Recently, I was involved in a discussion in a writer’s group about Chetan Bhagat. Unlike most similar discussions, this one did not degenerate into the vitriol that usually happens when Chetan
Bhagat is mentioned. In part, because the discussion was not limited to Bhagat himself, but included Amish Tripathi, Durjoy Datta, Ravi Subramanian, and other bestsellers. It was a genuine attempt to understand why their readers read these bestsellers. So, let me explain why I read Chetan Bhagat and why I think others do, too.
How an American editor became a fan of India’s bestselling writer
I am an American who lived in Mumbai for three years. I hold a BA and MA in History from Clemson University and completed two years of Ph.D. coursework at Brown University, the most liberal of the Ivy League schools. I am a technical editor and well outside the age of Bhagat’s core demographic. I represent the liberal cultural elite that usually hates Chetan Bhagat, but I don’t.
Truthfully, the books are hit and miss for me; I prefer the columns. I like that he breaks down a major issue into manageable pieces and is willing to consider all sides. His haters label him a bhakt, but that’s inaccurate. When I moved to India and tried to understand Indian politics, his columns helped me tremendously. As a writer, I owe an intellectual debt to Chetan Bhagat. The stories I’m writing come from a deep love for Indian politics, and that love derives in part from him. But, I promise that I’m not writing yet another IIT love story. It’s the politics I love, and the politics I write.
Only after reading his columns did I read Chetan Bhagat’s books. I started with Two States—considered his best and my personal favorite—followed by What Young India Wants. Then, I was hit full force with the marketing mayhem of the Half Girlfriend launch. I had never seen anything like it. By the time that book released, I was amazed by the sheer genius of his marketing prowess—a prowess that even his most hateful detractors acknowledge. That amazement might have colored my review slightly. OK more than slightly.
Then, I saw him at the Sharjah International Book Fair in Dubai where he gave a presentation called Changing the Game. I sat in an auditorium filled beyond its capacity and watched a writer give a presentation that I would expect from a CEO. As I watched him lay out how he had conquered India’s book market, I realized that he didn’t really see himself as a writer. That’s one reason why he succeeds where others fail. He sees his competition as Candy Crush, not other writers. Because he isn’t only a writer. He’s an entertainer.
Why critics are so hard on Chetan Bhagat’s “crap” writing
Most of the criticism of Bhagat’s writing revolves around his grammar and style. Even as a fan, I agree that his writing has cringe-inducing malapropisms and misplaced metaphors. For example, Five Point Someone contains this dubious sentence:
I felt crap.
Some readers will object to the use of the word “crap” in a literary form as esteemed as a novel. They consider such usage crass and low. That’s a fair critique, but let’s not forget critics leveled those same charges against Saadat Hasan Manto, who’s considered the father of the modern Indian short story. History may be kinder to Bhagat than he has been to historians. As tastes change, opinions of him might change, too.
From a technical standpoint, however, unless Hari was actually touching crap, which he was not, the sentence is wrong. The proper sentence should read “I felt like crap” or “I felt crappy.” But, technical issues aside, sentences like this one work—yes, I said work—because the audience understands them and relates to them. That’s a key part of his magic: his ability to connect to his audience through language. No, I’m not kidding. I can’t believe I just typed that either, but that’s the key. The very thing for which he is vilified is Bhagat’s strength: his use of language. That “crap” line is why he succeeds. For many of his readers are not native English speakers, and that is exactly how they would phrase the same sentence. That’s part of how he connects. They hear themselves in his dialogue, see themselves in his characters—and most importantly feel that he’s one of them. At JLF, Ravi Subramanian said no one can teach you how to tell the story. He’s right. And, no one can teach you how to connect to your audience. You either do or you don’t. Bhagat does. Beautifully.
Moreover, for these readers, “I felt crap” is an easier sentence to understand than “I felt like crap.” The “like” makes it a simile, and that’s a tougher literary concept than the direct object usage. “I felt crap” gets the point across without confusing the inexperienced English reader. But, sentences like this one infuriate those who speak and read English at a native level. Even I responded negatively to this sentence and might have suggested his editor should be slapped. But, as an editor myself, I do understand why that choice might have been made.
In an interview with TOI’s Twitter followers, this question was asked:
Do you keep the ‘Reader’ in mind while writing?
Not really. When I am writing, I have to like the story and am in tune with the characters. That’s all.
But, notice he didn’t say that he doesn’t keep the reader in mind during the editing process. I strongly suspect that’s exactly what his editor is tasked with: making the story appeal to the broadest readership possible. So, I felt crap. Oh well. Let’s move on, shall we?
Stop hammering away at this so-called weakness and accept that no amount of shouting on your part is going to change that part of how Chetan Bhagat or anyone else writes. India has bigger problems than Chetan Bhagat.
Go solve one of those.
If his readers want to read his books, then let them do so in peace. I certainly hope and would encourage them to move on to bigger and better books, but I’m really OK with his readers cutting their literary eye teeth on him and developing a love for reading. Literacy is a big problem in India and improving it is the solution to many others. These books are Bhagat’s solution.
I want to know what your solution is. Post your solution in the comments for this blog. Go ahead. You want to make India awesome? Tell me how. Don’t worry. I won’t judge your grammar. I just want to read your ideas.
Oops. I digressed into a rant there.
Why Bhagat’s readers love him
Let’s get back on track and talk about Bhagat’s readership. Bhagat’s audience is young. More than half of Indians are under the age of 30. That’s the population demographic he caters to. These young, mostly urban kids want to go to IIT, but will most likely settle for a local college. While they’re in college, they will begin reading books for pleasure, and they will start with Bhagat’s books for several reasons.
First, because they are short and simple. They read these books in between studying differential equations and solving engineering problems; these books offer them a much needed, well deserved break from their textbooks.
Second, because they love a good love story. In a country where arranged marriages are still the norm, Bhagat’s love stories give these kids hope that they too can convince their parents to accept their lover from another community. That’s also one reason why he has so many copycats.
Third, because they want comfort. Like most Indians, these kids love Maggi noodles (India’s answer to Top Ramen). Maggi is cheap, quick, and tasty. The nutritional value is questionable, but you can’t help but crave it anyway. That’s Chetan Bhagat. He’s literary Maggi noodles, and these kids love him for it. There’s nothing wrong with Maggi noodles. I love Maggi noodles. When I was served Maggi for breakfast one morning while visiting Mumbai, I was thrilled. The problem with Maggi—and often the problem with Bhagat—is that it fills you up fast, but you’re soon hungry again. You need to add vegetables or a meat to make the meal satisfying. Therein lies the frustration his fans feel when the story is the same over and over again. Sure, you can eat different flavors of Maggi, but if you don’t add a little something—in Bhagat’s case, a new approach, plot, or ending—the readers walk away unsatisfied.
One key to Bhagat’s success is the evergreen nature of his core demographic. As long as the population stays young, he will have an evergreen source of readers. Some of my friends have told me they read his earlier books, but then stopped. They were no longer satisfied with the IIT love stories. They grew up and aged out of his demographic, and as they did, they abandoned him. Right now, that abandonment doesn’t reflect in his sales figures (he was still number one on Flipkart in 2015), but as the Indian population ages, Bhagat will see more and more of his readers looking for greener, more sophisticated reading pastures elsewhere.
Being the astute marketer and former investment banker that he is, Bhagat has started to diversify his entertainment holdings. First, he moved into film, turning his books into movies. Then, in 2014, he co-wrote Kick, a film that had no basis in his brand.
Here’s an unnecessary music video for Jumme ki Raat from Kick.
But, then, Bhagat decided to diversify further and moved into television as a judge on Nach Baliye, and that’s when the real hating began—and it was brutal.
Why the Internet loves to hate Chetan Bhagat
Then, there’s Twitter. That bastion of well thought-out and succinctly reasoned intellectual discourse about serious issues.
Can you sense the sarcasm in that sentence?
Maybe yes. Maybe no.
And, that’s part of the problem with Bhagat on that platform. He tells jokes, and they fall flat. Sometimes because they just aren’t funny, and sometimes because they hit too close to a sensitive topic, like the Partition one did.
For Bhagat, Twitter is a marketing tool—one that keeps his name in the public view. Twitter suits his writing style. He can be timely, relevant, and engaged on social media. Although, in truth, he engages with fans less than other writers, he still maintains a consistent presence. Occasionally, he mouths off and gets trolled. That trolling feeds his popularity on social media, and the vicious cycle of love/hate ensues.
The risk for Bhagat on this platform is that people cite his tweets as a reason for not reading him. His politics aren’t well liked. He’s politically conservative and tended to support the BJP’s bid during the 2014 election. Moreover, he has often defended the BJP since it became the ruling party. Many people call him a BJP bhakt, but miss the point. They think his pithy tweets meant to increase engagement and push people to talk about uncomfortable issues are the extent of his thought.
They don’t read his columns that reflect his more nuanced views. Even though I felt his recent column on the 2016 budget was a convenient dodge of the bigger Kanhaiya Kumar nationalist/anti-nationalist debate, he did offer serious criticism of the budget’s primary failures. He even called it a lackluster UPA budget. Harsh criticism from a man who echoed the BJP’s development rhetoric during the election. Yet, the social media reach of that column was small compared to his columns on Free Basics or the Anatomy of an Internet troll. Why? Because, ironically enough, economics doesn’t trend. Yet, Bhagat writes his strongest columns when speaking as an economist and marketer. That’s why I read him; that’s why I’m a fan.
There. I said it.
My name is Jean, and I’m Chetan Bhagat fan.