In defence of Chetan Bhagat

Photograph of Chetan Bhagat, Novelist, while h...

Chetan Bhagat-Image via Wikipedia

So the man isn’t really a good writer, all right? I mean, he can string sentences together in a perfectly competent manner, but you would never read a passage from his books and think it came from Rushdie or Roy, for instance. But nonetheless, it rings throughout with- and I hate using this word, but for once I mean it- authenticity. Now, there currently exists in the front sections of most Indian bookstores rows of perfectly authentic (Indian) writing that also happens, alas, to be unreadable excrescence in many cases (I would have said most, but I couldn’t bring myself to try out a larger sample size, and saying most would be intellectually dishonest.) But Chetan Bhagat manages to pull off authenticity and still not grate, which is a rarer achievement than you would expect. Of course the fact that most conversations are in fairly colloquial “Indian English” means there’s at least one thing “wrong” in most paragraphs, but you only have to tune out your pedantic inner self a little, not stuff red-hot pokers up every possible orifice until it finally stops screaming.

Authenticity, however, isn’t even the main thing that makes him worth defending. The reason he is unambiguously a “good thing” to happen to this country is that he is a reasonable man, in the most obvious sense of the word, who also happens to be enormously popular. I’m not really familiar with his political positions in any detail but his books- books that literally millions of Indians who have read practically nothing else of a similar length in the English language- pushes mostly secular, liberal, universalist views on a populace that cannot by and large be described using those words[1]. I have no idea how much of an impact he’s having, if at all- I do know that the man sees himself as more than just a writer, perhaps as an activist of some sort, and I remember articles mocking him for his “pretensions” when what he does, essentially, (at least according to that reviewer) is sell pulp- but every bit counts, right?

[1] Do I sound like a tool here? I’ll admit that it sounds classist to paint such vast swathes of his readership with the same brush, but I’m pretty sure it’s applicable to a good portion of them.


9 thoughts on “In defence of Chetan Bhagat

    • I’d hardly consider myself a guardian of authenticity, and it’s a little amusing that I find myself in that role πŸ™‚ .

      To sum up part of that ridiculously rambling article, Vikram Chandra’s argument is that signifier concepts such as the ones he uses are quite common in daily Indian life and do not simply serve to delineate Indian-ness to a Western (or any) audience, right? (I need no convincing of the authenticity of the use of the English language itself to describe the reality of Indian life.) that’s fair, although his argument is not exactly thorough. I do have a weak filter that says koels on tamarind trees are a sign of some fairly pretentious writing, honed from 4 years of ISC and ICSE English, but I’m perfectly willing to concede that it’s imperfect.

      Besides, Chetan Bhagat is really only claiming even implicitly to authentically show (lower-)middle class urban/semi-urban life, which is all I feel comfortable judging. My point with the authenticity bit was just that he seems to be portraying that honestly and recognizably enough without, you know, sounding like an ass.

  1. Whether you’d agree or not, an over-the-shoulder portrayal of somebody else’s (or even your own) view and by extension, life, is guesswork at best, and more often than not, those tend to be pretenses catering to the observer’s fancy. I’m not saying Bhagat’s sketches and depictions are only knee deep, but he isn’t exactly *trying* to get a bull’s eye on it either. The man wrote to sell a book. What sort of a book do you expect that’s in english, (hence) appeals to the young masses, (hence) gets one or two faster than Rushdie’s finest off the shelf and remains quintessentialy indian for the non-discerning indian, all the while being nose deep in subjects people tend to be interested in?

    • That you can accomplish other goals while you try and make a living is, of course, the cornerstone of capitalism πŸ™‚ .

  2. “My point with the authenticity bit was just that he seems to be portraying that honestly and recognizably enough without, you know, sounding like an ass.”
    – not disagreeing with you, but maybe I’d get a better sense of what you mean if you contrasted Bhagat with someone who _does_, in your opinion, sound like an ass.

  3. Hmm. I don’t even remember the names, I just remember feeling this overwhelming helplessness the last time I was in Landmark in City Centre or something, and saw a bunch of books out front, novels based on IIM life and IIT life and some sort of chick-lit (and I LIKE good chick-lit! Meg Cabot’s “The Guy next Door” is my go to pick-me-up. When there’s no alcohol around, I mean). I browsed through and the language on display was truly atrocious. I’ll come back with names the next time I visit? But I’m sure you know the sort of thing I’m talking about.

  4. Pingback: In defence of Chetan Bhagat | The Ego Chronicles | Chetan Bhagat

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