“That was a fun session we had yesterday,” said Chetan Bhagat as we sat on the Diggi Palace front lawns watching Pico Iyer talking with William Dalrymple, “but I wish they had scheduled it for Saturday or Sunday instead of a Friday morning. Most of my readers are working-class people – they don’t have the luxury of taking time off on a weekday to come for an event like this. Still,” he said thoughtfully, “it was nice that they thought of inviting schoolchildren, and that the teachers brought them along. It livened things up.”
The last sentence is an understatement. The “Chetan Bhagat in Conversation” session at the Jaipur lit-fest was a huge success that ended with the author being mobbed by autograph-seekers and media outside the Durbar hall. The last time I saw such frequent and enthusiastic applause inside this hall while a discussion was in progress was three years ago, when Shobha De held court over an audience that included several college-girls with giant stars in their eyes.
Chetan was also being modest when he gave the schoolchildren credit for livening things up. Actually, it was all him. He was spontaneous, witty in his distinct, earthy style, and connected with his audience in a way that few public speakers manage (it helped, of course, that the hall was filled with people who had read and enjoyed his books). Namita Gokhale and I were co-moderating the session but we were redundant, which is something I thoroughly approve of being when up on a stage. Before the session, I had prepared a token list of questions: about Chetan’s fractious relationship with critics, the vehemence that he seems to invite from people who are obsessed with preserving the Integrity of Literature, and the kneejerk inverse snobbery that he himself has sometimes responded with. But once the session began, I realised that this was not the time or place to discuss these heavyweight matters. What the audience mostly wanted was for Chetan to speak about himself, and to ask him their own questions.
There were lots of quotable quotes from him, most of which I neglected to take down. Commenting on his spurts of defensiveness, Chetan said, “I’m a sensitive person, and I do sometimes react if people keep saying ‘He sucks. He sucks.’ It’s almost like a style statement for me now!”
During the session, I brought up my conversation with Tushar Raheja a couple of years ago (see this post about mass-market fiction) – about Raheja wondering why anyone would spend Rs 400 or Rs 500 on a book when he could go out for a meal with his girlfriend for that money, and how this indicated a growing willingness among some readers and writers to look at a book as a product like any other. It was, of course, the decision to price Chetan’s first book Five Point Someone at Rs 95 that directly led to the opening up of a new market.
“Well, yes, I always say love comes first,” Chetan quipped. “If there’s a book priced at Rs 500 and you can have a meal with your girlfriend instead, that’s what you should do – unless it’s a book about how to get new girlfriends!” Loud cheers followed. But on a more serious note, he immediately pointed out that for many of his readers in smaller towns, Rs 95 in itself is a fairly substantial price for a book. “And the margins are still big – large bookstores like Crossword keep 40 of those 95 rupees.”
“I’m learning new things about this country all the time,” he said, “Someone who had read one of my books wrote to me from a town called Durg, and I didn’t even know where that was. I’ve also learnt that my third book, The Three Mistakes of My Life, has been more popular in smaller towns than the first two books were – because those readers can’t relate to call centres and IIT campuses.”
While we’re sitting on the front lawn the next day, a group of girls come up to Chetan and shyly ask for autographs. One of them haltingly says that she loved all his books, but that she wishes there wasn’t so much abusive language in Five Point Someone: “I wanted my father to read it but he got angry and said he could not read something with so much bad language.”
“I’ll try and get the publishers to produce a U-rated version,” says Chetan, smiling.
When they leave, he says to me: “See, reactions to any book take place on so many different levels. Literary critics think my books are so safe, and that they don’t challenge anyone at all, but the fact is that these books often shock the middle-class people who are their primary readers. Whether you like it or not, you have to take into account the responses and feelings of even naïve readers. In Five Point Someone, when I had the two lovers engage in pre-marital sex, I got so many responses from people who said they liked the book but felt that Neha should not have “given up” her virginity. There have even been readers who know so little about novels that they don’t realise this is fiction: I get letters reproaching me for ruining Neha’s life by telling this story. ‘Tumne Neha ki zindagi barbaad kar di, ab uss se shaadi kaun karegaa?’ (‘You’ve spoilt Neha’s chances of getting married.’) I don’t know how to explain to them that this is a made-up story.”
I’ve known Chetan for a few years now, and have always thought of him as someone who thinks a lot about the issues surrounding his writing – about why critics feel the way they do about him, about what his success tells us about the nature of English-language reading and writing in India. Of course, I don’t agree with some of his views, and I suspect that he doesn’t have much time for my stance that reviewing is an essentially personal act, not a public service; that you have to be honest to your own feelings about a work rather than try to extrapolate what it might mean to “the majority” of readers or to a hypothetical reader with different tastes. Whenever the subject has come up in the past, the talk has gone nowhere.
But here’s a straight transcription of some of what he said to me the other day. These are not the words of someone who doesn’t think about what he’s doing, or about his place in the larger picture:
“A lot of people don't realise that taste can be used to run other people down. But all of our tastes are a product of our environment, the families we were born into, our upbringing. If I’m from a sophisticated background I might have exposure to the finer points of Japanese cuisine. But a traditional Jain family won’t know anything about it – does that mean these people are dumb?
I don’t have a problem with criticism, but some of it gets nasty and personal, and then I do feel like hitting back. When you condemn me, you judge my reader, and my readership is huge. It’s like saying that the democratic choices that have been made by a whole lot of people are wrong.
Many people don’t understand that my books are read by government-school kids, for whom English is very much a second language, and who know that they have to learn it if they want to get anywhere in life – beyond a point you can’t be successful if you don’t know English. And my books often provide them with an entry point into that world. They would be scared if they picked up a more literary work and saw complicated sentences in the first paragraph.
Let me give you a hypothetical situation – try to visualise it. Imagine that for whatever reason, your life takes a turn where it suddenly becomes very important for you to know French in order to get ahead in life. So you start learning it, work hard at it, persevere for weeks and months. Once you’re done with the basics, someone gives you a French novel written in a simple, conversational style and you get through it – this makes you feel like you’ve got somewhere, gained some sort of acceptance into a world that used to be closed to you. Then you pick up the newspapers the next day and see that critics everywhere have written that this book is utter crap, that only an idiot would like it. How do you feel then? And what service is such a review doing?
If you’re a critic, you at least owe it to yourself to be aware of how art connects for different people. But there is so much nastiness directed at my work. A reviewer writing about my third book for a prominent newspaper began by proudly announcing ‘I haven’t read Chetan Bhagat’s previous books but I went to my editor and asked if I could review this one, because I wanted to slam it.’ That was the first sentence of the review!”
(More on Chetan soon. In full disclosure, he wasn’t the festival’s biggest draw on the day of his session: that honour belonged to a certain Mr Bachchan who made an appearance on the front lawns an hour or so after our session got over.)