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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.
Revolution 2020 bears all the Bhagat hallmarks: the author himself appears at the start of the book, meeting the principal protagonist, who proceeds to tell him the story, which unfolds at page-turning pace until a didactic denouement. The first-person narrative unfolds in the voice of Gopal Mishra, a poor lower-middle-class Varanasi boy with an ailing father, who struggles to make it to engineering college, fails heartbreakingly, then discovers that he can do better using his father’s barren agricultural land to start his own college than to study in one. (“Stupid people go to college. Smart people own them.”)
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.
“My English is not that great,” says the narrator of a previous Bhagat novel. “So, if you are looking for something posh and highbrow, then I’d suggest you read another book which has some big many-syllable words.” Chetan Bhagat may not use many big words, but he does have a big idea: to write books that people (Indians who do not normally want to read literary fiction) will pick up and relate to, in prose they can understand without feeling they are being talked down to—and to use these books to call on young, aspiring middle-class Indians to change the India they are living in.
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.