kids had gone to sleep and my father drifted outside on a phone call, my mother drew Mallika and me together again. “Your father will be fine. He’s used to being alone. But this time, just stay in touch.”
Ironic really, considering that on a normal day we’re in touch close to half a dozen times.
“You know what I mean,” she said.
We did know what she meant. With my mom having to hustle into action and get onto a plane with no real preparation and no definite plan to be back anytime soon, the fact was that my father was going to have to recalibrate considerably. He’s quite adept at fending for himself, considering the amount of time he travels, speaking, teaching, and promoting his books. Less his physical whereabouts and movements, it was more his emotional anchoring my mother had in mind.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom,” Mallika advised her. “Just go take care of Nana.”
My mom’s eyes welled up again with tears. She nodded and then reached into her bag and pulled out a shoe box with a Nike swoosh plastered across its top. She lifted the lid to reveal a shining new pair of K-Swiss sneakers in my size. She handed them over to me.
“Go run around in these.”
Father or grandfather? Which is your favorite role?
I think my favorite role is grandfather. When I was a father, I was so busy and so unaware that your mom had to take care of everything. But now, even though she still takes care of everything, I have more time to play. Or I should say, more inclination to play.
Wait—you’re still a father!
Yeah, but my playful role comes from being a grandfather.
SATURDAY AFTERNOON. CANDICE WAS PUTTING KRISHU down for a nap, a weekend ritual that usually culminated in their both taking an afternoon slumber, while Cleo and I kicked back on the couch to take in whatever game we could find on television. Today though, I felt an awkward pressure to socialize with my father.
“What are you doing?” I asked him.
“Wikipedia,” he said as he hunched over his computer, not taking his eyes off the screen. My father loves Wikipedia and Google. I mean serious infatuation. Keep that in mind as you read his next best seller. A vast wellspring of wisdom and knowledge, he is profoundly influenced by the two broadest information sources online.
“What are you reading about?” I pressed on.
“Happiness,” he answered, clearly not feeling the same obligation I did.
“What about it?” I egged him on.
“Like all emotions, happiness creates a biological response. It triggers the release of specific chemicals in the brain in the perfect dosage, better than any pharmacy ever could. Fascinating.”
Not really, I thought.
He sensed my dissatisfaction. “All animals including us create our own biologies. We dictate the quality and longevity of the life we live. Whether you have high counts of serotonin, an antidepressant drug, or cortisone, an anti-inflammatory, coursing through your body determines everything—how you feel about yourself, your work, your relationships, your life. If you can self-regulate those chemicals in your body without the aid of any drugs, then you control fully the quality of your life.”
“Interesting.” I decided to be the aloof one this time.
Surveying the situation and sensing that this was where we were hanging for the next few hours, Cleo moved toward my father, slid beneath his feet, did a few circles, and set down into a comfortable heap. He eyed her suspiciously.
“Don’t mind her,” I said. “She just wants to hang out near you.”
I shrugged. “Because that’s what makes her happy, I guess.” Take that, Wikipedia.
“How old is Krishu?” my father inquired, taking his eyes off Cleo.
This is a unique quality of my father’s. He’s taken the idea of time just being a concept to a whole new level. Recently someone asked him how old I was. He eyed me like a technician surveys a lab rat in a cage and answered confidently, “Twenty-five.” Being that I am thirty-four and his son, I’m not quite sure how to rationalize that one, except that maybe shorting me by a decade or so somehow made him feel younger. With Krishu, there is not that much time to play with. He’s been with us for just short of two years. Though he appears to have laid out a hefty down payment on his terrible twos, at that moment he was pushing just about twenty months.
“Almost two,” I answered my father. “Why?”
“We still have time,” he said, sounding more and more like a mad scientist. “By the age of two, most children’s brains are almost fully formed. By the age of four, their responses to various stimulae are so rigid, they can’t be changed. By the age of eight, their neural pathways are so defined, their behavior patterns so fixed, there’s hardly any point anymore.”
He looked up at me. “Did you know that most leaders in the world—almost all men, incidentally—have the psychology and biological responses of eight-year-old boys? Threaten them and they threaten you back louder. Hit them and they hit you back harder. In that way, they are no different than little boys or dogs.”
I furrowed my brow at him. Likewise at the mention of the word dog, Cleo perked. Where was he taking this?
Don’t get me wrong. Similar sentiments had been plaguing me in recent months as I had seen Krishu’s transition from an infant who relied solely on his mother for survival to an actual human being whose mind was in constant and rapid expansion. For the first eighteen months of his life, I had concluded that I was of little more value than a utility player is on a championship baseball team: I got the occasional pat on the back for surprisingly adding value, but those same folks would hardly notice if I were replaced by another body. The true participants in Krishu’s evolution had been a gaggle of women: Candice, her mom, my mom, various “lactation consultants,” and other moms with shared experiences. Let’s not forget the online mommy tutors.
But then, around the eighteen-month mark, all of a sudden that baby started to become a kid. I, for one, found it intimidating and was still feeling the burden of it as I sat there with my father, sensing that he was preparing to start his experiments on my progeny. Candice had spent her full nine months of incubation reading every child development book known to man, and then reread them all when Krishu arrived, seemingly turning herself into a Jedi master of motherhood. But I had faltered, relying on the notion that some primal paternal instinct would kick in and navigate me through the maze of parenthood.
Now I eyed my father the same way that he eyed Cleo. Could he really be relied upon to offer me the wisdom I craved? I turned out okay, I thought to myself. Didn’t I?
At that moment, Candice and Krishu pushed through the door into the living room. Krishu had a huge smile on his face and his mama looked weary. “He’s not going down for a nap today. Too much excitement with Dada here.”
On cue, Krishu sprinted across the room toward my father. “Dada!” he sang, plunging into my father’s legs just as Cleo narrowly avoided his uncoordinated rush.
I might still be feeling out this father thing; nevertheless, I had adapted to the husband thing fairly well over the last seven years. Looking at Candice and sensing her fatigue, I turned back to my father and Krishu and grabbed Cleo’s leash from the wall. “Why don’t we all go for a walk?”
Krishu had just discovered the functionality of his legs in the last few months and the glorious act of walking that goes with it. Just strolling around our suburban Californian block is a real adventure for him. What should take about five minutes often turns into a twenty-five-minute odyssey so that he can reposition the white rocks that groom a neighbor’s garden, smell the lemons hanging off the branches in another yard, point out the colors of cars that line the streets, and the crowning moment of every stroll—play fetch with Riley, the golden retriever who sits devotedly in front of her house waiting for whoever may pass.
I am reminded on these daily walks that neither of the two dogs I’ve had in my life—Nicholas nor Cleo—has ever mastered the game of fetch. I’m not sure if that’s more a reflection on them or on my family’s inability to teach the most simple and common game between a dog and its owner. Riley, on the other hand, is an expert fetcher. A handful of bald tennis balls always surrounds her. Using her snout she’ll push them beneath her white picket fence, hoping to prompt a game of fetch with anyone who happens to walk by. Krishu, of course, is always game.
When I brought this up with my father—our dogs’ historic inability to play fetch—he frowned and replied: “Training any animal, be it a dog or a human, to react in a Pavlovian manner, to grunt, pant, or drool on demand, is no great achievement.”
“It’s kind of a nice tradition,” I offered, recalling all of the beer commercials I’d seen in which men and their dogs joyfully played fetch. Admittedly, I struggled to see Papa cast in that role.
Papa countered: “In fact, one of the greatest attributes that dogs have is their ability to just be without worrying about repercussions. That’s a quality that should be nurtured in them.”
Leave it to Papa to be the contrarian. Without even trying, I had rubbed him the wrong way. He started up again as we rounded the corner and ambled toward Riley’s house. Krishu ran up excitedly a few feet ahead, anticipating the game.
“It’s one of the significant problems we have in our society. We demand conformity, that people react how we want them to, meet our rigid expectations of them. As a result, they do. The average human has ninety thousand thoughts every day. Do you know that the vast majority of them are the same thoughts they had the day before?”
In fact, I did know that. Not because I’m some sort of behavioral scientist, but because I’ve been around my father enough to know that he often relies on the same statistics and examples to emphasize his theories. Ironic really, considering the point he was trying to make. I chose not to highlight this back to him.
He continued: “How often do leaders around the world react with anything other than absolute predictability? Agitate them and they react with suspicion, defensiveness, and hostility. It’s the history of the planet and leads to greater distrust, confrontation, and war. I’d say that many of the leaders you see around the world—from presidents to prime ministers, dictators and demigods—are not that much more sophisticated than a dog playing fetch. Throw the ball, and get the expected result. The only problem now is that along with these ancient habits, we have modern technologies.”
He huffed and shook his head. For the last few years, contrary to his reputation as a New Age savant in pursuit of answers to only existential angst, my father’s main focus has been on global issues of war, social injustice, and the decaying ecology. Truth be told, he spends more time these days contemplating conflict resolution than karma, terrorism than timelessness. As he’s entered what he so ominously calls the “twilight of his life,” he’s become obsessed with fixing the planet’s physiology and biology, rather than healing its soul. As there is a lot of work to be done in that regard, I often find him frustrated and even despondent over something he’s seen in the news. His greatest disappointment is with the lack of leadership around the world. It’s a recurring theme with him.
“Give the leader of a toppled state a little authority and what does he demand? More. Rebuild the military or economy of a budding nation and what do they want? To become a superpower.”
Papa shook his head ruefully. “Most so-called leaders around the world are petty tyrants, operating from the consciousness of preadolescent boys, without the ability to think outside of their own limited instinctive rigid needs.”
It was no surprise to me that my father could relegate the neighbor’s dog to the same corrupt and sad-sounding group of the world’s worst leaders. Still, I felt bad for bringing it up, especially at the precise moment that we came upon Riley’s white picket fence. Seeing her friend, Riley quickly retrieved as many tennis balls as she could fit in her mouth (amazingly, three) and dropped them at little Krishu’s feet. It was almost as if I had staged the whole thing. A wide grin spread across Krishu’s face as he picked up the first saliva-slicked ball, reeled his shoulder back, and thrust the ball forward. The moment it left his hand, Riley lunged and charged off, plowing through dirt and leaves to catch the ball before it had even rolled but ten or fifteen feet. Racing back with it clenched in her mouth, panting and drooling, she dropped the ball again at Krishu’s feet ready to do it all over again.
As he always does, Krishu reacted with great delight, clapping his hands, almost dancing in place, and laughing loudly. He glanced at both my father and me with his enveloping smile.
“Dada, do it,” Krishu ordered. Papa did a double take, looking from Krishu to me and down at the soaked tennis ball. Well aware that a moment before he had likened the game of fetch to the decay of human civilization, he was clearly unsure how to react.
“Dada, do it!!!” Krishu pleaded, his glee poised to take a dramatic turn.
“I’d do it if I were you,” I urged my father. I knew how this could turn out.
Papa bent down, plastered a fake smile on his face, and threw the sopping ball a considerable ways farther than Krishu had. Riley was up for it and charged hard through the garden again, catching the ball before it came to a stop. Spinning around on her hind legs, Riley once again rushed back to us with the ball in her mouth.
- On Sale
- Oct 5, 2010
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Hachette Books