Paperback Messiah

Readers’ reports on Chetan Bhagat, the self-anointed poster boy of middle-class success

01 May 2010

I AM AT THE BENGALURU LAUNCH of Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States: The Story of My Marriage. Publicity has been minimal—a single message on Twitter is responsible for most of the youngsters trooping in. Some are young enough to be accompanied by parents; others come straight from work, laptop cases slung over shoulders; most seem to be college students. The chairs laid out by the bookstore are filled half an hour in advance and people file steadily into the space between racks. A screen loops TV clips of Bhagat: interspersed with upbeat stock music, a breathless voice informs us that after book sales in the millions over the past five years, Bhagat recently quit his ‘well-paid job’ as a banker. Cut to Bhagat chiming in earnestly, “I am the poster boy of Indian middle-class success.” After about 20 minutes of this the screen goes blank, bringing hope to the restless audience. Presently, an emcee appears, delivers his spiel about the bookstore chain that is organising the event, and reassures the gathering, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the celebrity figure present right here.” A few minutes later, Bhagat, a boyish figure in jeans and a t-shirt, enters to an outburst of claps, cheers and camera flashes.

According to the programme, Bhagat is supposed to read from the book. “How many of you have already read the book?” he asks. Almost all hands go up. “Do you still want me to read?” The consensus is a shouted, “No!” Bhagat then takes charge of a panel discussion, keeping it short and breezy, before getting to what the audience really wants—to talk to him. They share personal stories, seek advice, ask after characters in his books as if they were real people. Bhagat keeps things moving easily. He banters, he counsels, he cuts in with a joke when someone gets too serious. There is much laughter and applause through the evening. When at last it is time to wind up, Bhagat is thronged by fans unwilling to let go.

My afternoon has mostly been spent waiting futilely for Bhagat in the lobby of the ultra-posh—it even has a helipad—Oakwood serviced apartments where the bookstore has put him up. My wait is the result of being unable to establish contact with Bhagat’s sensationally elusive PR, and it gives me the opportunity to explore United Breweries—or UB—City, the ‘development’ in which Oakwood stands. If there were to be a poster place of Indian middle-class success, a place that could represent the upper reaches of celebrating sufficiency through consumption, an über-mall of sorts, it is this, it is this. UB City is “skyline defining” and “the new jewel of the city” according to its website. Besides the serviced apartments, it has corporate offices, a food court and a swanky shopping area—a high-ceilinged marble affair with shops bearing formidable European names like Ermenegildo Zegna, or deceptively simple ones like Tod’s. Much of the merchandise does not carry price tags, and when it does, the figures are hair-raising. The windows of the Louis Vuitton store have large, gilded birdcages with shoes, handbags and clutches locked inside. The birds are on the outside, looking longingly into the cages.

Srinath Perur is a Bengaluru-based freelance writer.

Keywords: nationalism Arvind Adiga Slumdog Millionaire Chetan Bhagat Srinath Perur Five Point Someone Kavitha Gopinath one night at the call center commercial Indian audience IIM middle-class