Chetan Bhagat is a phenomenon. Every one of his four previous novels—all published only in paperback—has been a national bestseller, and each has been sold to Bollywood for a film version. His writing touches a chord with young Indians that few others can match. Bhagat, a 36-year-old whizkid with degrees from two of our country’s most prestigious educational institutions—a bachelor’s in engineering from IIT and an MBA from IIM—used to work at Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong. But the success of his fiction has prompted him, in the words of the author bio at the start of his new book, to “quit his international investment banking career in 2009, to devote his entire time to writing and make change happen in the country.”
The phrase captures both Bhagat’s ambition and the linguistic carelessness that critics love to assail (that “make” sits clumsily in the sentence; it would have worked better as “to making” or even “to make”). But it explains why Chetan Bhagat is an author whom serious-minded literary Indians dismiss at their peril. The sneers with which his stylistic limitations were discussed at the recent Mumbai LitFest are misplaced. To judge Bhagat by the yardstick of the quality, rather than the effectiveness, of his prose is to miss what he is trying to do. He is saying something to young Indians that hasn’t been said before in quite that way; he is reaching an extraordinarily large number of readers; and he is seeking to use his reach to bring about a change in the country, starting with the mindsets of young Indians. This is why he must be read.
The accounts of preparing for the exams, the Kota coaching factory to which he is sent for a second attempt, and the intense competition for sought-after places at the top engineering colleges drip with realism. Anyone who has been through this process can undoubtedly relate to Bhagat’s evocation of their experience. As the success of his previous novels confirms, he has a talent for tapping into the zeitgeist; that he is not (yet) much older than the people he writes about makes him a particularly credible portrayer of their world.
But the travails of would-be engineers and the machinations of educational institutions are only one of three themes in this novel. The others are Gopal’s obsessive—and mostly unrequited—love for the beautiful Aarti Pradhan, which dominates the narrator’s mind for most of the book and brings the story to its conclusion; and the crusading journalism of Aarti’s lover, Raghav, who tries to promote a revolution in India through his exposés of corruption. The first draws the reader in; the second embodies Bhagat’s message.
As the novel’s somewhat odd subtitle suggests, love, corruption and ambition are its principal concerns. Corruption is depicted through the bribes paid and officials suborned to get Gopal’s college going: the sleazy MLA (“We don’t fix cases. We fix the people in the cases”), his menacing goons, and the array of academicians, bureaucrats and officials who seem without exception to be on the take. (If you “question legality too much,” the MLA explains, “education is not the business for [you]”.) I enjoyed the novel, while finding its ending contrived and unconvincing, since its protagonist behaves completely out of character to bring about the conclusion the author wants.
Chetan Bhagat’s style is, as always, simple, unpretentious and unadorned: critics may call the prose pedestrian, but it serves its purpose admirably. The characters are, for the most part, believable, though only the narrator, Gopal, is fully realised. More important, Bhagat’s tone is pitch-perfect, his observer’s eye keenly focused on nuance and detail. Verisimilitude is all: the novel evokes, indeed reproduces, the way the young Indian students think, talk, eat, drink, date, dress and behave. The male haplessness in dealing with the opposite sex is brilliantly evoked, accompanied by flashes of dubious insight (“There’s something about male-female conversation. I don’t think one side ever gets what the other side intends.”). There are nice flourishes, too: Gmail chats and SMSes are reproduced as they would be written, and an amusing internal debate between “Mr Optimist Gopal” and “Mr Pessimist Gopal” lays bare the protagonist’s dilemma in terms the simplest reader can understand.
This only works if you can expand the readership of the typical English-language novel in India, and his success in doing so is the key to appreciating Chetan Bhagat’s importance in the all-too-often rarefied world of Indian Writing in English. For all our billion-strong population, India is hardly commercially viable territory for the workaday Indian-English novelist. The typical Indian literary “bestseller” sells between 3,000 and 5,000 copies; a true success is one that remains in print for years, with successive reprints of 1,500 copies or so every nine or twelve months. (Thus my Indian publishers tell me that my The Great Indian Novel, now in its 36th printing in India, has only sold a grand total of 41,000 copies in all of 22 years.) In this modest market, Bhagat’s novels reportedly sell over 1,00,000 copies in the first month after publication, mainly in small towns where literary fiction is rarely found, and keep selling: the demand for all his books shows no sign of letting up, and Revolution 2020 has had five reprints before this review could even be written. This, ultimately, is the author’s vindication. Read him.
Shashi Tharoor’s review of Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel (Books, Nov 21), in its painstaking efforts not to speak an unkind word, was amusing. Mr Tharoor sounds rather like Manmohan Desai (“this is what the public wants”), but needs to ask himself if that’s a fair justification for bad prose. I’ve read one Bhagat book, and it was horrible! Why do we Indians aspire to the lowest common denominator? I’d rather we had 40,000 smart readers than a million buffoons who read Bhagat.
Aleya Jung, New York
Well, Bhagat’s books are okay; after all, they’re thrillers in a way. But one is a bit dumbfounded that his kind of prose is what comes out of someone educated at some of the country’s finest institutes. One might say he’s dumbing down for the sake for his characters, but I see him on TV all the time, and he speaks just like the people in his books. I sort of yearn for the days when we didn’t know our authors so well. In these days of endless book launches, we often know more about authors than their books—and that’s not always to their advantage.
Vijay Menon, Bangalore
I read the book, and loved it, especially those bits that exposed corruption in the private sector education industry. I hope Kapil Sibal reads the book and takes action.
Bhaskar Majumdar, Noida
Imagine a C-class movie—the usual stock characters and the assembly of romance, rivalry, romance, conflict and a resolution. That’s what a Chetan Bhagat novel is like. Some like him, to many he’s unpalatable. More mass than elite, his books have put many people into reading novels in English. But then, just like you need an art film, maybe you need to watch masala thrillers too.
I loved the book, especially the exposé of corruption in the private university industry. Hope Kapil Sibal reads the novel, and takes suo moto action.
Tharoor is so demented..its not even funny. His first Indian novel was the "Great Indian novel" that sold on 44,000 copies in 20 years. I suggest Tharoor should publish an album of his naked pictures..that may up the publication numbers for him to match Chetan..but again who wants to see a hairy and naked politician.. oops..take that back.. maybe the Parliamentarians..!
The eternal debate of the elite and the "dumb" masses. Democratization means going with the masses (unwashed or otherwise). Democratization by definition with time, at least from the Elite's perspective, will result in an overall dumbing down - as the lowest common denominator gains importance.
Even in the US, the % of population that reads supposedly "high" literature is very low - most don't even bother with novels - tabloids is where reading stops or may be the next step of weather in USA Today paper.
Having said that, unlikely I will get to Chetan Bhagat any time soon. I will stick with the movie versions of it.
India's current demographic pattern (with half of its population aged below 30) suggests a huge market potential for the first time readers of Indian English novels. These young people may not be from very affluent families educated in elite English medium schools of Indian metros, but they belong to a newly emerged, globalized and aspiring Indian middle class with rising consumerism and disposable income. Chetan Bhagat writes for and about these young urban Indians on plots and ideas familiar to them narrating his stories in a language they feel more comfortable with. If you sneer at Bhagat's prose, please sample a large number of readers' comments on the Times of India online to understand the English language skills of Bhagat's audience.
Mr.Tharoor's assesment is like Manmohan Desai saying "this is what the public want" this is not a fair justification for bad prose. I have read one book by Mr. Bhagat and it was horrible, we Indians always describe the Indian intellect by the lowest common denominator. This is not good for us and not good for art... Mr. Tharoor your modesty is not graceful, I'd rather have 41,000 smart than a million buffoons who read Bhagat.
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