Half Girlfriend, Complete Moron: The Anatomy of a Chetan Bhagat Heroine

Culture

Half Girlfriend, Complete Moron: The Anatomy of a Chetan Bhagat Heroine

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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t’s been a banner year for our favourite motivational speaker, Chetan Bhagat. Besides releasing his latest bestselling novel, The Girl in Room 105, last year, Bhagat also got clocked with a dubious #MeToo allegation by writer Ira Trivedi, who accused him of forcing a kiss on her. Bhagat responded by posting their email exchanges on Twitter, showing that Trivedi had used the inarguably weird sign-off “miss u kiss u”. She insisted that this was merely a “pop culture salutation”, and Bhagat publicly apologised to his wife for his inappropriate conduct.

There, it would seem, the matter rests. Following this brief he-said she-said, all we’ve really learned is not to assume that professional writers know anything about grammar. And yet, it shines a much-needed light on to the mysterious mind of IIT graduate and self-styled youth whisperer, Chetan Bhagat.

It’s not just real-life women with whom Bhagat seems to share a tetchy relationship. Frequently criticised as a purveyor of poor writing, he sticks to his tried-and-tested formula of “boy meets girl, life gets in the way, boy gets girl”. There’s not a lot of fussing around with plotlines and character development, and his dialogue too often reads like a forward from a WhatsApp uncle (Sample: “Why should any guy want to be only friends with a girl? It’s like agreeing to be near a chocolate cake and never eat it.”)

Instead, Bhagat focuses on themes that, he insists, will resonate with the youth of India. Just look at the super-relatable hero of 2014’s Half Girlfriend, a novel that is literally described on Bhagat’s own website as “a simple and inspiring love story of a boy called Madhav who doesn’t speak English well”.

You’d be excused for thinking that through Half Girlfriend, Bhagat was simply trying to teach middle-class India about the wonders of masturbation. But there is, in fact, a “half girlfriend” in the story, a half-character who speaks English and is called Riya. Like most of Bhagat’s heroines, Riya is the unattainable college girl. You’ll find her in Five Point Someone as Neha, a professor’s daughter who has attractive toes. Or in 2 States as Ananya, the Tamil classmate whose conservative parents are an obstacle for the Punjabi protagonist.

And this is the perpetual anatomy of the Chetan Bhagat heroine. She is always far too good for the men in the story, and luckily redeems herself by doing stupid things at random, without a shred of motivation (like Riya pretending to die of cancer). Despite being very beautiful and intelligent, natch, she is seemingly a moron when it comes to matters of the heart — which is why she inevitably ends up with one of Bhagat’s douchebag protagonists. You know she’s highly educated because she has met the hero in college, but beyond her briefest biodata, there’s not much more to say about Bhagat’s version of a dreamgirl.

Perhaps you can’t fault Bhagat for sticking to what he knows, even if you’d hope that as a 44-year-old father of two, that goes beyond a college campus. When he deviates from his formula, things go horribly wrong, as in his 2015 novel, One Indian Girl. Here, Bhagat tries to adopt a female, and yes, feminist perspective, and gifts us a protagonist who says things like, “no Punjabi male will like me, I don’t have breasts the size of footballs like other Punjabi women.” Radhika is a super-successful, jetsetting investment banker who is, for some reason, obsessed with getting married to her shitty boyfriend, has an affair with her boss, and goes in for an arranged marriage — all in a day’s work for Bhagat’s “modern Indian woman”. Radhika finally decides that she doesn’t need to get married, which allows Bhagat to classify this mess as feminist literature.

Of course, many argue that for the average small-town Indian, the idea of a career woman choosing not to get married is groundbreaking stuff. And while Bhagat’s work may not cut any ice with the literati, Five Point Someone, about the pressures of Indian colleges, and 2 States, a semi-autobiography about his own inter-community marriage, have an undeniably relevant point of view. But this mass appeal with young people is precisely why Bhagat’s one-dimensional view of women is so harmful.

Just look at the super-relatable hero of 2014’s Half Girlfriend, a novel that is literally described on Bhagat’s own website as “a simple and inspiring love story of a boy called Madhav who doesn’t speak English well”.

Sure, something like Half Girlfriend – complete with a godawful film adaptation starring Shraddha Kapoor and Arjun Kapoor – is low-hanging fruit and a prime example of his bafflingly sexist ideas. This is a story where Madhav believes Riya, rather than being turned off by his desperate and unwelcome attentions, is too proud to date a guy who isn’t high-class like her. Obviously unwilling to give this abusive ass a straight-up no, she agrees to be his “half-girlfriend”. In the Q&A section on his website, Bhagat describes this condition thusly:  “A boy may think he is more than friends with the girl, but the girl is still not his girlfriend. Hence, I thought we needed a term like ‘half-girlfriend’. Because in India, that is what most men get.”

At this point, the omission of Riya from the novel’s one-liner starts making a lot more sense (even though Bhagat would likely argue that her inclusion in the title makes him a feminist). Half Girlfriend is not really about Riya at all, and in Bhagat’s world, having a girlfriend is not predicated on the opinion of the girl in question. In 2 States, he casually compares attractive women with the aforementioned chocolate cake, racing cars, and biscuits. And even if Radhika of One Indian Girl ends up choosing herself over a relationship, Bhagat has still been accused of plagiarising her from a woman writer, Anvita Bajpai.

Clearly, there’s a reason Bhagat, a guy who slipped out of a cheating scandal by calling his wife the Parvati to his Shiva, is still considered a youth icon on his 45th birthday. Is this a sign that the chief values of future generations will be opportunism and thinly veiled misogyny?

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