The latest official Indian figures estimate the Indian diaspora at 22 million people. Nonresident Indians (NRIs) comprise about 10 million, and, of those, about 213,000 live in Australia.
Britain has its Bronte sisters; now, India has its Bhagat brothers.
With his debut novel, Complete/Convenient, Ketan Bhagat proves that great writing is not the exclusive provenance of big brother Chetan, but is now the family business.
For my American readers, Chetan Bhagat is an influential Times of India columnist and the best-selling English-language Indian author of all time. His books have been made into Bollywood movies; his most recent is What Young India Wants. The pressure to deliver a great novel is high for younger brother Ketan. And, deliver he does.
Complete/Convenient tells the story of two NRIs: Kabir and Myra Kapoor. They relocate to Sydney when Kabir receives a promotion at his company, Satyamev (truth in Sanskrit). Kabir and Myra’s NRI experience is not that portrayed by Bollywood with its flashy cars and frolicking in the Swiss Alps. Their experience is far more sedate, but far more typical. They revel in Sydney’s beauty, cleanliness, and seemingly sane (compared to Mumbai) traffic. They struggle with housing options, family squabbles, and their first Diwali abroad. While the book lacks the required dance numbers and bromance typical in Bollywood blockbusters, it nevertheless portrays a touching story of a husband’s love for his wife, and hers for him. Bhagat openly explores the sacrifices made not just in marriage, but in marriage abroad. The Third Year in Sydney is the strongest part of the book, where all the subplots come to a satisfying climax. The only plot point that felt out of sync was the revelation about Myra in the last 50 pages of the book. As an American woman, I find it slightly incredulous that a woman would wait three years into her marriage to reveal such information. But, that might be my American cultural sensibilities imposed on a culture where such openness is not encouraged. Unfortunately, the late revelation does not add much depth to the story. I wish it had been explored a bit earlier.
In the novel, Bhagat grapples with two primary questions: What does it mean to be complete? Can you ever go home again? These questions are why, although aspects of the story might be seen as “very Indian,” the appeal is universal. The title itself comes from an American character who observes that life abroad is more convenient, but life in India is more complete. You have a choice: complete or convenient, not both. As an American myself, I don’t know that I agree with that observation. I think that life in India is complete for an Indian, but that life outside one’s home country might never be truly complete. For Brian and I to experience that completeness, we might need to return to the US, just as Kabir and Myra eventually return to India. For Kabir, living outside India means redefining the word “family.” In India, the social fabric of the country is woven with the brightly colored threads of family ties. The relationships are so complex that your mama and chacha, while both “uncle” in English, in Hindi define their relationship relative to you and your kin. The obligations associated with family are just as complicated. Throughout the book, Kabir wrestles with the pull between his family in India and his life in Australia. One character observes that an Indian abroad must consider friends as family. Kabir must decide whether this new definition is one he can accept.
Perhaps my own expatriate experience is why I find Kabir and Myra’s experiences so relatable. Just as the Kapoors experienced Diwali outside India, we have just experienced our second US Independence Day outside the US. Although we had a party complete with all the necessary trimmings, and some unknown person lit fireworks in front of our building, it’s just not the same. That does not make it bad, just different. As we are about to make our first trip back to the US after 16 months, I wonder if we will experience that sweet, yet unpleasant, smell at the Newark airport that returning NRIs experience when deplaning in Mumbai.
Overall, I would give the book solid marks in plot and character development. I started reading the Kindle version and ended reading the paperback. The Kindle version has some formatting issues (recently corrected) that I found distracting. For that reason, I cannot give a perfect score, but more like a solid 96%. Besides, authors cannot sign e-books. Having read about halfway through the book when I attended the book signing, I bought two more signed copies for people who are expats themselves either in India or elsewhere. Hopefully, they will see the humor the same way that I did and grow to appreciate the joys and struggles of the expat experience.
For those readers in India, the paperback is available at all the usual locations:
For readers outside India, the e-book is the best option, or go to Ketan’s website for a list of paperback suppliers.