Why You Must Leave Chetan Bhagat Alone


Why You Must Leave Chetan Bhagat Alone

Illustration: Mudit Ganguly

Chetan Bhagat, modern literary hero and self-styled technocrat, has that quality that makes you want to throw stuff at him. For no rational reason. I saw him at a bar in Colaba once, in the pre-Twitter days. He was impeccably polite and friendly with all the strangers who were approaching him for a casual chat. I wanted to chuck my peanuts at him. I didn’t though.

His role in pop-culture hierarchy has, since the days of Five Point Someone, mostly been that of a goofy little distraction, of someone who’s overeager to make a point even when he has none, so you shake your head and laugh it off. But it’s grown into something more sinister of late, partly thanks to him discovering that he can use a smartphone to project his bizarre musings on to unsuspecting audiences. And partly because we let him. Is it fair though?

The latest flub by the Bard (as we’re going to refer to him from hereon in) is an open letter to Kashmiri youth. I can’t even pretend to understand all the nuances that buzz around the Kashmir issue, so I’ll refrain from passing judgement on the contents of the letter. But in tone, doesn’t it sound like that slightly tipsy distant uncle who feels misunderstood since his peers don’t take him seriously? So he feels the need to talk down to his nieces and nephews, with a “Listen, kids, here’s why I think you’re idiots and here’s the actual solution.” It’s all said in a patronising, ultra-sugary tone, but there’s an ominous reminder at the end that “if India fails, you will fail too.” Just remember that. But maybe I’m stretching the analogy too far. Instead, let’s look back.

A few months ago, the Bard tweeted an innocuous joke about how historians basically do nothing. Crime No 1: It wasn’t funny. Crime No 2: He’s Chetan Bhagat.

The guardians of Twitter pounced on him, attacking him, insulting him, mocking him, ridiculing him, ripping him to shreds.

It’s almost as if none of the people launching into Bhagat had ever made fun of a profession before. You know, like how all models like to shove Pepsi up their nose and enjoy an eating disorder or two. Or that dentists are sadists. Or writers are just people who talk about writing. That teachers are failures (“Those who can’t do, teach.” Haha, hilarious!). All politicians are thieves. Pilots are drunks, lawyers are evil and soulless, PR professionals are useless.

It’s an endless list – it might not always be funny, but everyone does it.

Bhagat seems ideologically fluid, uniting all sorts of sworn enemies in their common contempt for him. But by constantly picking on him, we’re only feeding his insatiable desire for more publicity (6.83M!)

So why this sudden kinship with historians (of all people)? And why this incessant need to single out Bhagat for ill-advised but often just harmless little asides?

It’s easy (and often correct) to rationalise the bullying as “comeuppance” for all the bad karma that the Bard has accumulated through his worryingly ignorant words; his casual sexism and unself-aware intolerance. Negative reinforcement becomes important when Bhagat overreaches and says something cringe-worthy – like his multiple attempts at battle-of-the-sexes humour – which often comes across as misogynistic.

Or for another gem, which goes: “Ok, wrong to label Islam violent after stray terror attack. But why did you label my entire country intolerant after a few stray incidents?”

But jumping on him for every little thing is only going to fuel his persecution and breed a more disturbing mutation. For now, he’s only this guy who’s written a few books that seem to have struck a chord with a traditionally non-reading audience. And through his exquisite marketing skills, he has somehow managed the unthinkable: a writer getting elevated to the status of a pop-culture icon in 2016. The Bard has 6.83 million followers on Twitter.

By way of comparison, Jonathan Franzen has a grand total of 708 (although we’re fairly certain it’s a fake account and the real Franzen would much rather write 10,000 pages in eight-point typeface about David Foster Wallace and migratory bird patterns before joining Twitter. But I digress).

Bhagat seems ideologically fluid, uniting all sorts of sworn enemies in their common contempt for him. But by constantly picking on him, we’re only feeding his insatiable desire for more publicity (6.83M!)

He’s not exactly dangerous just yet, but a growing siege mentality – a logical byproduct of said singling out – can one day turn into something far more destructive. So let’s be a little more judicious and not quite as generous and spendthrift in handing out justice to the man. The more we give, the more he takes, until, inevitably, he becomes far bigger than us all, his creators in a way.

Let’s just grow up and leave Chetan Bhagat alone.