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Chetan Bhagat: A Subaltern Success Story?

Twitter barbs greet Chetan Bhagat latest book, but the writer makes no qualms about writing for a small-town readership

Anisha Dutta  |  Mumbai 

The author Indian readers love to hate clearly hasn’t lost his Midas touch, if initial responses to the announcement of his latest book titled ‘Half Girlfriend are anything to go by.

The man who recently co-wrote the screen play for the Salman Khan starrer Kick, adorned the front cover of a national daily to announce the release of his book exclusively on Flipkart. Never one to miss out on a good duck-shoot, the twitterati took to, well, tweeting, mocking the title of the book. It was only a matter of hours before ‘#halfgirlfriend’ was trending at the top, multiplying, ironically, the publicity the book would have got otherwise. Countless tweets mocking the title – and the author – went viral, roiling the whole ‘Chetan Bhagat’s writing is pathetic’ debate. But is it fair to crucify Chetan Bhagat before even reading his book(s)? To be fair to him, he has never made any bones about the fact that his writing caters to the kind of audience that does not read ‘literature’. Author Ira Pande recently pointed out in a talk-show that Bhagat’s constituency is the ‘small town aspirational youth’. On the same talkshow, Bhagat said, “My mission is to make every kid read (sic) an English book, every kid in a slum will read an English book one day and I'm committed to that goal, so if they want to mock that, it’s up to them.” As for the criticism on Twitter mocking his latest book’s title, he said “The elite snobbery world is a small circle that exists on Twitter but there has literally been a phenomenal response all over social media on the book, there is a phenomenal response on Flipkart as well.“ In fact, Bhagat hasn’t shied away from playing the victim, portraying himself as a literary Robin Hood of sorts, distributing the gift of reading to those not privileged enough to access higher works of writing. Critics have often slammed the quality of his writing, while others have questioned the mysogynism sometimes seen in his books. And in a backhanded compliment of sorts, his wide readership has even prompted calls for greater social responsibility in the portrayal of his characters. Bollywood, however, has welcomed him with open arms, with his books being converted into blockbusters, and Bhagat himself being invited to collaborate on screenplays. Doubters have even go so far as to say that Bhagat’s success is discouraging to more serious writers. “I don't see why it should be discouraging to anyone to see how Chetan's done. The reverse is true,” said Samit Basu, author of the novel Turbulence and the Gameworld Trilogy graphic novels. “And, you know, if any so-called serious writer – which implies Chetan is less serious about his work than they are...believe me, the opposite is true – wants to switch to a more Bhagatian, let's call it, tone, they'll quickly find it is not that easy to reverse engineer if it doesn't come naturally to them. If I had any money to bet, I'd bet against anyone who attempted that.” But while the debate over Bhagat’s style rages, one thing is for certain – his latest novel is already an unqualified success from a marketing perspective. That, and the adulation of his fans, should surely warm the cockles of this IIM alumnus.

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First Published: Wed, August 06 2014. 17:58 IST
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