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Why India Owes Big Thanks To Chetan Bhagat

20/05/2016 8:30 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Altaf Hussain / Reuters
Indian writer Chetan Bhagat speaks at the annual Literature Festival in Jaipur, capital of India's desert state of Rajasthan, January 21, 2012. Bhagat on Saturday criticised the support leant to authors whose books are banned for offending religious communities, a day after Salman Rushdie cancelled his trip to Jaipur citing death threat warning. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain (INDIA - Tags: EDUCATION ANNIVERSARY ENTERTAINMENT)

Chetan Bhagat's Half Girlfriend hit the stands in October 2014. The day Bhagat posted its first chapter and a promotional trailer online, the site "crashed" due to heavy traffic! He then posted it on his Facebook page and it attracted more than a million views.

The promotion was perfection and the response magical.

What makes Bhagat such a widely read and widely loved author in India? All his previous six books have been bestsellers and four of them have even been adapted into Bollywood films. In 2008, The New York Times called Bhagat "the biggest selling English language novelist in India's history." Time magazine named him as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Apart from this, he has also received a couple of awards in recognition of his work.

Being a member of what old-timers in India call the "Chetan Bhagat generation", I often wonder what Bhagat has substantially contributed to Indian literature and literature in general?

Bhagat, through his work, has been instrumental in triggering a revolution in the urban Indian middle-class, especially the youth, by making books a fascination for them.

Consider yourself to be a person living in 16th or 17th-century Europe who miraculously, defying time and space, has somehow landed in India today. Having not read Bhagat and simply going by the magical fan-following he has in this country, you will probably equate him with the likes of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. But dear O dear! Bhagat is none of them. He is altogether a different breed of writer who has modified the rules of writing to suit his (as well as the reader's) interest.

Critics of Bhagat (and yes there are many) have argued that his work lacks literary depth and that his sentence formation is of an inferior quality. At best, they say, he produces mediocre literature and that his writing has compromised on literary depth to achieve populist goals.

In an interview with Reuters Bhagat says:

"People mistake brightness with proficiency in English. English is a foreign language to us. There are vast portions of India which don't have that. So they may just want a simple book in English. For them simple English is good enough. But to equate brightness, which means being intelligent, with being [good in] English, that is where the snobbery and elitism begins. And that's where I have an issue."

To judge Bhagat's work from the eyes of a literary critic is not my intention here. Rather I am interested in exploring the substantial contribution (if any) his work has made to society in general.

[T]here is... a need for democratization of readership and democratization of the ability to write i.e. writership...

One of Bhagat's noteworthy achievements -- and one that not even his biggest critic can deny -- is that he has made book-reading a passion amongst the slippery Indian middle-class. Irrespective of the "quality" of content they are consuming, at least they are reading. Bhagat, through his work, has been instrumental in triggering a revolution in the urban Indian middle-class, especially the youth, by making books a fascination for them.

One may disagree with the views Bhagat expresses in his columns and other public forums. I myself, on most occasions, find it difficult to agree with him. However, it is perfectly possible for one to disagree with him and yet appreciate his positive contributions to the public space. Depriving him of this credit, which he has duly earned, would be criminal to say the least.

C.L Wayper, the renowned political theorist, rightly said that, "an idea of the public good is not sufficient for the development of political thought [in a society]. Freedom to discuss it, and eagerness to discuss it and to apply it, are also essential." Book-reading for generations has been considered a positively desired habit for a civilized person.

Our Constitution and our political system also do provide us with the freedom to practice this. But ironically the eagerness to execute this desired habit has unfortunately been missing in our society for long. In this background, Bhagat's work has been instrumental in generating that eagerness to read among the people.

Bhagat's writing has inspired a generation to write and has filled them with confidence enough to experiment with the pen.

"Democratization of democracy" is the new catchword in the realm of normative political thought. Apart from democratization of democratic institutions, there is also a need for democratization of readership and democratization of the ability to write i.e. writership (as I choose to call it).

Chetan Bhagat, in such a scenario, becomes important from a sociological perspective too. Our thousands of years old history is a testimony to the fact that reading and, more importantly, writing has always been the sole prerogative of the ones in power -- the priests, the Brahmins, the royals and so on. In this immense stretch of time we hardly come across books written by common people.

George Orwell in his political satire Animal Farm -- through the character of the learned pigs -- illustrates this phenomenon of restrictive access of readership and "writership" to the masses in modern society as a tool to keep them at a distance from decision-making.

After the entry of Chetan Bhagat in the Indian literary space, a plethora of writers have adopted the pen to speak their heart's voice. Traditionally, writers in India generally came from an academic (or related) background -- English literature, journalism, social sciences and the like. This trend has been dismantled in the post-Chetan Bhagat phase of Indian literature.

Bhagat's writing has inspired a generation to write and has filled them with confidence enough to experiment with the pen. Now we have people writing novels from backgrounds as varied as management, engineering, medicine and science. Is this by itself not democratization of democracy or part of a much needed social transformation?

Why should writing be seen as a prerogative of a limited few endowed with a form of English which the common person cannot understand and relate to?

Why should writing be seen as a prerogative of a limited few endowed with a form of English which the common person cannot understand and relate to? The era of globalization expects us to be a melting pot in the sense that it tends to equate vernacular English with Queen's English.

If we want to increase readership in society, we can't offer a Shakespeare or a Marlowe to a beginner. It will be a nightmare for them and the little interest that they have will also evaporate. It is here that the Chetan Bhagat brand of literature becomes indispensible. This variety is the best suited for any beginner. Once they are into reading, with time, they surely will discover their own taste.

Chetan Bhagat has his magical fan-following because he writes in a language that they relate too. His characters are ordinary and message easily understood. Conscious historians of Indian literature will probably remember Bhagat as a writer of the masses. A writer who through his alleged "poor" English could instil in an entire generation the zeal to read and to cultivate the habit of reading at an unprecedented rate... something even the doyens of Indian literature could scarcely match.

However, it will be interesting to see how the same generation of mushrooming writers and readers respond to Bhagat's work once they familiarize themselves with the likes of Amitav Gosh, V.S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. Will they be kind to him or not... only time will tell. Till then, happy reading!

This write-up was earlier published on my website www.rawatmukesh.in

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