‘It doesn’t exist! No one knows about him here!’ I mumbled to myself as I looked around the bookstore at Frankfurt airport. The train to Wuerzburg and then the shop at the university library. Deliriously happy. Yes. The on-campus store had F Scott Fitzgerald, William Shakespeare, George RR Martin, Robert Galbraith and before I could grant them intellectual snobbery – there was a Stephanie Meyer too and I think I spotted a Nicholas Sparks. No Chetan Bhagat. I had left that horror back in Delhi and didn’t get assaulted with people reading it in Dubai.
‘No one’s heard of him here!’ I exclaimed, thoroughly confusing the guy who was helping me around with my registration process (which took one hour – Indian colleges take note please!). I of course then had to explain to him who this guy was and why we (the wannabe intellectuals) love to hate him. Over schnitzel and fries (I had to cliché it up a bit) I told this unsuspecting gentleman about Mr Bhagat. About Five Point Someone, Three Mistakes of My Life, 2 States, One Night at a Call Centre and finally halting at Half Girlfriend. I also pointed out that the movies were exponentially much better than the books and simply because those had very little to do with the author. Just as one of the ‘Indian’ guys here called Honey Singh the Indian Snoop Dogg, I tried in vain to find a worthy equivalent.
And that got me thinking. Chetan Bhagat is wholly and thankfully only an Indian phenomenon. The ‘appeal’ of his Rs 195 do not cross over borders unless someone takes the book with them on an international flight. Maybe we should try adding it to the list of illegal items like knives and explosives.
Stephanie Meyer, EL James crossed the Atlantic. Bhagat has not made it across a few countries, yet. And I will call this a good thing. While Bhagat has managed to capture an incredible reading audience and has an enviable business model well in place, he has people who read him to loathe him and he has people who read him and go – ‘Oh yes! He knows, he knows how I feel!’ *Sniff* As an author he has played this game better than most of his colleagues. Neel Mukherjee cannot boast of such sales figures, he perhaps never will.
He writes about college canteen issues that only we Indians can gorge on to the point of getting sick. Some regurgitate that into rants such as these, some gorge some more. The issues are uniquely and obstinately rooted to the soil – Bhagat takes on IIT, IIM, inter-cultural marriage, 2002 Gujarat riots, Call Centres and in his latest book what can be best described as ‘Biharis-do-not-know-English-and do-not-care-to-learn-till-Bill Gates-can-come-to-save-a-village-school’ aka ‘Wanting-to-date- a-Delhi-rich-is-a-bitch’. Not the communist burden, neither the diasporic problem and never the brave new world. Bhagat is perhaps ill-equipped to take on tropes that matter and it works very well because we, in our domestic help accelerated world, don’t allow too much mind space to such world issues. Prices of onions are more intrinsic and real.
Unfortunate. But look at the wonders it did for Bhagat. It is the whole classic ‘us and them’ case which will have the intellectuals ruing the success of this man while the others buy his book anyway.
Over the last five years in India, we have had the metro reads phenomenon rearing its ugly head. Describing a series of books that can be read over an hour or a little more (a little less than the time needed to travel from Noida to Dwarka) while one travels. These books aren’t Booker or Pulitzer worthy – never will be. They do not require an ‘intelligent’ mind, they are just in your hands to distract you from the sardine crowd and the lack of deodorant.
Bhagat is more the Indian Railways and domestic flight read. Giving the man his due, Bhagat got a huge chunk of the population to read, he got them interested in books again and while it is horrible that these people read (and enjoy) this level of story, plot and language – it is also commendable that he managed this – Rupa owes this man a good few limbs.
However, driving the rant home – talking Neil Gaiman and Umberto Ecco with ‘colleagues’ in the department, I sighed in relief that they will not have to fight the battle of bad authors on this continent quite yet and they would not equate Indian writings with the Bhagat phenomenon.
But winter is coming. I could tell them his books are excellent replacements for wood.