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Some thoughts on Chetan as classical author

End view of an open book, isolated on white

End view of an open book, isolated on white  

The latest attempt to introduce popular fiction in a literature course at university level is but a sign of the times

Delhi University is mulling over the inclusion of Chetan Bhagat’s novel Five Point Someone in the syllabus for undergraduate students pursuing English literature honours and elective courses under the Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS).

Any loud thinking on whether the book merits inclusion in the Literature course leaves one exposed to trial by trolls, often led by the author himself with his sardonic tweets. The discussion immediately descends into a polarised debate between elitists and populists, the former today being more of a pejorative marker.

Terms such as elitism, perfectionism, idealism and classicism are frowned upon as promoting a binary class-consciousness between patrician and plebian, between high class and common class (high-brow and low-brow), invariably leading to those who seek elegance, refinement and rarefied taste in manner, behaviour and language categorised as ‘elitists’. It has become a politically astute act to err against elitists even if one’s sympathies are not fully aligned with the common man.

Universities that have always had the singular distinction of promoting intellectual skills and enabling young minds to develop balance, beauty, objectivity and rationality have been forced to concentrate more on occupational skills and dilute academic standards in order to cater to the humungous number of students admitted. It is unfortunate that in a literature course, it is difficult to keep to canonical literature, that is, literature with standards established and recognised as a model of authority or excellence. In the rush to meet the demands of the times, all aesthetic and intellectual standards have been diluted in favour of addressing the difficulties of the vast majority of students, viewed as victims of historical injustice. The introduction of popular fiction in a literature course is a sign of the times.

Popular fiction can be best described as airport fiction-novels that are enjoyable and easy to read, novels that you buy at an airport to read on your flight. Those who wait at the airport, those who are bored with the same in-flight magazines during flights, prefer to read these novels that are entertaining, easy-to-read and are inexpensive

Classics are books you read and re-read. Unlike a classic which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading, popular fiction does not imprint itself on our imagination and in our subconscious. It is like TV serials whose names we do not recall after they are over, unlike a classic cinema that leaves an indelible impression in our minds.

We should understand the distinction between entertainment and enlightenment. Writing with intellectual supremacy, with a sense of beauty and imagination have been reduced to writing with social energies, about here and now. What Chetan Bhagat has written with ease and humour is limited to his IIT experience that is not shared universally beyond India.

A classic is universal and timeless, a book which even when we read for the first time gives the sense of having read it before. We are able to see cross-connections between the past and the present. We are able to intuit the experience of the characters that we come across in the classics as they are universal and transcend boundaries of nationality, race, culture and tradition. Darcy and Elizabeth are not just the 18th century characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; they are present amongst us today as they will be tomorrow. A classic represents the universe.

The classic characters are characters of Creative Truth and not Creative Falsehood. We label a work as a classic when we can trace it to the classics of earlier times and assign it its rightful place in the genealogy of classic works. A book rises to the status of a classic when it relegates the noise of the present to a background hum. Similarly in any great work, a classic is present as a background noise and one cannot ignore it.

If Five Point Someone has these classical characteristics, certainly it merits inclusion in a Literature course.

The author was Dean and Professor of English, University of Delhi. h.raghavan13@gmail.com

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 9:56:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/some-thoughts-on-chetan-as-classical-author/article18401005.ece

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