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.

At the launch, I manage to wriggle in through the throng of fans that surrounds Bhagat and ask him if there’s any way I could get some time with him. He rues the miscommunication and invites me to join him on his way back to UB City. After the fans have had their fill, Bhagat and I squeeze into the boot seat of a Chevrolet Tavera; his wife, twin sons and in-laws occupy the middle and front seats. I congratulate him on the liveliest book launch I have ever been to. This is nothing, he says. “If you want to see a real Chetan Bhagat event, you have to come to a small town. I did one in Bhubaneswar and 2,500 people came. In Indore they had to hire a basketball stadium. That’s where the real action is.”

Bhagat is the author of four novels—Five Point Someone (2004), One Night @ the Call Centre (2005), The 3 Mistakes of My Life (2008), 2 States: The Story of My Marriage (2009)—that have collectively sold a few million copies, numbers that are astronomical for the world of Indian English fiction. Bhagat’s books have found readers in mofussil towns and he enjoys unprecedented reach for someone who writes in English. Many of his readers have read no writer besides Bhagat; some do not realise his books are fiction. Two commercial Hindi films have been made from his books—Hello and the spectacularly successful 3 Idiots—with a third in the making. Bhagat writes columns in the editorial pages of the Times of India and Dainik Bhaskar, the country’s largest-selling English and Hindi newspapers respectively. He is often invited to air his views on television, and he is a frequent motivational speaker at colleges. He is quite accurately termed a ‘youth icon’ by the media, and unlike other icons who tend to be sportspersons or actors, Bhagat is particularly influential since his ideas reach a large number of impressionable minds.

Bhagat quotes a psychiatrist he met in Delhi after his third book was published: “Chetan, you don’t realise the power you have over young people. It’s very rare that an educated celebrity has been given this stage. There’s more you can do.” Since then Bhagat has quit his bank job and speaks with fervour of being an ‘agent of change.’ “I now know my writing is powerful enough to create bestsellers. But is it powerful enough to alter behaviour and thinking? That is the ultimate level. Can I create a revolution? I don’t know.”

To what end would this revolution be? “I just want a country which is developed, which has money and an affluent standard of living. A fair society where talent matters, not connections. I see these restaurants in UB City with smart waiters who speak perfect English, and they are serving bread. They are not getting better because the system is not lifting talent, not creating opportunities.” As we enter UB City, Bhagat is indignant about the lack of good jobs for young people. He allows himself an expletive after his family has alighted. “Big city, big pedigree, good English—people like you and me can find a job. What about those other kids? They’re going to be waiters, work in a fucking call centre, sell insurance on the streets. This is not a country.”

Bhagat has said he thinks of himself as 90 percent entertainer, ten percent reformer. This mix ensures that his novels occupy a strange literary register, one in which stories dealing with social concerns are written using the conventions of pulp fiction. In the tradition of pulp, Bhagat’s books employ linear plotlines, simple language and short sentences. Readers speak fondly about how quick-paced Bhagat’s books are and how they never get boring, something achieved by never requiring the reader to pause. Characters do not aspire to the complexities of realism, but are constituted of a few clearly defined characteristics in rough accordance with which they behave. They often behave in disjointed fashion, hurtling along from one mood to the next before the reader’s attention can wander. And they never respond to situations in nuanced ways which might require the reader to pause and reflect; their responses are clearly communicated through word, gesture or expression. To whatever extent possible, plausible stereotypes are employed over fresh and telling detail, freeing the reader from having to rely too heavily on the text. Events in the books can sometimes take melodramatic turns, and depending on what one is used to, this can require a significant ability to suspend disbelief.

None of these attributes of Bhagat’s fiction are new to Indian audiences, having been in use in commercial Indian cinema for decades. Bhagat’s sensibility—including the whistle-eliciting, coin-chucking jingoism—draws not from any literary tradition, but from classic Bollywood. Bhagat half-acknowledges this heritage when he speaks disparagingly of critics who pan his books “and then give the film Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani four stars and say it was really fun.” Another peeve Bhagat has is with those who claim his books sell only because they are priced at a modest 95 rupees: “It is not soap that it will sell if you reduce the price. This is not a must-have product. You only read a book if you want to.” Readers spoken to for this piece agree. In general they feel the low price is appealing but they don’t buy the books just for that reason.

3 MISTAKES is perhaps the most cinematic of Bhagat’s books. It is also the most ambitious, attempting to combine elements of cricket, entrepreneurship and romance against the backdrop of Hindu-Muslim conflict in Ahmedabad. “3 Mistakes is the book I am most proud of,” says Bhagat. “I got away with the secularism essays and I got a million people to read it. What’s the point of doing a very intellectual book on secularism? Intellectuals already know.”

Bhagat’s need to keep things light sometimes undoes his reformist aspirations. To offer an example from 3 Mistakes, its three Hindu cricket-loving protagonists resort to heroics near the end to save a Muslim cricket prodigy from a Hindu mob. But the impression conveyed is that they save him not because they see iniquity in a boy being murdered, but because a cricketing talent would be lost. “Don’t touch him. He’s a national treasure,” is the coach’s appeal, almost as if the treasure were to be saved despite being Muslim. This is clearly contrary to Bhagat’s intended secular message, but it is perhaps the constraints of ‘90 percent entertainment’ that conspire to subvert his own intent.

One Night @ The Call Center is the story of a rather dramatic night in the lives of a group of call-centre employees. All of them long to be doing something more significant, but are stuck in the job for various reasons. It takes a phone call from God to rouse them, but before they go off to chase their dreams, they must save their company by getting as many Americans as possible to call in. With some encouragement from God, they proceed to blackmail their boss and lie to American customers to get them to call in as part of a childish plan called ‘Operation Yankee Fear.’ To condone this, Americans must be portrayed as somehow deserving of such treatment, and they are. In the words of one character, “Americans are fat, loud, thick and divorce all the time.” Bhagat’s intended message in the book is to do with ‘attending to the call within,’ but the subsequent God-sanctioned ‘end justifies the means’ skulduggery stands out more prominently.

Interestingly, none of the Chetan Bhagat readers I interviewed seemed particularly aware of any larger message or intention in the books. Kavitha Gopinath, an ardent Bhagat fan, works for a telecom company in Bengaluru and was an enthusiastic audience member at the launch of 2 States. She says about Bhagat, “For me he’s the ultimate entertainer. His books are effortless to read.” Asked about the larger significance of his books, she says, “Honestly, I didn’t realise there was any. It was only when he spoke about it during the launch that I went, ‘Oh. Okay.’”

Most readers say that their favourite Bhagat books are Five Point Someone and 2 States. Both are books relatively well-anchored in the real, based as they are on Bhagat’s own experiences. Both succeed in creating a sense of recognition in readers and generate empathy for their characters. Five Point Someone, Bhagat’s debut and the book that established his reputation, is a funny, fast-moving book set in the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, Bhagat’s alma mater, and it follows the academic and personal tribulations of three friends as they blunder through an engineering degree. Along the way, Bhagat offers an indictment of an education system that stifles innovation and is structured such that perfectly capable and intelligent students lose their way within it. The characters are sharply (if simply) drawn, with limitations that they transcend in the course of the book. The book is set in a world that most young Indians are familiar with—the world of classes, teachers, hostels, examinations—and perhaps feel trapped in. Part of the enthusiastic reception the book received must no doubt have been caused by the sheer exhilaration of seeing one’s reality acknowledged. Neeraj Pokhariyal, an alumnus of IIT Roorkee, tells me of the excitement he felt when he first read the book. “I thought, ‘This is my story!’” He went on to read it five times back to back.


2 States is probably the funniest of Bhagat’s books. Based in its broad outlines on Bhagat’s courtship of his wife, it is the story of a Punjabi boy who falls in love with a Tamil girl while they are studying together in the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, and their subsequent travails in getting the two families to agree to their marriage. The boy moves to Chennai to woo the girl’s family, and there are amusing observations about life in Chennai: its proclivity for starting the day scarily early; afternoon discos; usurious auto drivers; guests absorbed in The Hindu at weddings; the narrator being jolted in the wee hours by what “sounded like a chorus of women marching towards an army” only to learn it was MS Subbulakshmi. 2 States has a couple of contrived plot turns, but it also gives us the most endearing of Bhagat’s characters in the girl’s laconic brother.

Reviewers of 2 States have been quick to point out that it relies on stereotypes of Punjabis and Tamils, and that this is counterproductive if the book aims to dispel rather than reinforce prejudices. But most Bhagat readers simply appear bemused when asked whether they agree with such criticism. The book seems to have worked as intended at least in the case of a Punjabi businessman from Mumbai, who tells me over the phone that 2 States helped him come to terms with his daughter marrying a Malayali. (He even had plans to present copies of the book to guests at the wedding.) The seemingly paradoxical response is explained by a difference in the way readers approach Bhagat’s books. Most Bhagat readers read close to the text—what happens in a book is only a story, with nothing more abstract to be derived from it. For them, a recognisable world and characters who can be empathised with are sufficient. More sophisticated readers tend to read interpretively and demand consistency at a thematic level as well. Whether by design or due to lack of control, Bhagat’s writing often leans towards entertaining the ingenuous reader even at the cost of annoying the interpretive one. Typically, the former category of reader ends up adoring Bhagat’s books while the latter shudders at the mention of them.

It is obvious at the Bengaluru launch of 2 States that Bhagat’s tale of inter-regional romance has found resonance in many young people. The event is taken over by the audience, almost all of whom appear to have relationships that narrow-minded parents are attempting to thwart. One young man’s plight is particularly poignant: his girlfriend is to be married to someone else in a month’s time. He is incredulous: “Everything is same—religion, caste. The only problem is that they speak Gujarati and we speak Marwari.” Bhagat says, “Legally, you are within your rights to elope with her.” He tells someone else, “You can always get the girl pregnant. Parents will agree at once.” Bhagat’s counsels are greeted with laughs and claps. If it’s revolution Bhagat is seeking to create, there is some evidence that the old order is threatened. An elderly man takes possession of the microphone: “I arranged a match for my daughter. Now, they are happy and I am also happy.” He is quickly forgotten and the communion between Bhagat and his young readers continues.

On stage, Bhagat sounds just like his books (or vice versa)—chatty, informal, with frequent witty asides. He tells me later, “I feel the persona is as important as the books. They think they know Chetan and they are reading Chetan’s book. In India I think I’m the poster boy of middle-class success. They say, ‘He is someone I can be like.’ They like Ranbir Kapoor, but they don’t ever imagine they can be like him. But they see me and say, ‘This guy seems to have figured it out. I want to be him.’ That’s where it comes from I think.”

For middle-class youth whose careers have been guided by their parents’ values, personal fulfilment often lies outside their safe world. Bhagat has managed to extricate himself from such a world with spectacular success, to the point of being able to quit his ‘well-paid job,’ and he is therefore a hero of sorts to this group. (At the launch of 2 States there were a couple of young men with manuscripts and hopeful looks. All three fans I later interviewed in Bengaluru—two working in the corporate sector, one studying to be a dentist like his father—aspire to write. One has even finished the first chapter of a book based on his own love story.) For youth from the mofussil towns, an engineering degree and an MBA are tickets to prosperity and a life in the city. For this group, Bhagat, with his double-barrelled IIT-IIM qualification would have to be considered ‘skyline defining.’

IN VARANASI I GET TALKING with a boy flying a kite from the terrace of an old ghat-side haveli. His name is Rajat, and he’s doing his Intermediate course before joining college. If he stays on in Varanasi, he says, he will end up a priest. “There’s nothing here. Look at this house, look at these clothes,” he tells me in Hindi. I ask what’s wrong with his clothes. “They’re all right,” he says, “But they’re simple clothes. Not branded or anything.” Rajat’s ambition is to move to a city and find ‘a good job.’ But his education has been in Hindi, and a paying job in the city or education leading to it is difficult to find without English.

The thing for youngsters like Rajat to do is to enrol in a coaching centre and hope for the best. Pankaj Kanojia is in charge of business operations at the Dehradun branch of Career Launcher, a tutorial chain that trains students primarily for MBA entrance tests and has a significant presence in mofussil towns. “The main problem for our students is RC,” he says, before expanding the trade-speak, “Reading Comprehension.” The centre has a library with a little over a 1,000 books solely for its students to improve their RC. Kanojia says they have five copies of each of Bhagat’s books, and these are always off the shelves.

In November 2009, Bhagat gave a talk about the MBA degree in Dehradun in partnership with Career Launcher to about 1,200 people. Career Launcher teamed up with Bhagat because “he is a youth icon with IIT-IIM qualifications.” The event was geared to draw mainly high-school students, potential enrolees in Career Launcher. Since then, Bhagat has done several such events. In the first two months of this year alone, he has spoken in Patiala, Agra, Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad, Gwalior, Jabalpur, Bhopal, Patna, Ranchi and Nagpur.

The Bhagat readers I speak with at Career Launcher in Dehradun seem largely unconcerned about the content of his books. The books are texts anchored in a familiar world they can use to improve their English, but little more. One student, when asked how he came to read the books, says, “vocab.” An exception is Neeraj Pokhariyal (the IIT Rorkee alumnus who read Five Point Someone five times) who works there as an instructor. He found Bhagat’s books useful for his English, too, but he could also relate intensely to Five Point Someone. I am chatting with Neeraj when a young man with a somewhat rakish air—I later learn he is an instructor too—joins us. “Chetan Bhagat? He’s good for beginners,” he pronounces, a view that does not even consider that the books can be anything but English primers. I ask him what fiction he reads. “I am addicted to Sidney Sheldon.”

Talking with a couple of students I get the impression that they slip into a different persona when they communicate in English—they become stiff, give overly pat responses with stilted diction. English is a language used not for expressing oneself but for saying what someone else expects to hear, an interview language.

It is evident that Bhagat enjoys interacting with readers outside big cities, but his implicit endorsement of a coaching institute in the process is worth thinking about. Perhaps such institutes help people like Rajat realise their aspirations, but they do so mainly by training students to work the system. It often comes down to who can afford the best training, shutting out the less well-off. Bhagat is earnest when he speaks about the need for “a system that lifts up talent,” but coaching institutes could be seen as doing the very opposite. In a talk at a business school widely circulated on the Internet, Bhagat exhorts students to nourish the spark within them. But it’s likely that the entire soulless endeavour of learning tools and techniques to tackle a single kind of test, and the acquisition of superficial, self-alienating ‘personality skills’ have been responsible for dousing many a spark.

One girl at the Dehradun centre with whom I try to discuss Bhagat’s books is so extraordinarily meek in her responses that I begin to loathe myself for subjecting her to the ordeal. Someone from the centre prods the MBA aspirant—“Be loud, be confident”—but to no avail. I am reduced to asking her leading questions that she answers with nods. I ask her if she would put up Bhagat’s poster in her room. She shakes her head with surprising vehemence. And why not? “He has not done anything great.” A little later I find her taking help from an instructor to fill an application form. She reads out what she has entered under ‘Strengths’—‘confidence’ is one—and wants to know what she should list under ‘Weaknesses.’

Great or not, Bhagat’s signal achievement lies in having unearthed a staggering lode of new readers, people who did not previously find their realities reflected in literature. At least some of them have gone on to read books other than Bhagat’s. His novels, at their best, are entertaining and allow readers glimpses of their lives at a remove. At other times they can send out mixed messages. His columns are far more direct and cogent: topics he has written about include India’s inability to harness talent, a call for a moderate Marathi voice, a letter to Gandhi on his birthday from India’s youth (that ends with “We hope you had a good one up there”) and a call for relinquishing the dynastic hold on Indian politics.

Bhagat’s notion of progress is a “fair, modern society with a working legal system, where human beings are respected, and where the talented have opportunities to do well.” He believes such a society comes about through, and in turn facilitates, economic prosperity. “We need a responsible political system that is development-oriented. And we need people who are homogeneous. If you see rapid progress countries like Korea, Taiwan, Japan, they have few tensions within. Patriotism that is towards progress, like in Japan, really helps.” Bhagat believes it is good that India has much spiritual grounding. “I am not worried that we’ll get too materialistic. If we do then we have enough gurus to go to.”

ANY NUMBER of nationalistic movements have been launched on the basis of the values of homogeneity, progress and patriotism. But this triad can be particularly pernicious in India, where an impatience for economic progress can lead to large sections of the population being repressed in order to attain an illusory homogeneity. Those who insist on drawing attention to the marginalised are branded unpatriotic. Patriotism is conveniently aligned with the self-interest of small, influential groups, and spirituality, in this scheme of things, perhaps becomes a conveniently expiatory tool.

A Twitter message from Bhagat while he’s driving from Ranchi to Jamshedpur for a Career Launcher event is an example of patriotism with a blind spot. It reads: “Developing this mineral-rich area can make India rich. If only leaders focus on that. Guess blocking movies is more fun than digging metal.” The casual equation of ‘developing’ with ‘digging metal’ is precisely what people in the region have been protesting for decades.

Bhagat may well be the poster boy of the middle class, but it must be noted that he is the poster boy only of the middle class. The dominant narrative of our times would appear to be one of middle-class aspiration, tracing the collective march of the Rajats towards UB City. But the middle class accounts for only five to 30 percent of the population, depending on whom you ask. One of Bhagat’s fans tells me that he didn’t like the film Slumdog Millionaire and the novel The White Tiger because they show India in a poor light. His complaint is not that what was shown was unconvincing or untrue; it is that such things were portrayed at all. There is no such danger with Bhagat’s novels: they are set entirely in a middle-class world. Perhaps Bhagat will widen those horizons in books to come.

“The social content in my books is going to go up,” says Bhagat in a plush lobby of UB City as our interview comes to an end. And he professes awareness of the responsibility, “Can words change thinking? Can words change behaviour? It will be my next journey. And that’s very dangerous. Hitler was also a writer and he did change behaviour—but in a very negative way.”