It took the much-praised (and sometimes maligned) Chetan Bhagat just one bestseller to become a character in his own stories. He is already famous in One Night @ the Call Centre, returning from a talk at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, about his book.
He is also already sensitive to criticism, stung when his travelling companion calls it a “just okay-okay type book”. ‘“Some people do want to hear about it,’ I said, keeping a sweet tone to sugar-coat my sarcasm-filled words.”
Some people definitely did. One Night @ the Call Centre was the second of a long run of bestsellers. By the time The 3 Mistakes of My Life came out, the insecure writer had become, in the novel, a caring person who would do his best to track down a suicidal reader. (I should add that the reader’s suicidal thoughts were brought on by a personal crisis, not by reading Mr Bhagat.)
Mr Bhagat, perhaps the most conscientious brand in the history of Indian writing, produces one book every two years with metronomic precision. By the fifth book, his fictional alter ego was comfortable with fame: “Security volunteers formed a human barricade and soon I managed a neat exit from the hall.”
By his sixth book, a collection of journalism (What Young India Wants), Mr Bhagat had honed his artistic vision. “Popular art forms can inject people with modern messages and a new set of values.” He lists his qualifications: he is not aligned to any political party, has no political aspirations (yet), and makes enough money as a motivational speaker. However, he has reach, and the ear of India’s rising English-language speakers, and the appeal of earnestness.
Most of the discussions about Mr Bhagat’s writings reveal a sharp linguistic and class divide. Mr Bhagat speaks for, and to, the Indians who make up the Census 2011’s claim that English is the fastest-growing language in the country. Discard the idea that his brand of English is inferior: it is faithfully representative of the Indian English in wide circulation today. Mr Bhagat writes for the contemporary reader, whose sense of language is formed far more strongly by Bollywood than books.
It cannot be said that his books are boring. This is not just because of the popularity of his novels — technical manuals, Malayalam porn, and religious tracts of varied merit can make equal claim to popularity, which is a dubious criterion on which to judge literary merit. But Mr Bhagat is a deft storyteller, with a gift for light comedy and for pulling readers instantly into his characters’ urban middle-class lives.
His books are fast-paced, and even when his plot twists and turns are preposterous – God makes a long-distance call, and Mr Bhagat’s characters are not massively overbilled by their cell phone companies, for instance – he has the compelling, if slightly nauseating, appeal of the best TV soaps. The strongest argument in favour of Mr Bhagat’s writing is the length of his books. They often cross 250 pages, making them perhaps the longest work of fiction read by many Indians who have not had the increasingly rare luxury of growing up with books or with access to libraries.
What makes Mr Bhagat completely unique is his branding. Many Indian authors have been good self-promoters; very few have been so relentlessly aware that they are consumer products. Mr Bhagat addresses his readers directly (and they write to him, from Kota, from Nagpur, the emails stored on his website). He fosters the pleasant fantasy that he and the reader are co-authors of mass-market literature, the reader offering the plots, Mr Bhagat just the humble vehicle. Indian authors such as Deepak Chopra and Shiv Khera have become brands, but few fiction authors have made the leap from writing as creative activity to writing as a branch of entrepreneurship. (Ask The Youth, to use one of Mr Bhagat’s favourite phrases, what kind of writer they’d like to be, Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh or Chetan Bhagat, and guess which one they’ll choose.)
And what makes Mr Bhagat’s novels, more than his columns, invaluable is the terrifying mirror they hold up to Young India. Refracted through his faithful lens, The Youth don’t lack compassion, and very much like him, feel a need to fight for larger causes. But the pain they are sensitive to and that they explore is strictly their own: relationship issues, the search for a better job and more money, the faint yearning for a life beyond consumerism, corruption in urban India, student suicides.
His protagonists never address the ugliness of a certain kind of Indian chauvinism or anti-Americanism, the narrow or absent political engagement among The Youth, the incuriosity about India’s history and recent past, the invisibility of anyone on the margins, either geographically or culturally.
One of the claims repeatedly made for Mr Bhagat is that he is representative. That claim becomes very shaky when you look carefully at how much his fiction omits, is blind to or doesn’t question. Two equally mass-market writers, Sankar and Vaikom Basheer, consistently wrote outside the lines; Mr Bhagat colours well within them.