I’ve been a gori groupie of Indian writers since I picked up Immortals of the Meluha by Amish almost three years ago. With each novel I’ve read, I’ve learned valuable lessons about how Indians view themselves, their country, and the world.
Since August, I’ve been going gaga over the anticipated release of a book called Half Girlfriend by Chetan Bhagat. It’s like watching the launch of the last Harry Potter book. It’s one of the most impressive marketing campaigns for a book. Ever.
My American friends have been left wondering: Who the hell is Chetan Bhagat? What’s a half girlfriend? What’s the big deal about this book? Is it any good?
Well, wonder no more.
Who the hell is Chetan Bhagat?
Editor’s note for the English-speaking types:
His first name is pronounced Chay-tun (like chase). Not Cheat-an (like eat). His last name has short vowel sounds like this: bhuh-guht (almost like bug). Not long vowel sounds: bag-gat (like bag).
Chetan Bhagat is India’s best-selling novelist writing in English and a regular columnist for the Times of India. Much loved, but also much maligned, Bhagat writes simple stories in plain English. Literary critics are particularly hard on his sentence structure; but, these critics miss the bigger picture. That simple sentence structure opens these books beyond the English-speaking elite who favor 50-rupee words to describe a blade of grass as verdant rather than green. Bhagat’s books reach an audience for whom English is not a primary language, but who are eager to learn. In India, English equals greater earning power. That earning power translates to economic prosperity and upward social mobility—goals to which Indians aspire.
Bhagat encourages those aspirations. Think of him as India’s Paulo Coelho. His stories aren’t so much chronicles of India as it is, but rather fables of India as Bhagat dreams it can be. While he takes an optimistic outlook of India’s future, Bhagat wrestles with the complex challenges that plague India: poverty, communalism, poor education infrastructure. He tells stories where the characters overcome these challenges through talent and hard work. His skill at distilling even the most complex cultural frameworks into an easy-to-digest plot is under-appreciated.
Half Girlfriend is Bhagat’s seventh novel. Typically, the novels are short (less than 300 pages), involve two college-age lovers, and explore headline-dominating themes. In the case of Half Girlfriend, Bhagat explores the widening gap between urban and rural India and between those who speak English and those who don’t. In many ways, English has become India’s modern caste system. Those who speak English properly prosper, while those who speak it poorly remain poor. Although he writes in English, Bhagat despises that elitism. Nevertheless, he understands the critical role English plays in India’s economic future. He writes to break down the class barriers by making English accessible to everyone. As a technical editor, I’ve taught writers to simplify their language to communicate easily across cultures to non-English speakers. Such simplicity takes enormous skill, and not all writers have that skill. When I find one who does, I enjoy watching that talent flourish. Hence, my groupie status.
What’s a half girlfriend?
Imagine a relationship between a boy and a girl with all the emotional entanglements but none of the sex. That’s a half girlfriend. Sucks to be the boy, doesn’t it? The reasons for the girl’s desire for compromise become clear later, but at first she appears to be just another girl stringing a boy along by his…umm…heartstrings.
Bhagat himself defines a half girlfriend as a uniquely Indian experience where young people are vague about their romantic relationships. I’ve got news for Bhagat: that’s hardly unique to India. American teenagers are equally vague with their dating relationships. He could probably market this book as an Indian Fault in Our Stars.
What’s the big deal?
At first glance, Half Girlfriend’s 2 million copies might seem unimpressive given the size of the Indian population, but in India, English is not the first language for most people—it’s usually a second or third language. An English-language book with a first printing in the millions represents a significant achievement. And, that is a big deal.
Moreover, the marketing hype around the book has been intense. That’s where Bhagat excels. Many writers fail to sell books because they simply don’t understand the market. They think that if the book is great that they will find readers. This naive view means that most writers languish in obscurity. Bhagat, an Indian Institute of Management—Ahmedabad alumnus, possesses no illusions about creative genius. He understands books are products, and those products must be marketed well to achieve the desired end: sales. Half Girlfriend’s marketing machine began in August with a full-page ad in the Times valued by some estimates at over 2 crore (about $325,000 US) and a book excerpt that crashed Bhagat’s website. The juggernaut gathered steam into September with a brilliant cross-promotion with Masaba (an Indian fashion designer) and YouTube video excerpts.
Finally, the release day began with an incredible logistics operation as 2 million books were delivered by Flipkart simultaneously across India on 1 October. Given India’s endemic supply-chain management challenges, the delivery logistics were the most impressive aspect of the launch. Flipkart, Amazon’s biggest rival in India, has exclusive online delivery rights for the first month after the book’s release. Bhagat’s decision to use Flipkart represents a commitment to backing Indian businesses that solve local challenges with a global approach and shows how sophisticated Flipkart’s logistics truly are. As the release day approached, I received an SMS link and tracked my book from the Bhiwandi sorting facility to the Sakinaka hub to the nail-biting “out for delivery” status.
Less than 15 minutes after delivery, I received an SMS indicating delivery was complete. First-rate service as always from Flipkart. That’s why I always choose Flipkart over Amazon, despite my ardent support for FDI in India. Flipkart just gets it done. No chalta hai. No Indian Stretch Time. When they say they’ll deliver an item by 7 pm, they will.
Is the book any good?
Yes, of course, it’s good.
Half Girlfriend is the love story between a Bihari boy and a Delhi girl.
Editor’s note for the American English-speaking types:
That’s like saying he’s a small-town hick from Alabama, and she’s a fashionista from NYC. Kind of sounds like Hart of Dixie, doesn’t it?
Madhav barely speaks English. Riya is an English major. He loves her. She’s not so sure. Language, class, and major miscommunications are barriers to their happily ever after. Will they overcome those obstacles or remain half in, half out of each other’s lives forever?
Bhagat has a gift for writing rhythmically. His cadence is quick, but not frenetic. Twitter suits his natural style. He could have tweeted the novel to his fans. It’s also why people learning English can read his books. He keeps the dialogue short and playful. It’s rare to see a character speak for more than a couple of lines. Usually, that longer dialogue occurs toward the end at a pivotal moment, for example, a big speech that results in important lessons for the hero.
The book opens with Madhav, our hero, trying to gain entrance to St. Stephen’s in Delhi.
Editor’s note for the American English-speaking types:
St. Stephen’s is a highly regarded English-medium university in Delhi. Its alumni include Rahul Gandhi, Amitav Ghosh, and Khushwant Singh.
Madhav’s English is barely passable. He’s rehearsed answers to expected questions. When forced to answer off the cuff, however, he stumbles. Bhagat treats Madhav’s English with great sensitivity. We feel instant sympathy for Madhav’s struggle. We don’t feel any particular sympathy, however, for the English-only-speaking “uptight prick” interrogating him. We cheer for Madhav as his fluency improves. When I arrived in India, I studied Hindi for about 6 months. I learned my letters, but abandoned my study as I could not get a handle on the pronunciation. I would be considered functionally illiterate in Hindi. I sympathize with Madhav’s struggle because I have experienced the same: conversations in which I felt left out, people who looked down on me because I didn’t know their language, and frustration as I sought to communicate. But, my experience is not a typical American experience. In the States, it’s the reverse: “Speak English or get the hell out!” This linguistic tension is based in racism, not communalism. An American audience might not understand that subtext. They might be confused because they think all Indians speak English already.
When most foreigners think of Indian marriages, they assume everyone has an arranged marriage. While many marriages are still arranged, Bhagat’s books challenge this cultural norm. Bhagat’s world is filled with love at first sight and happily ever afters. You see, in India, the boys are the hopeless romantics who fall head-over-heels in love with the girls, while the girls barely give the boys the time of day. The boys are really bad at wooing the girls, and yet, somehow, they succeed. It boggles the mind really. The book also explains some of the more complicated aspects of Indian family relationships. At one point, Riya gives in to Madhav’s mother’s wishes at the expense of her own happiness. For an American, that choice does not make sense. But, for an Indian woman, even one who sees herself as independent, such a choice is culturally acceptable, possibly inevitable.
When I first read the online excerpt in August, my initial reaction was, “Oh my God! A comma splice in the first line! His editor should be shot!”
Editor’s note for the English-grammar-correcting types:
‘They are your journals, you read them,’ I said to him.
Most editors would have chosen a semicolon in that location to show that the independent clauses are connected. However, Hindi does not use a semicolon. In Hindi, this punctuation choice is correct. In English, a period feels too strong, and an em dash—a bold choice—doesn’t quite work either. Writers such as John Updike do occasionally break the comma splice rule to speed the rhythm of the sentence, especially in dialogue. So, that’s Bhagat’s choice. My objection here is that he begins the book with a basic error. If I were using the novel as a teaching tool, I would find myself hard-pressed to explain the nuance behind that decision.
Bhagat’s novels often have their roots in his autobiography. For example, 2 States was a story based loosely on his marriage. In that case, Bhagat used fictional characters to represent himself and his family. In this book, however, he inserts himself as a character directly. The Chetan Bhagat character gives the book a Woody Allen Annie Hall kind of feel, but it doesn’t play as well.
It breaks the illusion for the reader. Yes, the Bhagat character performs an essential function in the plot. But, couldn’t another character have done the same? Why must we have the intervention of the author in this instance? The character feels forced at best and narcissistic at worst.
Bhagat’s fables of a happy, prosperous India must always have a happy ending. Some ridicule him for that. These happy endings make it easier for the audience to digest the moral of the story. They also make adaptations into Bollywood films much easier. I don’t begrudge Bhagat his happy ending. However, this ending felt more than “happily ever after.” It felt absurd. At one point in part 3, I thought that Madhav had found another love interest that would give him his happy ending. But, no. The readers were forced to endure a Hollywood happy ending in a context in which it makes no sense.
I decided to award the book itself three-and-a-half stars. But, I added half a star each for the marketing campaign and Flipkart delivery process—which were almost as entertaining.