How Will Posterity Remember Chetan Bhagat’s Work?

Chetan Bhagat at IIT Delhi (Courtesy: Chetan Bhagat's Facebook page)

One may disagree with the views Bhagat expresses in his columns and other public forums. I myself, on most occasions, find it difficult to agree with him. However, it is perfectly possible for one to disagree with him and yet appreciate the positives that he has contributed to the public space. Depriving him of this credit, which he has duly earned, would be criminal to say the least.

Chetan Bhagat at IIT Delhi (Courtesy: Chetan Bhagat’s Facebook page)

Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Half Girlfriend’, hit the stands in October 2014. The day Bhagat posted its first chapter and a promotional trailer on his site, the site “crashed” due to heavy traffic! He then posted it on his Facebook page and it attracted more than a million views.

So the promotions were on perfect gears and the response magical.

What makes Bhagat a widely read and widely loved author in India? All his previous six books have been bestsellers and three of them even enacted as Bollywood films. A search on Wikipedia will tell you that in 2008, The New York Times cited Bhagat as “the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history.” Time magazine named him as one of the 100 ‘Most Influential People’ in the World. Apart from this, he has also received a couple of awards in recognition of his work.

Being a member of the generation which old-timers in India call the ‘Chetan Bhagat Generation’, I often wonder what Bhagat has substantially contributed to Indian literature and literature in general? Consider yourself to be a person living in the 16th-17th century England who miraculously, defying time and space, has somehow landed in India today. Having not read Bhagat and simply going by the magical fan-following he has in this country, you will probably equate him with the likes of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow. But dear O dear! Bhagat is none of them. He is altogether a different breed of writer who has modified the rules of writing to suit his (as well as the reader’s) interest.

Critics of Bhagat (and yes there are many) have argued that his work lacks literary depth and that his sentence formation is of an inferior quality. At best, they say, it is a mediocre literature— a literature that has compromised on its literary depth to achieve populist goals.

In an interview with Reuters Bhagat says, “People mistake brightness with proficiency in English. English is a foreign language to us. There are vast portions of India which don’t have that. So they may just want a simple book in English. For them simple English is good enough. But to equate brightness, which means being intelligent, with being [good in] English, that is where the snobbery and elitism begins. And that’s where I have an issue.”

To judge Bhagat’s work strictly from the eyes of a literary critic is not my intention here. Rather I am interested in exploring the substantial contribution (if any) his work has made to the society in general.

Photo: Chetan Bhagat’s Facebook page

One of Bhagat’s noteworthy achievements that not even his biggest critic can ever deny is that, Bhagat has made book-reading a passion amongst the slippery Indian middle class. Irrespective of the ‘quality’ of the content they are reading, the positive point is that they are reading. Bhagat, through his work has been instrumental in triggering a revolution in the urban Indian middle class, especially the youth, by making books a fascination for them.

One may disagree with the views Bhagat expresses in his columns and other public forums. I myself, on most occasions, find it difficult to agree with him. However, it is perfectly possible for one to disagree with him and yet appreciate the positives that he has contributed to the public space. Depriving him of this credit, which he has duly earned, would be criminal to say the least.

C.L Wayper, the renowned political theorist, rightly said that, “an idea of the public good is not sufficient for the development of political thought [in a society]. Freedom to discuss it, and eagerness to discuss it and to apply it, are also essential.”

Book-reading for generations has been considered a positively desired habit for a civilized person. Our Constitution and our political system also do provide us with the freedom to practice this. But ironically, the eagerness to execute this long desired habit is unfortunately missing in our society for long. In this background, Bhagat’s work has been instrumental in generating that eagerness to read among the people.

‘Democratization of democracy’ is the new catchword in the realm of normative political thought of late. Apart from democratization of the democratic institutions, there is also a need for democratization of readership and democratization of the ability to write i.e. writership (as I choose to call it.)

Chetan Bhagat, in this background, becomes important from a sociological aspect too. Our thousands of year’s old history is a testimony to the fact that reading and more importantly writing has always been the sole prerogative of the ones in power—the priests, the Brahmins, the royals and so on. In this immense stretch of time we hardly come across books written by common people. George Orwell in his political satire ‘Animal Farm’—through the character of the learned pigs—too exhibits this phenomenon of restrictive access of readership and ‘writership’ to the masses in the modern society as a tool to keep them at a bay from decision making.

After the entry of Chetan Bhagat in the Indian literary space, a plethora of writers have adopted the pen to speak their heart’s voice. Traditionally, writers in India generally came from an academic (or related) background- English literature, journalism, social sciences and the like. This trend has been disseminated in the post Chatan Bhagat phase of Indian literature. Bhagat’s writing has inspired a generation to write and has filled them with confidence enough to experiment with the pen. Now we have people writing novels from as varied a background as management, engineers, doctors and yes even scientists! Is this by itself not democratization of democracy or part of a much needed social transformation?

Why should writing be seen as a prerogative of a limited few endowed with a form of English which the common man cannot understand and relate to? The era of globalization expects us to be a melting pot in the sense that it tends to equate vernacular English with Queen’s English. If we want to increase the readership in the society, we can’t offer a Shakespeare or a Marlow to a beginner. It will be a nightmare for him and the little interest that s/he has will also evaporate. It is here that the Chetan Bhagat brand of literature becomes indispensable. This variety is the best suited for any beginner. Once they are into reading, with time, they surely will discover their own taste.

Chetan Bhagat has his magical fan-following because he writes in a language that they relate too. His characters are ordinary and message easily understood. Conscious historians of Indian literature will probably remember Bhagat as a writer of the masses. A writer who through his alleged “poor” English could instill an entire generation and cultivate the habit of reading at an unprecedented rate…something even the doyens of Indian literature could scarcely match.

However, it will be interesting to see how the same generation of mushrooming writers and readers respond to Bhagat’s work once they familiarize themselves with the likes of Amitav Gosh, V.S Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth. Will they be kind to him or not…only time will tell. Till then happy reading!

By-Mukesh Rawat