In Defence of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Books’

Books

In Defence of Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Books’

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A few years ago, hiding from Delhi’s heat we sat inside the drawing room of a friend who was professionally engaged with literature – someone us outsiders called the DU-JNU type. At some point we joked about the fact that, to make his mess of a house look any worse all he needed to do was replace some books from his stack – the only clean part of the room – with Chetan Bhagat’s. The country’s most-read English language author has regularly been on the end of many such barbs, at times vitriolic and personal.

Not that any of us wrote anything better, but it was, I believed for the longest time ‘woke’ to dismiss Bhagat’s books as cheap imitations of what affecting literature might look like.  The equivalent of a vada pav, if you like which sells, not because it’s good for anything but because it’s affordable and accessible. It took me years of writing and reading – everything but Bhagat mind you – to appreciate that that in fact is Bhagat’s redeeming quality, that he can read as easily, as widely and by a more diverse readership than the ‘more’ venerated authors of his time.

Though Indians are miserly readers, the culture of reading has still improved drastically over the last couple of decades. As wary as I have been of admitting it, my first novel as a school kid was Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone. The book was a sensation at the time, and even though my family hadn’t inherited a culture of reading – it was in fact frowned upon – I got my hand on the book perchance as a gift from someone.

I swallowed it within days and haven’t read any of his other books since. My reading capacity gradually evolved to a point where I could absorb complicated works like that of Joyce and Keats, both prose and poetry, at which point Bhagat became too simplistic to consume and too plain to comment upon. Like any other art form, as your palate evolves so does your curiosity and desire to engage the lesser said or told. Naturally, you seek what’s elusive.

As wary as I have been of admitting it, my first novel as a school kid was Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone.

Based on the solitary book I have read of Bhagat I can say he is easily one of the most relatable authors writing in India at the moment. Five Point Someone may be desecrated today on the scales of literary merit, but back then it was urgent and timely. The Engineering degree was hot, and you – like me – need not have gone to an IIT to find yourself echoed in this rare book. Compared to Bhagat most other writers concerned themselves either with the margins or an end of the spectrum that most middle-class families couldn’t relate to.

For me this relevance hit a peak when I picked up the camera in the third year of college – even published photos in a bunch of places. People started calling me ‘Farhan’ even though my hobby predated the release of 3 Idiots. I never took up photography professionally but that, I believe, has nothing to do with just how clichéd the film had made engineers picking up art look. But again, Bhagat saw a near-universal cultural trope that would soon become the story of many-a-engineer, including myself, who have made the incomparable shift to doing what they like. It’s of course a route the author took himself.

Based on the solitary book I have read of Bhagat I can say he is easily one of the most relatable authors writing in India at the moment.

My induction – borderline I would say – into the elite literary circles of India meant I subconsciously absorbed their critique of Bhagat’s work as my own. The fact is, the literary elite despise him because he is successful, probably the only English language writer who has ‘created’ his privilege and not inherited it. Even his latest book – 400 days-  part of a trilogy, was released on Friday, like a film. He now has the soft muscle to lead his own PR pushes – something the publishing industry simply doesn’t have the budget for (trust me I know).

He is everything an aspiring writer is regularly told or made to realise books can’t become – a source of livelihood. If you listen to his interviews, he actually talks a lot of sense. And yet he writes simply and unpretentiously. To a country where the language English is a sign of linguistic privilege, and owning a book a sign of economic privilege, Bhagat introduced millions to the benefits, if functional, of reading.

Even people who couldn’t afford or lay claim to vast reading heritages could at least pick something up and not feel alienated or dumb. Away from the elitist jungle of the city’s well-read and bred, Bhagat has managed to pull even the incredulous towards a book. That I believe is a bigger accomplishment than any of the literary awards a chosen few decide to give to a chosen few.

The fact is, the literary elite despise him because he is successful, probably the only English language writer who has ‘created’ his privilege and not inherited it.

A small group of people, especially the academia and my friends in media, deride Bhagat for his lack of a literary thumb. Every which way he points, he can’t seem to write something critically satisfying. These critics, who no one has heard of except people in the business of writing themselves, are probably grated by the consummate ease with which Bhagat’s work seems to be brought to life. There is also, as he often admits himself during interviews neither a sob story of ‘the kurta wearing struggling writer’ nor pretence – and believe me everyone tries to play this one – of being the recluse, tropes that are now massive clichés in literary circles.

None of this is to say better writers – and there are many who are better depending on what metric you apply – don’t have merit if they fail to produce numbers like him, but the inverse is never true for the man who has defied pretty much every structural hurdle the elite have built around the altar of culture. I don’t read his books, and I’m sure I never will again, but for me Bhagat, academic critique notwithstanding, is one of the most important authors of his time.

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