Why Does Chetan Bhagat Get Your Goat?

12/10/2016 12:52 PM IST | Updated 12/10/2016 12:59 PM IST
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I am no fan of Chetan Bhagat (CB). The mediocrity of the craft in his books keeps me away from them. Also, his tweets and columns and speeches are often terribly offensive and rather unintelligent and crass.

I cannot wish him away just as I cannot wish away the reality of dengue and chikungunya. Some try, of course.

In a 2012 article on Chetan Bhagat, "The Game Changer", journalist Subir Ghosh quotes two well-known authors:

UK-based journalist-writer Salil Tripathi [says], "He exists for readers who are new to the English language and new to the idea of reading." Author-columnist Santosh Desai agrees, "It marks a breakthrough of sorts – writing in English becoming popular in a mainstream sort of a way, moving away from a desire to exclude, speaking to a new set of aspirations with simple but resonant stories, cocking a snook at elitism."

"Moving away from a desire to exclude!" I am not going to focus on the desire, but let's just go with the word exclude. Along comes CB and includes. Of course he has devoted fans—wouldn't you if you spoke for and to someone about things that they mull over, dream of? If you took their thoughts as worth any attention? When the arbiters of "taste" and "art" and "culture" made these multitudes feel not quite "suitable", not quite "in?"

Ranting against CB might do a lot of things for those who rant, and for those who go "yeah!" with those rants. It does not change anything for those who are his fans and readers. It makes them love him all the more. It shows, in fact, a rather closed-minded, one-size-fits-all mentality of entitlement among the ranters. A smugness that comes from a lack of any examination of their own position.

A refusal to understand or acknowledge that there are logical, real reasons behind his success (and not CB's magical ability to "fool a generation of readers") is an arrogant refusal to face colossal shifts and new fault lines in our nation. It is a refusal to see who holds what kind of cultural, economic and social power.

So, I'd go beyond. I'd like to offer explanations, understanding, and hold out a hopeful call for a more creative response to the world's realities.

I am a compulsive student of society. So I take an interest in what makes CB click so well with millions of my desh-waasis (English and non-English reading), and many in foreign lands too (yes, his books are translated into many Indian and foreign languages, French and Japanese included). He opened a new market segment for books, created a new breed of readers. He does not necessarily have to be the one who helps them evolve as well. Bacche ki jaan loge kyaa? He is not god, even though his stamina and self-belief might make him a demi-god to those who don't know better.

In sneering at CB, we also sneer at his readers. Why be so snide and superior about us versus them? What do we have to offer them, instead, that will be resonant and connecting? Which voice will speak to their yearnings, and can someone help them find a more sophisticated, refined, nuanced awareness of that yearning?

In sneering at CB, we also sneer at his readers. Why be so snide and superior about us versus them?

Respect another's experience and life view, because it comes from a different place. Would you be you had you been in their place? Too much to ask, I know. I got carried away. Why be so serious? Why ever not?

Market forces understand consuming power. Money talks. Sales figures are the kingmakers. What is to rant about? Don't like what the system throws up? Want to rant against the real root of things, and not the symptoms, maybe? Rant against the forces of consumerism, which turn everything into a market product. Give it a thought.

Sadly for the "English"' types, CB got on to the hotline too easy. And then the gods of the market put all their armies at his disposal. He keeps going. It pays him handsomely. Why would he do any different? Once he hit the mark, non-book markets came to cash in on him. He sold out. Given his clout should he choose better? Maybe, maybe he can't. Would you? Have others? Give it a thought!

Look at the basic premise that the advertising and marketing industry works on. Seriously, give it a thought. A lot of thought.

It is a free world, people. No, it is a "free-market" world, specifically. When CB first came into the market he had a unique and novel product. Five Point Someone spoke to a segment of youth about things no one had publicly talked about, but which were ripe for articulation. He did it soothingly, gently, without making the reader uncomfortable. In the newly liberalizing Indian middle class, comfort was at a high premium.

My neighbour told me excitedly that on reading this book, she felt she could understand where her husband came from a little better. And she thanked CB for it. This was a Loretto School-educated Delhi University girl married to an IIT-IIM boy. That segment may not be his core audience anymore, but give the devil his due—he spoke to someone's heart.

There is word in Hindi that I think of when I see the outrage against CB—"tilmilahat." It captures the essence of the reaction.

CB has moved on to other topics. He picks the stories carefully, with studied deliberation I am sure. Then, he plays the market. He touches on pain points but does not go for the jugular. He gives you resonance, but does not break your heart. That is his choice. And the reader's too. We cannot rant against that. C'mon, not everyone wants to be shown all the skeletons in their cupboard. You cannot give babies real knives and scissors to play with. There are a few who are born to high art. For the rest it takes growing into. The consumer society public discourse and media do not help that growth. They want to paint a utopian, no-difficult-questions scenario, where every answer is achievable, every problem solvable with something readymade off the shelf. Like it is with the situations and characters in CB's novels. Or they want to scare you about impending doom. There is no nuance.

Give it a thought.

Having seen that he could catch reader's attention, and a slice of the book market, CB turned bolder. Tier-two -three towns, the lesser known engineering colleges and regular graduates with dreams fuelled by liberalization and globalization of the job sphere were a big market hungering to hear about people like them. People whose young lives had changed in unimagined ways in a matter of very few years. The narratives of their parents did not fit into their new world. Nor could they relate to the writers who wrote in "elite" English for "elite" readers. This was the setting ripe for One Night @The Call Centre. Let's not forget, this was the time when most people "like us" sneered at those taking up call centre jobs.

How judgmental is it of some of us to decide that people different from us must adhere to our tastes and not like what connects with them?

The thing that strikes me most about all the vitriol raised by the CB haters is how little of it is actually useful literary criticism. Most of the "critiques" are quite lacking in anything educative for the seeker of good reading guidance, or for someone looking to develop a higher order taste in books, and offering nothing to help readers understand what makes CB a poor writer. There is word in Hindi that I think of when I see the outrage against CB—"tilmilahat." It captures the essence of the reaction.

The thing that strikes me most about all the vitriol raised by the CB haters is how little of it is actually useful literary criticism.

I saw the film Two States with a woman friend who loved the book and the film because it was the story of her life. Who is to judge the value of her fondness for what holds meaning for her at such a personal, deep level?

I found my tailor reading Half-Girlfriend. I asked him what he thought of the book. He said he found it realistic, and enjoyable. I got a copy and read it (it was a drag, honestly) to know what was working for this book. As a piece of art, and for its craft, I could trash the book. But I admired it as a product. Could have been better. But then, CB never claims perfection. Just that he sells. DDLJ sold. Dil Chahta Hai sold. Both left me cold. But they were cult hits, I keep hearing. Why? Give it a thought.

On a recent visit to the parlour, I was reading Ramachandra Guha's massive tome, India after Gandhi, while getting a pedicure. The boy attending to me was a young lad from Madhubani, sweet and curious and confident. He talked in English, and asked me to correct him if needed, so he could improve. He asked questions about the topics in the book. We discussed the role of mass media, book publishing, the role of English as the language of power and knowledge. And I wondered if there was a simpler, easy-to-read version of this history book I could recommend to him. I am sure the same boy could read CB. And that is the underserved market we have in this country, hungry for so much. Junk will be lapped up as greedily as long as it is available and somewhat understood. As of now, all this pedicure boy can perhaps reach for, in English, is CB. Will there be a better book for him to read in English soon?

This analysis written in 2010 holds as true now as it did then:

"CB's work is mediocre... it isn't snobbishness to find a piece of work mediocre and reject it for being so. But as to the question of holding the creators and their fans in contempt for patronising mediocrity, and denying them any form of attention, that's just wrong, and could well be snobbishness...

Some of them read his books because they don't know any better or they don't enjoy reading good Indian fiction or contemporary international literature, or even the classics. No wonder then that they worship Chetan Bhagat... Is this Chetan's fault? Of course not. He didn't force all these millions of Indians to buy or read his books. He simply used his natural talent to write within his capacity, and the masses happened to love his work. Why blame Chetan for the reading habits of the masses?

Our anger at Chetan Bhagat's success could actually be our displaced anger at the masses.... if you're a lover of good literature, and are amazed by the constant attention CB gets, my advice is to ignore it. That's right. We are an evolving society. Until we all evolve to a point we appreciate good literature, we should realise that there will always be some people who will enjoy reading CB. What's more, no one's forcing you to read his books."

For those who are still fuming, is being angry and full of hate all we can do? Can we instead turn our anger to something more positive, creative and better?

Give it a thought.

This post first appeared on the blog Birdsong & Beyond.

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