As Chetan Bhagat prepares to release his latest blockbuster of a novel called ‘Half Girlfriend’ to an equal measure of chagrin and ecstasy of his detractors and supporters respectively, it has fallen on me to take a detached view of the phenomenon that is oozing from every pore of the Indian pulp literature establishment. It is widely expected to be a sold-out book even before the actual selling begins. It is a glorious revenge of the army of philistines with Bhagat as its Field Marshal. Their weapon of choice is Bhagat’s trademark pedestrianism.
Sample this synopsis released by Bhagat as a teaser: "Once upon a time, there was a Bihari boy called Madhav. He fell in love with a girl called Riya. Madhav didn’t speak English well. Riya did. Madhav wanted a relationship. Riya didn’t. Riya just wanted friendship. Madhav didn’t. Riya suggested a compromise. She agreed to be his half-girlfriend."
With that teaser, Bhagat has set India’s reading public agog with expectation. The question to beat all questions now is—Will Riya put out?
If nothing else, Bhagat’s prose has the virtue of brevity and now fashionable small town simple-mindedness. Going by this little passage, Bhagat obviously does not believe in subtext. For him, the subtext is the text.
I have tried various hypotheses in my mind about what it is that really motivates Bhagat apart from money. One of the hypotheses I had tested in my mind early on had Bhagat as a fiendishly clever mind who has cracked the ultimate literary business model. Under this hypothesis, he is fully aware of the complete absence of any linguistic, narrative or literary merit in what he writes but does so anyway because he knows suckers are breaking the doors down. It was a neat little fantasy where a crafty mind manipulates gullible fools. I had to cast off that hypothesis because it was untestable.
My current working hypothesis is that Bhagat’s natural level, when it comes to literature, is in fact what his books suggest. Notwithstanding his degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management, he is someone who is most comfortable operating at a very moderate level of literacy. He operates somewhere in the ballpark of Gurinder Chaddha. (I refuse to elaborate on that reference. You figure it out.) There is no judgment here at all. Most ordinary readers prefer books that do not require them to do much more than move their lips and some vocalizing as they go from line to line and paragraph to paragraph. Again, contrary to what my tone might suggest, I am not at all being judgmental or derisive. I am merely making a factual observation. I did not create that fact. I am merely stating it.
When Bhagat’s fans say that the snobby elite looks down upon him and his readers, they are right. I may seem perilously close to being a founding member of that snobby elite. It would not bother me one bit to be so branded except that it is not accurate. To slightly rephrase Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, “It’s my manner, sir…it sounds smug.” In my defense, I sound like that when I describe just about any human experience.
As an aside, I get that sense that there is now reverse snobbery among the so-called high-minded of not only reading Bhagat’s books but even openly extolling their virtues. It is somewhat like people discovering great cinematic and artistic merit in Manmohan Desai films which they were once too hoity-toity to watch because the filmmaker used an idiom they had contempt for. I am consistent in my steadfast rejection of both, Desai’s films and Bhagat’s books. They both offer very narrow edification to some segments of society. All that I am saying is that they are not for me. I do not have the refinement to appreciate Bhagat’s talent.
If history is any guide, Bhagat is likely to hit even this one out of the park. Writers would kill to get a readership a tenth as committed as what Bhagat enjoys. There are, of course, things to be admired in Bhagat. One is his ability to produce books at regular intervals. Irrespective of what the critics think of their merit, the sheer output requires considerable application. Another is his remarkable ability to create a subculture of substandard literature and making it a huge success. Yet another is his manifest success in riding on such thin credentials and yet emerge as the voice of a new generation of Indians who are often utterly self-assured for no discernible reason. It is no accident that Bhagat is a much sought after TV pundit whose sociopolitical analyses have the same feel as his books—of content carefully shorn of anything complex. Those are good things. Good things.
As a minor tribute to Bhagat, I am also releasing a synopsis of my yet unnamed upcoming novel : "Once upon a time there was a Punjabi boy called Chetan. He fell in love with writing. But writing didn’t fall in love with him. Chetan wanted to be an author. Literature didn’t. Chetan won. Literature lost."