Lit for Life 2015 Lit for Life

Man of the masses

Chetan Bhagat. Photo: S. Subramanium   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

When English becomes the obstacle for the protagonist in an English novel, it is bound to raise the literati’s hackles. But then Chetan Bhagat does not write for purists. Bhagat, who has bridged the gap between the Bollywood blockbuster and the bestseller, recently released Half Girlfriend (Rupa), the tale of Madhav, a boy from a small town in Bihar who falls in love with a rich, urbane girl in Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College. If their story is about the half measures that today’s city-bred girls often take in love, the conflict takes a full stride into the heart of India. The boy comes from an erstwhile royal family, who is struggling not as much financially as with the phonetics of the Queen’s English. The language has become the class and Bhagat has used it as a tool as he unravels the rot in the primary education system in the countryside.

“I thought an English language writer writing about a boy who doesn’t know English well could be a fantastic plot. When a Frenchman speaks English with an accent, it is considered romantic. But when a guy from Bihar speaks English in his native accent, it is called crude. It is because we have a huge inferiority complex and it is around a language. I mean it is not around maths or physics around a language that is not even ours. And when an English language novel takes on the issue it can have a huge impact. Though it appears to be a simple racy love story it has something that will connect with the people and lift it beyond a typical love story. It may be marketed as a love story but it is essentially a class novel, which I have not seen in Indian writing.”

It seems that he is aiming for the Madhavs among the readers. “Of course there is Rhea, an upscale metro girl, but the boy this time is someone who won’t pick up an English novel. In a sense it is a book by Madhav written for the Madhavs. As the varna system collapsed, as the new generation doesn’t get it, a new class of English-speaking elite emerged. In Bihar, Rhea is a divorcee and Madhav may not be rich but he has got class. In Delhi, he has no class but, in his town Dumrao, English doesn’t matter.”

Bhagat agrees that there is a shift towards vernacular language with the financial muscle that India has acquired. “There is a Modi wave. The elitists are losing their grip a little bit. There is enough clout of HMTs (Hindi-medium types) now and the first-generation English speakers are asserting themselves. And we can gauge it by how the book does.”

Apart from the class conflict, Bhagat says he was told that he writes a lot about higher education. “‘What about issues that concern education at the grass root level?’ I was asked. I was very nervous to do a book on it. I can do a column but, when it comes to a novel, I thought my readers have certain expectations. What will make a young urban reader pick up a book based on issues set in rural India? When you call yourself an Indian writer, you should bring out the true Indian issues, which are in rural India.” By the end you will know what is happening in those schools. That is why I wrote the story. Otherwise, what is the big deal about writing a love story?”

With Rhea, Bhagat has moved beyond the chirpy, bubbly labels that often populate his novels. He puts it to ten years of experience and observation. “The idea was to make the female character more prominent. There is a perspective of the girl here,” he reflects.

Having joined hands with Flipkart, the author is fast emerging as a half-marketer. In fact, he delivered the first book himself to the reader in the uniform of the online partner. “I have become a half-marketer but, earlier, I was a full marketer. I have scaled down. There is no PR firm involved this time. My publisher is taking care of the interviews. A lot of stuff has moved online. My main partner is an online bookstore. It can help me reach the Madhavs. They are aligned with what I am trying to do. At the same time the AH Wheeler, Crossword and Landmark are also important.”

What about the author’s ego? “I don’t believe in such constructs. I have had degrees before and I didn’t consider myself as an elitist then. The delivery boys are also my readers.”

Bhagat holds that he has enough followers on Facebook and Twitter that if he announces a book online they will pick it up and if it is good it will be picked up through word of mouth. “It is this influence that gives me the strength to write about the real issues.”

Bhagat will soon be doing the rounds of literary festivals including The Hindu’s Lit for Life. He is looking forward to an engaging discussion but he doesn’t like to be asked the acceptance question. “My office gets 20 calls about participation and, when I go on stage, they ask if I feel that I have been accepted in the literary circles. They need popular writers. I don’t need approval from literary festivals. They need writers who can draw the crowd. Let’s be clear they are sponsored events and are not temples of literature.”

Talking of criticism, Bhagat says his novels may be light reads but a lot of research and thinking go into them. “Perhaps that’s why I am still in business. For 10 years I have been called just a fad but for a fad to last a decade there has to be something substantial in it.” I spent days in Chanakya hotel in Patna, went to Dumrao to get a feel of the places and issues I write about.”

Even Battle of Buxar finds a mention if somebody is looking for nuance. “That has given me a little more edge or agency than a typical pop fiction writer. “I am not doing sequels like J.K. Rowling. I mix popular fiction writing with social concerns.” Bhagat’s last word is the promise that the next decade will see more representation of minorities in his universe.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 2:15:54 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/man-of-the-masses/article6667609.ece

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