This review is a response to that question.
5 Points Readers Expect from a Chetan Bhagat Novel
Like a Harlequin romance, a Chetan Bhagat novel has certain conventions. Both brands are somewhat formulaic and have a trademark style. If the formulaic elements are missing or not well done, then readers might decide to skip his next novel. My analysis is limited to 5 points because, well, five.
A love story
The excerpt hinted at an arranged marriage in Goa. But, that was only the beginning. This time, our heroine, Radhika Mehta, has three men in her life:
- Debu, the Bengali feminist/communist who seems to think feminism applies only to his girlfriend and not his potential wife
- Neel, an older, sophisticated partner at Goldman Sachs who doesn’t mind breaking every sexual harassment rule in existence to bed a young associate while maintaining the façade of a happy marriage
- Brijesh, a software engineer at Facebook whom we know little about other than that he does seem to be a decent guy with good stock options and a bad understanding of humanism
Radhika must choose one of these men to be her husband.
Not much of a choice is it?
These men represent 3 key male Indian archetypes (or stereotypes). It’s one of Bhagat’s weaknesses that while his main characters are always well drawn, his secondary characters often resemble caricatures. To some extent, I think that’s deliberate. Through the stereotypes, Bhagat reflects Indians’ own prejudices. When Radhika calls Debu out on the “Bengali communist thing,” Bhagat is using Radhika’s prejudice to show us how unfairly other Indians view Bengalis.
Ultimately, these men are meant to represent choices for Radhika. As readers, we choose our favorite and root for him. I like Brijesh, and I think Radhika does, too.
Overall, I give the love story 3.5/5. Although I don’t expect realism from Bhagat’s books, three guys chasing this one Indian girl seems just a bit too much make-believe, even in Bollywood.
A big social issue distilled into bite-size pieces
One reason I read Chetan Bhagat’s novels is that he helps me understand Indian culture. Indian writing in English usually relies on a high level of cultural context for comprehension. Bhagat doesn’t assume that.
One Indian Girl centers around the issue of feminism. For his decision to take on this issue, I applaud Bhagat. His books reach across social and cultural lines. For many, this book will be their introduction to the concept. He doesn’t get preachy. Instead, he shows us feminism through Radhika’s choices. Her choices aren’t easy, and they aren’t always driven by feminism. Sometimes, they even seem to fly in the face of what feminism stands for. But, that’s the way people are. We don’t systematically choose according to our ideals. My own life choices aren’t always feminist, but I call myself one nevertheless.
Overall, I give the feminism a 3.9/5. I think that while Radhika’s choices don’t always uphold feminist ideals, they are realistic. My primary issue is that the discussion of feminism between Brijesh and Radhika needed to be longer and deeper.
True confession: I read Chetan Bhagat’s novels for the food, and I don’t think I am the only one. This book does not disappoint. At one point during my live-tweet reading of the book, I bemoaned the fact that I had not had breakfast before I read a scene with chicken noodle soup, veg fried rice, gobi parathas, and rasgullas. My favorite food-related line in the book is “bay-gulls.” At which point, I was desperately missing a good New York bagel.
Overall, I give the book 5/5 on food. And now I’m hungry again.
Bhagat is often criticized that his locales are too filmy and meant to plug into a typical Bollywood blockbuster. Although I understand this critique, I give Bhagat a little more credit. Can’t he just like to travel and want to include those places in his book? I do. Why can’t he?
I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the United States through Radhika’s eyes. Even if Bhagat didn’t get everything “right,” it was still a fun trip around the world and through my own culture. I was disappointed that South Korea got a mention, but didn’t get a visit. I think Radhika would have enjoyed the chicken and beer joints.
For travel, I give the book a 4.5/5.
If you ask people why they hate Chetan Bhagat, they will list two things: his politics and his writing. Politics aside, Bhagat has always been a bit uneven in his writing. The columns have a flow and sophistication that the novels lack. But, it’s the ungrammatical nature of the books that seems to help them sell. Bhagat’s audience isn’t always fluent in English, and the Indianisms he includes in the text give these readers comfort. They see and, more importantly, hear themselves in his words.
One Indian Girl is Chetan Bhagat’s best written and best edited book. Consequently, it’s also his riskiest. Because Radhika is an investment banker, she speaks like one. She also writes like one. Yes, writes. This book is written from Radhika’s point of view. The “I” we are reading is Radhika Mehta, not Chetan Bhagat. Her vocabulary is more sophisticated than Madhav Jha because an investment banker would have a better vocabulary than a college-level sociology student. I suspect that her writing style is the closest to Bhagat’s own personal style we will ever see.
But, that’s exactly why it’s risky. Bhagat risks losing readers with words like parabolic. That word is such a perfect insight into Radhika I would hate to lose it, but I can see where his typical reader might balk at its complexity. Overall, I think the language is still simple enough to be accessible to his core audience.
As Chetan Bhagat novels go, the writing gets 5/5. As a mass-market paperback, I will downgrade a bit to 3.75/5. There are still the occasional howlers like the palm trees that “swayed green in the breeze,” but nothing so catastrophic that I can’t recommend the book.
3 Mistakes of the Book
The humanism/feminism debate
On page 135, Brijesh and Radhika have a discussion about feminism. Brijesh suggests that the proper term is humanism, not feminism. This discussion is highly problematic.
Brijesh reflects a common misunderstanding about humanism. He presents humanism as a movement that focuses on equal rights for all humans, not just women. That’s not what humanism is. Humanism is a philosophy that emphasizes reason over faith and the human/material world over the spiritual.
Even with this issue, and allowing Bhagat’s characters to use and redefine words as they please, my primary disappointment is that the discussion is too short. I don’t expect a long discourse. This is Chetan Bhagat, not Amish Tripathi. Nevertheless, another page of discussion would have been better. Radhika spouts a textbook definition, and then gives up too easily in the face of Brijesh’s humanism idea. She’s a smart woman. I wanted to see her argue with him just a little bit more.
Colorism in the US
Bhagat gets many things right about the US, but the comments the characters make about Radhika’s skin color are dead wrong. Never, ever in my life would I walk up to a stranger and comment on her skin color. Period. That’s our “classic American political correctness” that Bhagat correctly observes and yet seems to completely ignore when it comes to the most fundamental issue facing the US today: our racism.
The exchange on page 33 with the African-American sales clerk would never happen:
“Hi, miss, God, you have a gorgeous color.”
When I first read this, I thought she meant hair color, but then Radhika’s mini-me thought:
Say that to my mother. She stays up at night wondering who will marry me with this skin color.
I understand the point Bhagat is trying to make about colorism in India. But, a sales clerk at a store in the US would never mention skin color and certainly not as an introduction. She would be fired. This would happen, and has happened to me, in India, but not in the US.
I am sympathetic to how challenging crossing cultures is, which is why I have Indian beta readers. They have saved me many times. A competent American beta reader should have thrown up a giant red flag at this exchange.
There are better ways to talk about the issue. It might come up among friends, but not strangers. For example, if Radhika went make-up shopping with a friend and complained about her complexion being too dark, the friend might well comment in a positive light. That might happen. But this. No.
A sagging plot
While many have enjoyed the investment banking scenes, I didn’t. I felt that was where the plot tended to sag. Although these scenes established Radhika’s career ambitions, I found myself wanting to hurry past them. Perhaps if they had emphasized the office politics underlying the deals more than the details of the deals themselves I would have enjoyed those scenes more.
1 Indian Girl
I loved Radhika. Faults aside, the book worked for me. Radhika’s advice to herself in the final scenes is something I need to remember.
But, don’t take my word for it. Read One Indian Girl yourself.
As I finished this review, I was reminded of the US sitcom That Girl with Marlo Thomas. Here’s the title song. Enjoy.