What makes Chetan Bhagat, India's only author selling in millions, such a publishing phenomenon?
Whether you love him or hate him, chances are, you've read him. With almost five million books sold since his first paperback blockbuster came out, almost everyone owns a copy of at least one of Bhagat's five bestsellers. He might not be a literary purist's favourite man, but Bhagat has made India sit up and notice him. What more, Bhagat has made India read.
His fan base is so strong it dwarfs the haters by the sheer power of numbers. His books are read and reread, becoming blueprint for successful and unsuccessful films. His latest book, Revolution 2020, had the online bookstore, Flipkart.com, hiring 500 extra delivery boys just for a day to deliver the pre-ordered copies. And again and again, we come back to the question of…why?
Meshing literature and popular fiction has always been a controversial subject, and authors like Bhagat crank up the heat on the already fiery debate amongst readers and literary theorists. The word within literary circuits is that writing like Bhagats isn't really literature, but the word on the street says otherwise. And in the world of publishing and book sales, the word on the street definitely counts. Saying Chetan Bhagat is widely read is probably understating the fact, and there is something, or perhaps many things, that are making his books work, and work well. Light, frothy plotlines, fairly surmountable problems, underdog heroes and girls-next-door make up almost every Chetan Bhagat book. Voracious readers have probably read a Chetan Bhagat and told themselves that anyone could write like that. But let's look a little closer. Could they?
There is, of course, the question of pricing. Books are more expensive than ever before, and the more beautiful, hard bound wonders are nearly unaffordable for most students and youngsters. Books have become assets in more ways than one, and reading them is no longer only a question of choice and preference, but also a financial consideration. And then we have Chetan Bhagat's first four books available at an easy Rs. 95, and his newest one marked at Rs. 140, which is still much lower than most paperbacks lining the shelves. While this cannot be quoted as the only reason for his success, it definitely encourages sales, allowing even the non-readers to pick up a copy without thinking twice.
The pricing though, is just part of the story, and the idea of understanding and appreciating Chetan Bhagat's appeal brings us to the all-important question of ‘good writing' and ‘bad writing', a tricky subject in itself. There is a widespread assumption that good writing, by virtue of being good, also has to be rarefied, eloquent, often complicated and deeply layered. By elimination, bad writing therefore becomes anything that is too simple and unchallenging. And yes, Bhagat's books are definitely those things. They don't speak in coded metaphors and allusions. In fact, the message in them is as plain as daylight. But they have managed to reach out to more people than any esoteric tome ever could.
Some critics accuse Bhagat's books of having almost identical characters and elementary plotlines. Every book is basically a love story, and Bhagat admitted in Revolution 2020's Delhi book launch that he thinks youngsters treat their love-lives as one of their biggest priorities, which makes him choose love stories as the framework of his books. Whether he is right or not, the romantic plotlines have definitely worked for him so far. At the same time, he also weaves in contemporary urban issues in each of his books, touching upon the problems of coaching institutes, call centres, student suicides, corruption and misplaced ambition. His books deal with urban cities and urban issues; inter-caste marriages, parental pressures, career choices. The latest, Revolution 2020, mixes it up a little, by setting the scene of the action in Varanasi. In each of his books, there's the almost certain possibility of the reader finding at least one character to relate to. The language too, is our very own — a familiar, fast spreading mix of Hindi, English and the appropriate regional language based on the context of that particular book. Bhagat doesn't make you guess your way through the meaning of a word; he doesn't make you run to your dictionaries. He writes like he talks, and he talks like most of India is talking. English isn't our first language, and classical literature not accessible to majority of the population. Bhagat has given a voice to the middleclass indian, and allowed each one of his readers to pick up his book and think that if they wanted to, they could write what he's written. That they could tell their own story in the same words, because, after all, the words Bhagat uses are their own, the jokes and references ones they understand and use themselves, the problems so familiar they get to the solution before the book can. Before authors like Chetan Bhagat, English fiction was rendered unapproachable to a majority of people. Now, even the non-readers don't mind an occasional quick read, and if a book can get even the non-readers reading, it must be doing something right. Stephen King has been known to call himself the literary equivalent of a ‘big mac and cheese'. Perhaps in Bhagat, we have found the literary equivalent of chaat and paani puri.
The numbers game
Bhagat’s new book,Revolution 2020, has already sold 750,000 copies since its publication in October, 2011. Some of the other bestsellers in the popular fiction genre:
Advaita Kala’s Almost Single (HarperCollins India) sold 15,000 copies in its first 10 months.
Anuja Chauhan’sZoya Factor(HarperCollins India) sold 20,000 copies in its first six months.
Amit Varma’sMy Friend Sancho(Hachette India) sold over 15,000 copies in the first few months.
Karan Bajaj’s debut novel Keep off the Grass(HarperCollins India) sold 25,000 copies in the first six months.