Culture & Criticism Since 2003
The Indian people love puns. The more subtle and intellectual the pun, the better. It’s considered the highest artistry to lay a pun that does not hatch for months or even years later, when the recipient finally notices it.
Such was the lot of Doctor Larry Brilliant, author of Sometimes Brilliant. As a part of the personal odyssey that is the subject of his book, he is striving for spiritual growth under the Maharaji, perhaps India’s best-known guru. After months of study, the Maharaji casually calls him “Subrahmanyum.” Brilliant has been given a Name. Aside from the recognition of spiritual growth, Brilliant is thrilled, because Subrahmanyum is one of the finest warriors of Indian mythology, one who achieved spiritual awareness when asked to lead two opposing factions in battle.
But it wasn’t until he was in the States many years later that Brilliant discovered the semantic roots of the name. “One who is suffused with light.” “One who radiates”. In other words, someone who is brilliant.
The title, of course, is a pun. Sometimes Brilliant. Sometimes Subrahmanyum. The title is also evocative of a Ken Kesey title, “Sometimes A Great Notion”. Brilliant began his voyage with Kesey, the Merry Pranksters, and Wavy Gravy. The echo in the title can’t just be coincidence.
Wavy Gravy plays a fairly profound role in the story. In my own ignorance, I considered him an amusing relic of the Psychedelic Era, whose claim to fame seemed mostly to be that he knew all the Right People in that place and in that time. Through Brilliant, I learned that he was an intellectual and ethical leader, one who paid a very heavy price for the act of thoughtcrime.
Sometimes Brilliant is about India, and smallpox. Brilliant was a physician/devotee who played a seminal role in the eradication of this loathsome disease. Everyone reading this now has lived a life free of the fear of smallpox.But listen: one in three who caught the disease died. There was no cure, nor any real palliative measures. And the lesions kept growing, not just all over the skin, but throughout the body – the pain intense. Moreover, the lesions had a special affinity for the eyes, blinding 10% of those who survived the illness. And half of those weren’t blinded directly by the disease, but instead because they clawed their own eyes out rather than endure the pain.
India exacts a toll on helpful people, it seems. Brilliant tells of the hippie voyage of discovery days, when he and Wavy Gravy (and others) cruised around in day-glo buses called “The Hog Farm,” hitting on the idea to bring food to starving villagers. As it turns out,the trip tested his core as he was trapped on top of the roof of the bus, under the hot Indian sun, suffering a severe attack of dysentery. As the hours passed, he used up all of his toilet paper, then tore his dhoti into strips and used that, until, naked, weak and sun-burned, he is left with but two objects with which he could clean himself: his passport and his medical certificate. That he recovered, and continued traveling from country to country and practicing medicine suggest that perhaps he simply ran out of ammo.
Add governments to the mix and the story gets ever more bizarre. In order for Brilliant to work for the UN as a physician, the US government had to determine that he had adequate loyalty before being exposed to foreigners. Somewhat to his surprise, Brilliant passed, despite a background of dissent and failure to be impressed by President Nixon.
The best of most narratives about voyages of discovery by westerners in the subcontinent can often be faintly annoying due to a slightly supercilious air. The worst can make you ashamed to be a Westerner. But Brilliant’s story is one of the finest examples of the genre I’ve ever read. In the end, he makes you proud to be a human.
Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Ontario, and spent his formative years living in various parts of Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia before finally moving to the United States, where he has lived for over 40 years. Aside from writing, his interests include hiking, raising dogs and cats, and making computers jump through hoops. His wife of 25 years edits his copy, and bravely attempts to make him sound coherent. Reach him through The Electric Review.