Friends, Indians and countrymen, lend me your ears.
Today is Chetan Bhagat’s birthday.
And we must come to praise him, not to troll him.
When after India’s victory over Pakistan, Bhagat tweeted, “See Pakistan if your forefathers hadn’t insisted on Partition, you wouldn’t have to see this day”, @guldaar in Pakistan sniped back, “If our forefathers hadn’t asked for partition, we would’ve had to live in a country with you. Which is unacceptable. Thanks.”
But we as a country should be thankful. It is hard to believe sometimes that once we lived in country where Chetan Bhagat did not have an opinion. On Kashmir. Indian Muslim youth. Or five things women need to change about themselves. Or rather he had an opinion and none of us knew about it or cared.
It is hard to believe sometimes that once we lived in country where Chetan Bhagat did not have an opinion.
Perhaps it was a more peaceful world, a world with fewer migraines, a world where fewer people tore their hair out screaming, "Why? Why? Why?”. But it was certainly less eventful.
Column after column has been written about his pedestrian prose. And how he excuses it saying, “98% of Indians have poor English”. Except as Lakshmi Chaudhry writes that “’defender of the masses’ schtick would be convincing except he isn't part of that 98 percent. He's received the best English-medium education this country has to offer: Army Public School, Delhi; IIT-Delhi; and IIM-Ahmedabad. And yet the man can't string a decent sentence together. Either he had terrible English teachers or was just a lousy student. And neither is reason for pride.”
But Bhagat is an honourable man. And many of his critics, they are just jealous. Jealous of his book sales. Jealous that he thinks his real competition is Candy Crush. Jealous of his 6.84 million followers and counting on Twitter. His selfies with prime ministers or is the PM’s selfies with him?
His critics wail:
O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason…. Bear with me;
My heart is in the coffin there with Wren and Martin,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
But let us give the man his due on his birthday.
1. Bhagat dares to go where few would tread. Not even a motormouth like Giriraj Singh. When Giriraj Singh talks about Hindus and Muslims and their birth-rates he makes a clear distinction between them and us. We must have a two-child norm for all religions, he says, else, “OUR daughters will not be safe and might have to be kept under the veil, like in Pakistan.” Bhagat does not believe in such distinctions. He does not just write about a young, liberal Muslim. He goes and writes a column AS a young liberal Muslim. This might drive his critics up the wall but is also sheer chutzpah.
2. Bhagat is our national conversation starter. Sometimes much like Charlie in that Stephen King book was a fire-starter. As Samit Basu writes in India Today:
"The pattern is simple: Chetan does something or says something. Everyone drops everything else and goes crazy. Chetan is hurt. Chetan talks about how the elite hate him, conveniently ignoring the many most-powerful/influential Indian lists he's been on. Chetan talks about wanting to change India. And Chetan wins."
"The pattern is simple: Chetan does something or says something. Everyone drops everything else and goes crazy."
Thus, the now rather infamous letter with gyan to young Kashmiris came about. Thankfully, he did not decide to adopt the persona of a young Kashmiri. But again here’s the importance of being Chetan Bhagat. It elicited a firestorm of letters back to him, some hysterical with anger, some deliberately calm, all the way up to Barkha Dutt.
3. Bhagat has shown us you can be successful without being an engineer or a doctor. 2009 was a landmark year in India though we did not know it then. That was the year Chetan Bhagat finally left his banking job and became a full-time writer. It has unfortunately spawned an entire cottage industry of IIT-IIM writers who believe in his motto, “Good grammar doesn’t make you a good writer. A good heart does. Else English teachers would be writing bestsellers.”
“Good grammar doesn’t make you a good writer. A good heart does."
But Bhagat cannot be held responsible for those who have come in his wake. Let us give him credit for showing a middle-class, nervous and excited-about-change India, that it was possible to give up a 'good-job' and do even better.
The fact is, as Samit Basu writes Bhagat is the Salman Khan of publishing – “a family-friendly, non-violent, covered-nipple Salman Khan, but a Salman nevertheless.” Salman’s range might be tiny but it does not matter, the box office loves him. Everything else is just blackbuck.
4. Bhagat is our guilty pleasure. I remember a panel at the Kolkata Literary Meet with Vikram Seth and his mother, Leila Seth. The senior Seth admitted that once when she was laid up with a broken limb, she picked up a Chetan Bhagat book to pass the time and found it quite absorbing. There are a lot of Leila Seths in this country. Some are open about it, some not. Otherwise, Bhagat would not command the kind of sales he does. And the fact that the elite literary festivals of the country roll out the red carpet for him proves that in the end, literary standards or no literary standards, he gets the last laugh.
Bhagat is our guilty pleasure.
5. Bhagat reassures us. As much as we roll our eyes at his prose, it also reassures us. We can write like that too, we think. He feeds our fantasy for success, fame, money without making it seem like a difficult polysyllabic trek requiring years of research in the intricacies of opium poppy trade.
We have made him into a phenomenon, easy to digest, dispensing gyan on anything and everything, whether or not it’s his area of expertise. Secretly we all want to be that person. We want to be taken seriously for our opinion, to have it lapped up and analysed. We are, as Chaudhry wrote, his ideal India - “mediocre, middle-brow and always mahaan”. And Bhagat gives us what we crave in just the right dosage.
On the other hand, on an issue like 377, Bhagat chose to speak up against the law. He didn't have to. He also advised gays not to march in streets like in the West and freak people out. Our conservative country needed to be nudged to change. One suspects he sees himself as that "nudge". And if it works, more power to him.
The problem for poor Chetan Bhagat is he matters so much, that everything he tweets is now taken with utmost seriousness. Like when he asks nerds “solve this:If H=80% and M=20% of population & H couples have 2 kids on avg & M couples 4,& assuming a 25yr generation,when will M>H?”
Some actually rushed to solve that, others to castigate him, forcing Bhagat to say, “Oh, mr. sillies, I was being sarcastic and satirical”.
But alas, the importance of being Chetan Bhagat means everything he says is taken seriously. Today he told us he misses the innocent days of Twitter when he could just goof around on silly topics and not have every preposition analysed.
One has a sneaking feeling he really does not. The burden of fame is heavy but the burden of anonymity can be even more crushing.
So let us leave you with this bon mot from the master himself.
“The world's most sensible person and the biggest idiot both stay within us. The worst part is, you can't even tell who is who.” Chetan Bhagat, 2 States.
Happy Birthday Chetan Bhagat. What would we do without you?
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