If you have been wondering for a while why your son or niece has been curled up with a Chetan Bhagat novel when you’d rather have them read Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, this article is for you. Mr Bhagat is the author of five novels. According to Nielsen, the official scorekeeper of book sales, these five novels sell over half a million copies a year in India, a market in which sales of 10,000 copies a year make a book a bestseller.
What is it about Chetan Bhagat’s books that captivates India’s young people? To start with, the themes of his books. Five Point Someone is set in an Indian Institute of Technology, but it could have been set in any college in India and deals with the eternal dilemma of our college years: do you spend all your days in college swotting, with your nose buried and top your class, or do you enjoy the social life of campus — getting to know the girls, hanging out with the guys, talking about the meaning of life till late into the night? How high should your grades be so that things work out for you in life when placement time arrives? Is it better to be a five point someone (which means someone with modest grades) who has friends and gets the girl in the end, or would you prefer to be a topper and a lonely man in life?
One Night at the Call Centre opened up the inner world of India’s teeming call centres, that haven for young people with modest grades in school and no discernible talent other than being able to answer the phone in decent enough English. Where everyone is marking time waiting for a bigger, better life — the girls waiting for a break in modelling or to get married to a “big catch” NRI, the boys nursing their entrepreneurial dreams.
In The 3 Mistakes of My Life, three guys, pals since their days at a municipal school in Ahmedabad and avid cricket fans, contemplate their dismal career options. Beg people to buy insurance? Sell credit cards at street corners? Work as a priest in a temple? In the end they decide to open a shop that sells cricket balls and bats.
In 2 States: The Story of My Marriage, boy from Punjab meets girl from Tamil Nadu in college and falls desperately in love. The two, however, meet with parental objections when they decide to get married.
In Revolution 2020, the young protagonists in Varanasi search for success in life, one by starting a private college and the other by being a crusading reporter for a newspaper.
The characters that populate Mr Bhagat’s novels, the preoccupations they have, the ambitions they nurse and the obstacles they encounter are all endearingly those of today’s real-life India. When the under-qualified protagonist at the call centre hears that his fellow call centre worker, who is also his love interest, has an arranged marriage proposal from a “big catch” NRI, an engineer at Microsoft in the United States, I find myself waiting with bated breath – I guess like hundreds of thousands of Chetan Bhagat readers – whether the girl would succumb to the NRI’s attractions or whether she would remain true to our man. When communal mobs during the Ahmedabad riots, frothing at the mouth, demand that our three young cricket shop owners give up their Muslim assistant, I find myself ready to kneel and pray for their protection.
Indian literati hold in high esteem writers like Jhumpa Lahiri (who won the 2000 Pulitzer prize for Interpreter of Maladies), Kiran Desai (who won the 2006 Booker prize for The Inheritance of Loss) and Salman Rushdie (who won the 1981 Booker prize for Midnight’s Children), but obviously do not read any of these authors — because you don’t find them in Nielsen’s India top 200 list.
A literati friend who, because of my admonishments, reluctantly borrowed a copy of One Night at the Call Centre returned it the next day with the following note: “I found the writing TERRIBLE, the plot non-existent, the characters trite … Sorry but I guess I’ve joined the ranks of literary snobs :)”
This immediately reminded me of Charles Dickens. Like Chetan Bhagat, Charles Dickens was widely read (“bestsellers”) in his own time. Dickens’ “industrial novels”, Oliver Twist and Hard Times, invoke the big issues of his time: the hardship of child labour and the loss of individualism that industrialisation brought. Similarly, Mr Bhagat’s novels deal with the tribulations of the average young Indian – one who is neither talented enough nor well-connected enough to succeed in today’s India – earning a living in a call centre, pushing back against intractably conservative parents. Dickens’ own reception by the literati of his time was not flattering either. The English novelist George Meredith said of Dickens: “...a caricaturist who aped the moralist; he should have kept to short stories. If his novels are read at all in the future, people will wonder what we saw in him.”
The writer’s book The Wave Rider was published this year