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How India’s highest-selling novelist thwarts his own ambitions

by Abhishek Choudhary

chetan bhagat illustration

Illustration: Mahati Sharma

On August 5, soon after Chetan Bhagat announced the release of his sixth novel Half Girlfriend on Twitter and Facebook, his website carrying a “short video teaser” of the book crashed. The announcement was also almost immediately followed by a barrage of jokes on Twitter, many of which mocked the slightly misogynistic title of the novel. Turned out the announcement — as also the full front-page ad in The Times of India the same morning — was a well-thought out strategy by the e-commerce giant Flipkart, which has been insecure ever since Amazon entered the Indian market: the logic was that the book can be pre-ordered exclusively on Flipkart. Whatever the marketing strategy, Half Girlfriend has already sold more than two million copies, a seemingly impossible figure for an Indian novel in English.

Chetan bhagat flipkart

The author with Kalyan K. of Flipkart. (Credit: Chetan Bhagat’s Facebook page)

Perhaps no Indian writer in the last one decade has evoked responses as varied as Chetan Bhagat has. Last month Amit Chaudhuri called his writing “a metonym for whatever is the opposite of literature”. At the same time, “to judge Bhagat by the yardstick of the quality, rather than the effectiveness, of his prose,” as Shashi Tharoor earlier wrote, “is to miss what he is trying to do”: he has “a talent for tapping into the zeitgeist” and is “saying something to young Indians that hasn’t been said before in quite that way.” In any case Bhagat doesn’t have patience for the critics who even at their best, he believes, represent the sensibilities of “E1s”, the tiny minority of metropolitan English speakers; his constituency is E2s, young men and women across the country who are familiar with the English language, but not fluent enough to communicate, or enjoy a fiction in it: this is where he also gets Madhav Jha, the protagonist of Half Girlfriend, from.

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About Bihari boy Madhav Jha two things stand out: he can’t speak good English (and can’t hate himself enough for this predicament); he also wants to consummate his love with Riya, his batchmate and fellow Basketball player at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s college, through a passionate kiss. The tension comes from the anticipation that the rich and pretty Delhi girl Riya wouldn’t accept Madhav a lover because he can’t speak English.

I had tried to stay away from Half Girlfriend — until I couldn’t. The neurosis was personal: as someone brought up at the privileged end of social hierarchy in Bihar, and someone who had studied in Delhi University around the same time the novel is based on, I feared it might further expose the vulnerabilities — or stereotype — the place I came from. As I flipped through the novel, though, I felt both disappointed and oddly relieved.

To begin with, it seems Bhagat hasn’t spent time sketching Riya’s character: she could be sensitive, but often comes across as a confused rich girl who takes haphazard decisions on pressing issues of life, contributing to Madhav’s suffering; it also appears that Riya rejects Madhav more because he forces himself on her than anything to do with his handicapped English: “Deti hai to de, varna kat le,” would sound crass in any language, and anyone who declares his affection thus deserves a refusal. About St. Stephen’s college Bhagat never tells us much, except that it’s an institution full of “rich, English type” snobs. Because the protagonist must come out as a crusader, Madhav, who belongs to the royal family of Dumraon in Bihar, goes back home to help his mother run the dilapidated Dumraon Royal School. Madhav and Riya meet again, and after a bizarrely predictable climax which takes us briefly to New York, the novel ends like a happy Bollywood family drama: Bhagat’s change maker agenda is driven home by way of an improved Dumraon Royal School (complete with a Basketball court) where foreigners come for “rural school tours” and pay in dollars; Riya and Madhav are happily married and have a son who at two has already started showing signs of a Basketball player.

A dhaba on the Delhi-Haridwar highway selling Half Girlfriend. (Photo: Chetan Bhagat’s Facebook page)

A dhaba on the Delhi-Haridwar highway selling Half Girlfriend. (Photo: Chetan Bhagat’s Facebook page)

 

Unfortunately, for a book set in rural Bihar, Bhagat seems strangely uninterested in the minutiae of a semi-feudal society. An obsession with class makes Bhagat completely overlook caste which, anyone with a basic knowledge of Bihar’s political economy would tell you, accounts for Bihar’s underdevelopment as well as the destiny of most of its population. Bhagat does mention in passing that the MLAs and the sarpanchs don’t work, but makes it seem more like a management failure of an otherwise “peaceful” place than a structural failure where no quick fixes — not even a grant such as the one Bill Gates gives to Dumraon Royal School — can bring about permanent solutions. In playing the change maker Bhagat, it seems, has thwarted the plot so much that overall effect of the novel is that of a comically half-baked piece of writing.

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This was not always the case with Bhagat, though. Five Point Someone, his debut novel, became popular for its fresh idioms, understated humour and a subtle mockery of the middle-class India’s obsession with IITs as a staircase to a better life than anything remotely to do with India’s technological growth: it talked about a national problem without being didactic. The tone of two of his recent novels, on the other hand, is self-assured and cocky: in both Revolution 2020 and Half Girlfriend, in fact, Bhagat introduces himself as a character for no great reason.

In a recent TV interview with Shekhar Gupta, Bhagat talked about the moment he began to take his writing seriously. At an India Today conclave a few years ago, Bhagat told Gupta (who, it must be said, seemed to be in complete awe of the paperback god), that a psychiatrist came up to him and said, “Chetan, do you have any idea how much influence you have on young kids! You have no idea how much you can shape this generation’s thinking!”

chetan bhagat bihar effigy

An effigy of Chetan Bhagat being burnt by locals in Dumraon, Buxar.

It seems Bhagat’s popularity as a youth icon has also become his unmaking: his management-centric obsession of a quick social change often comes in the way of evoking the complex psychology of people and places he is writing about, arguably one of the most important functions of a realist novel. While his novels do summon up a Wikipedia-style history of places to lend credibility to the narratives, he often gets a few basic facts wrong: Jhas mentioned in Half Girlfriend are in fact Brahmins from the Mithila region, the northern part of Bihar bordering with Nepal, and have never been rulers of Dumraon, which is in western Bihar. (Dumraon does have a royal family, and they recently sent a legal notice to Bhagat demanding an “unconditional public apology” for calling their ancestors gamblers and alcoholics.) Nor does St. Stephen’s college offer a degree in sociology, which is what Madhav Jha is shown studying in the novel.

Playing a change maker and a story teller together isn’t necessarily contradictory, but for a project as grand as that, Bhagat needs to be more responsible. In last ten years, he has written a total of seven books, multiple screenplays for Hindi films (including the latest Salman Khan-starrer Kick) and newspaper columns — apart from touring small towns as a motivational speaker and endorsing brands like Shaadi.com. For the greater good, therefore, you hope maybe he should slow down a bit, research his stories better. But these suggestions could be put to rest because Chetan Bhagat has started believing that his only competition is apps like Candy Crush and WhatsApp, not fellow writers.

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Abhishek Choudhary is an editor with The Hoot. His writing has appeared in Ananda Bazar Patrika, Governance Now, Himal Southasian, The Caravan, The Indian Express, and others. Twitter: @cyabhishek.

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