Ketan Bhagat on how he turned writer, his first novel and his brother Chetan Bhagat
Ketan Bhagat introduces himself as everything he’s not. “I’m not Ranbir Kapoor. You don’t have to stand up for me!” he says, as his audience at Just Books, Kochi, rose to welcome him. “I’m not a writer,” he says, though fresh copies of his debut novel Complete/Convenient sit in stacks beside him. “I’m not Chetan Bhagat, though I am his brother.” he laughs. He rattles off a familiar litany in proof of the last statement. “Chetan went to IIT followed by IIM and passed out with a gold medal from there. I barely made it past school, a diploma, and now a job as a mid-level sales manager. But most importantly, my stories begin where Chetan’s end,” says Ketan.
Complete/Convenient has no college boys falling in love. Instead, a married man named Kabir travels to Sydney to make a living there, hoping to find a life without “traffic jams, queues, dirt, corruption and social obligations”. While those dreams do come true, they come at the cost of yearning for home, its food, people and culture. It’s a middle-life coming-of-age tale. “I’ve no imagination,” says Ketan, “So this is my life’s story. I went to Sydney, young and married, imagining the best was ahead, but it was nothing like that. NRI life isn’t a Karan Johar movie. And thus far, I haven’t read a single book that portrayed that life honestly.” The book therefore talks about office politics in a foreign land, cranky customers and familial disputes — the other side to the gloss.
Of building this book, Ketan says, “This was a story that haunted me and I knew I had to tell it. When Chetan decided to write, he had achieved everything in the academic and professional world but finally found his happiness in writing. Because of his story, no one in my family opposed me when I said I wanted to write,” says Ketan. So he began by penning the incidents of his life and they eventually strung themselves into a story, where the Indian half represented the ‘Complete’ side and the NRI half, the ‘Convenient’ side — and thus the title.
Having a famous brother in the writing business helped, says Ketan, but it proved detrimental too. When Chetan first saw Ketan’s manuscript, he advised him to sit on the story for another 10 years until he matured as a writer, but Ketan was certain this was the way he wanted his story to be told. Given the success Chetan’s books have achieved commercially, you’d imagine publishers would have welcomed Ketan too with open arms. “Initially, there were weeks of silence from publishers. After a while, I realised I had a good product. And I’m a salesman. So if I believed in it enough and kept sending the book out, someone would pick it up.” It took two years of rejection slips before Srishti Publishers finally signed the deal, and the book was released in May 2013.
It was then that Ketan realised just what being Chetan’s brother meant — those who hated Chetan, hated him too with an equal vengeance. Twitterati especially were at their vitriolic best. “You see, I’ve a sense of humour too. I even re-tweeted everything that people said about me, including ‘Here’s another Bhagat out to murder literature’. I knew they were judging me without knowing me or having read my book. But I wanted the book to speak for itself.”
Three months into being a published author, Ketan has some wisdom to share on the writing process. “It’s important to constantly take feedback. Every few chapters I wrote, I’d catch people in queues and on airplanes, asking them to read it and tell me what they thought. Writer Jaideep Sahni too told me that there was no such thing as ‘writing’ only ‘rewriting’.” Even now, Ketan is eager for honest feedback on his maiden venture as a writer, urging readers to write their reviews to him unbiased.
Responses thus far have been positive, with many urging him to make a film of his story. For now, alongside approaching filmmakers, and holding his regular job, Ketan is working on his second title, a book about a father-son relationship based on his life with his two-year-old Rian. “I’m a very slow writer and writing is lonely work. There’s just you and your story. So this book will take a while to come out,” he says. In the meantime, he’d like readers to pick up his first work: “I’ve written about reality. It’s an honest effort. In our country, if we can forgive corrupt politicians, we can forgive innocent writers.”