Chetan Bhagat says that he is successful perhaps because he gives voice to the real middleclass. Excerpts from an interview…
Everyone has a theory on why your books work so well. You must have one too?
I myself don't know what makes my books work. I enter a bookstore and I'm frankly overwhelmed by the number of books in most of them and I know people are buying mine. It's quite humbling. But if I had to guess, I'd say it's because I write about real people. The real middleclass India that has always been looking for a voice that is its very own. I write about it because I belong to it. I don't use big complicated words. And that makes it easy to read them, even for people who aren't really readers. The younger generation is surrounded by the Internet, apps, and video games. But somehow, my books make them read. I try to incorporate a little of everything. A message, a story, humour… but make it so that it's a pleasure to read at the same time.
And is your choice of plots part of the reason for your success?
For any author, it's virtually impossible to write effectively about what they don't know. I know the middleclass Indian life firsthand. I know about the struggles of a student. If you told me to write a Harry Potter, I couldn't. But then, J.K. Rowling couldn't write about IITs. I suppose the lucky bit here is that the India I know constitutes a large part of the country. My latest book is about Varanasi, and that's a deliberate move on my part, because I noticed that while I have a large readership in small towns, so far, I hadn't given them a voice in my books. I know most writers want to be published in the US and UK after becoming famous in India, but for me, it's very important that even the smallest part of my own country experiences my writings and feels like a part of it.
Do you think part of your popularity is also connected with who you are, and how you are?
It's important for the author to be easy to relate to, as well as the book. I have to travel a lot for my books. And I always wonder to myself, who are the people reading Chetan Bhagat there. In Bastar, I learned that my books were used to teach English to the tribal children. At the same time, I've gone to pan-IIT conferences and been invited to New York to address a financial company. Of course, I write my books in English because yes, I am most comfortable writing in that language, but I'm almost equally comfortable with Hindi too. So it becomes possible for me to relate to a diverse readership.
The writing style of your novels is easy, some would say too easy. Is that a deliberate move?
A large part of India isn't used to reading English books. English isn't our first language, and reading an English book is a big deal to some people. I write in simple, straightforward English, the kind that is easy for a beginner reader to read and understand, to enjoy. I suppose you can say I use middleclass English. I've never claimed to be the best writer there is, I'm not eloquent and I don't write long, complicated sentences. But I do write books that work because when a child wants to read a book about his country, a book he can understand, a book that improves his English but doesn't overwhelm him, he picks my books. I think that is very important. I've also been told by people that sometimes, when NRIs come to India, they take back pickles and Chetan Bhagat books. It's a great feeling, to be read so universally, to have a readership that is so diversified, and to cater to so many different needs. I don't write series style books. Anyone can pick up any book they like the sound of and start from there. Youngsters have loved Five Point Someone and Three Mistakes, but I know a lot of older crowd really liked Two States. It's like, a Shah Rukh Khan is equally loved by fans abroad and in huge metropolitans as well as by slum dwellers.
How do you handle the backlash, the critics?
There's so much criticism, it's reached almost a disproportionately obsessive level. But I think that comes with the territory. And I think it's good, it keeps me from getting big-headed. The one thing that does bother me is when people attack my readers. That isn't fair. Though I've never claimed to be a highbrow literary writer, reading my books doesn't automatically make someone lowbrow and unintelligent. But elitism is always confused with excellence. Elitism judges, excellence doesn't. Elitism gives the purists a reason to criticise and comment. I think most of the criticism also stems from the fact that for a long time, literature had always been sort of like a closed club. My books open up reading to everyman. The way I see it, why not? If all sorts of music can be enjoyed by everyone, why can't books be enjoyed by everyone too? I'm not saying enjoy just my books, but I think it's unfair to judge my readers or my books based on the fact that it isn't highbrow literature. It's a form of entertainment, and it should be available to anyone. It's a consolation though that my critics haven't been able to stop me. My books are still selling. And my readers are loyal to me. That's all that really matters, isn't it?