Opinion – In defence of Chetan Bhagat

Not really though.

Yesterday, I was at Full Circle Bookstore in N Block, Greater Kailash 1. It is a nice bookshop where you can sit and browse through sections. Usually there are one or two customers in the shop quietly going through the books. I picked up a couple of books but then realized that a bookshop doesn’t usually offer discounts and I would probably get those books at half price on Amazon. Contributing my bit in the funeral of the bookshop, I put the books back on their shelves.

I started looking for books that I could get for Rs 150 – 200 and there were none in the literary section. Most of them were priced at 299 and the ones I liked were all upwards of Rs 699. I sat there flipping the pages of Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman when a voice boomed in the bookshop, “Bhaiya, Half Girlfriend hai?” (Brother, do you have Half Girlfriend?)

I made a face and sucked my teeth. I turned around and saw that it was a lady with a kid. She was wearing something uncomfortable for the summers. It was flowy and had a leopard print. Now we all know that Chetan Bhagat doesn’t really write the nicest of books but the fact that a person who reads only occasionally and sparingly (I am assuming because I am judgmental) can walk in a bookshop and just ask for his title – is an achievement for the author.

You have to agree that he is doing something right. And that thing is – he writes everyday stories. Leave aside the fact that he marketed his first book through tie-ups and deals. Leave aside the fact that he hasn’t had anything consequential to say after he finished telling his life story. You have to learn from his success. His success also talks about a very fundamental problem in the country. It is a two pronged problem – 1) No one buys books anymore and 2) No one writes good fiction anymore.

When he entered the market, we had no big names in contemporary popular fiction. The huge void was where he saw his market. We had taken our kids and shoved them in the Engineering and IT industry. But no one was writing to them. We ourselves were not writing letters to them. We had just sent them to Kota for Allen Coaching Institute on a one way ticket.

Those were the times when Bhagat spoke to them. Now tell me what is a good book to read for a common reader of today? I know “good” is subjective. But the generation before us had R K Narayan and Ruskin Bond to grow up on. Both these authors again wrote stuff that kids of those times could identify with.

Suppose I want to read a crime fiction novel with police procedural elements, where is a good book on that? I know the pulp fiction from Surendra Mohan Pathak but he writes in Hindi – Urdu – Punjabi khichdi. Also he is an old writer. There is no one writing a crime series with the current sensibilities in mind.

Suppose I want to read a book on the middle class life today. We do have good novelists writing literary novels with quaint little stories from villages set in pre-independence India. We have novelists talking about lives of the very rich and the very poor, but who do we have to read to get a picture of a government office or an upper-middle class living room? I agree that a handful authors do exist who are writing stories and novels that are set in modern India but then, do they speak in a language that the country understands?

I am not putting the blame on the modern Indian writer but taking some blame away from Chetan Bhagat. He is giving us our stories. Now this addresses one part of the problem – the second part specifically.

The first part was that no one buys books anymore. Now, Bhagat’s books are priced at around Rs 70 to maximum 150. That also becomes one big selling point for the books aside from the fact that they have an inherent appeal. It is not that Indians cannot afford a Rs 500 book but we are yet to make room for books in our budgets. Torrents and illegal sites have made entertainment and knowledge sharing quite easy. It is hard to pay for something once you know you could have it for free.

A good way may be to start with 150 page novellas priced at an affordable range and then ease the reader into the reading world. It is not that the reader needs the books. It is your book that needs a reader. This is precisely what Bhagat, Noboneel Chokroborty, Ravinder Singh, Durjoy Dutta and their kind understands. Now society is in constant flux and this generation might have enjoyed their Half Girfriends and I Too Had A Love Storys but once we, maybe a decade or so later, make the switch to another kind of society, this debate will be reborn.

There will again be someone surprisingly good and cheap. And the intelligentsia would not approve of his tactics, will also refuse to learn from him. Hopefully the next Chetan Bhagat would not be judging dance reality shows. (God!) The trend will continue until we have writers who are conscious of the world we live in.

Now there is another side to this story. The other side is easier to understand in the light of the popular and trending topics on the internet these days. There is a girl named ‘Dhinchak Pooja’ who screams about her accomplishments like wearing a cap that has SWAG written over it and taking selfies ‘today’. Her screaming is labelled as rapping to insult the art form. She has garnered thousands of views and has become a sensation. So, to someone who studies Chetan Bhagat in the academic light, this is an interesting case study. This side of the coin shows that the audience will gobble up any nonsense you put out there as long as you say it often and you market it well.

There just might not be anything consequential in Chetan Bhagat and it all might just be a case of Dhinchak Pooja-itis. Stay warned. Next, I review his book and tell you why this blogpost doesn’t matter. Spoiler: His book is crap.

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