I’ll admit I have hated Chetan Bhagat ever since he chose to become the voice of the generation.
I have lambasted him on my blog a number of times (back in the days when I would wake up in the morning, smoke a joint and shoot off blogs). I hated his annoying, all-knowing attitude, his IIT-IIM White-Lightning face, and his knack of reducing the complex problems of the nation into simplistic solutions reminiscent of Govinda-Kader Khan movies.
And yet, my hatred for him is his annoying public persona, his elevation to some sort of public intellectual on the basis of his novels. Over the years however, I have softened towards the man.
Primarily because in the years since, I have been a struggling author myself. Every year for the last three years, I do acid in the month of January and plan out the book for that year. I spend the next 11 months toiling and wrestling and struggling with that book. I then send it out to publishers in December and get rejected – year after year, every year.
So I get the pain. I don’t condone Chetan Bhagat’s public persona and opinions, but the utter hatred for the man has baffled me.
I have noticed two distinct traits in how we Indians consume art.
1. Overdose: If something works, there are a hundred clones of that genre. Take for example all those authors who wrote books called ‘I had a love story’, ‘You had a love story’, ‘We all had a love story’, Modi had a love story’, ‘Can love happen twice/thrice/746 times’.
We take a winning formula and churn it out till we are up to it in our necks. That is the
reason why Shah Rukh Khan still plays a lovelorn romantic hero. It is the reason why our singers spend their entire lifetime singing a particular kind of songs. It’s the reason that as a nation (with all our diversity and languages), the only kind of music we have is film music.
2. The phenomenon of ‘too massy’: If something becomes too popular (meaning it seeps past the urban minority and reaches out to Tier-II, III and rural areas), it is considered crass and distasteful. This happened to Govinda’s movies, Comedy Nights with Kapil Sharma, and Reliance Jio.
In a nation that suffers from a crippling inequality of wealth, anything that is consumed by the masses is automatically assumed to be cheap and crass. The same happened to Chetan Bhagat and his books too. Till about 2008, he was being hailed as a game-changer, someone who finally spoke the language of the masses, about issues that a newer India could relate to. But as soon as he become a nation-wide phenomenon, he was deemed too ‘low-market’.
Most people I meet actually don’t hate him for his opinions, but for his writing.
These are mostly urban, elite, youngsters who were brought up on Hemingway and Prost, and grew up to echo the opinions of everybody else around them.
I don’t even know where to begin with this argument. Writing, like any other art form, is highly subjective. There’s no real saying about what’s good or bad. Some of the greatest literary epics – from Grapes of Wrath to Moby Dick to A Catcher in the Rye were panned by critics and readers.
This is even shocking in a nation like India where knowledge of English Literature is a direct reflection of the social capital that you enjoy. Your taste in books is ‘better’ because of your upbringing – your parents, school, the company you keep. It does not make you wiser, or more tasteful, it just makes you a privileged fucking snob who chooses to piss over other’s tastes
About 10% of India’s population speak English. Out of those, these people are about 5% – the ones with access to books and literature. And yet, the sheer snobbery when it comes to Bhagat and his books is appalling.
To mock the themes of his books, the idiotic stereotyping is one thing. But to say that the English/grammar in his book ‘sucks’ – I’m sorry – makes you an elite prick.
Chetan Bhagat might not be a literary force de majeur, but he has encouraged millions of Indians to pick up a book and read for pleasure. Before Bhagat, a book by an Indian author cost above 350 rupees, and a small jar of Amrutanjan Pain Relief Balm.
As someone who mails publishing houses every year with a manuscript idea, I have a fair idea about the industry – a gigantic incestuous family that churns out shit year after year. This is hardly a new phenomenon and legendary Indian writers have had a problem with this hackneyed Indian publishing industry that is reeling from a 70 year colonial hangover. Manto had his own share of problems, as did RK Narayan – who self-published his books after years of frustration.
Indian publishing houses put the ‘prof’ in ‘unprofessional’. There are no prompt responses, no acknowledgment of acceptance. You are supposed to shoot in a mail and wait in the darkness for months at end. Try getting a phone number and pinging/calling (something that would be considered alright in any other industry) is looked down upon.
And in spite of all this attitude, the kind of books that are published are not worth wiping your shit with. And Chetan Bhagat cracked this market.
Hate him as much as you want, but young India is reading his books. They don’t give two shits about Vikram Seth and his unsuitable balls, or Arundhati Roy cribbing about the state, its mechanisations and the colour of aliens’ underwears.
First generation Indian English speakers are free of the colonial burden of Indian literature and are picking up Chetan Bhagat’s books. His works are accessible, relatable and palatable.
Which is why I smiled when my Tinder date complained about Chetan Bhagat books. She went on about how she thought he was ‘disgusting’, and wished that Indians would read Neil Gaiman and Murakami instead. Sure thing, Little Princess. I quickly asked for the cheque and looked for the exit.
I assume she thought she was being remarkably different – a cut above the rest. While all she was, was an intellectual five point someone!
New York Times article titled ‘How English Ruined Indian Literature’ – a different perspective on the same issue. (which I thought was rubbish, but I’m trying to be unbiased here! 😀 )