In his early teens, Arindam Chatterjee is shy, awkward and unsociable. His hair, generously oiled with Parachute coconut oil, is always combed back to sit neatly on his head. His most dressy shirt is a grey polyester one, with navy blue stripes on it. As he is growing, it’s beginning to hug his body a little too tight, yet he wears it to every family gathering that he has to go to with his parents. It’s a middle-class Bengali family settled in Mayur Vihar, Delhi.
But here’s why his destiny is about to change: He excels in mathematics and physics and he secretly aspires to be a rockstar. Arindam ends up at IIT, Delhi, where he (now Rindu) meets many others of the “above average” league—Bagga, Bhats, Winky and Rocksurd.
The rest of Amitabha Bagchi’s autobiographical debut novel, Above Average, is a coming-of-age story set in the India of the transitional 1990s, ending up somewhere on the American East Coast. Written largely in first person, the book’s prose is easy, fluid and conversational, but it doesn’t smack of anything original. In fact, intentionally or by accident, Bagchi has validated a category of books that is on its way to becoming a genre of its own—the IIT book.
The first of the lot, Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone, which came out in 2004 (being scripted by director Raj Kumar Hirani for a multi-starrer), dealt with the same setting and milieu, with slight differences in tone. And publishers, such as the Delhi-based Shrishti Publishers, are unabashedly cashing in. A novel that they recently launched, By The River Pampa I Stood, by Geeta Abraham Jose, comes with this tagline above the title: “A novel by yet another IITan!!!”
Says P.M. Sukumar, CEO, HarperCollins India, which published Bagchi’s book: “There’s definitely a market for books about campus and hostel life. The IIT tag works because a couple of other books by IITan authors have worked.” He says his target audience for Above Average is the young adult. It’s a book that speaks the language that they speak, the external lives they live day-to-day. “This trend reflects that the publishing industry is now more segmented and democratic,” adds Sukumar.
It’s tempting to replace ‘democratic’ with ‘dumbing down’, considering most of these books have subverted all the hallmarks of English fiction that many of us look up to. Shrishti Publishers launched 23-year-old Tushar Raheja’s Anything For You Ma’am, An IITan’s Love Story last year, when he was in his final year at IIT, Delhi. Although earnest in effort, it’s a peculiar hodgepodge of romance, fantasy and campus life written in a language that seems tailormade to adapt to a mediocre Hinglish film—“She was wearing a white salwar-kameez, embroidered beautifully with blue thread...A blue dupatta, like the blue of the sea, went around her neck and was flying in the air with her hair.” According to his publisher, 50,000 copies of the book were sold in one year. This includes figures from metros as well as small towns. Raheja, who aspires to be a film director, says, “The success of Chetan Bhagat’s book really inspired me to write.”
The author of Five Point Someone now works out of Hong Kong as vice-president, strategic ventures, Deutsche Bank, and often travels to Mumbai, where Hello, the film adaptation of his second book, One Night@The Call Center, is on its way. Since his publishers Rupa and Co marketed Bhagat’s first book at the uniform price of Rs95 across the country, 400,000 copies have been sold until January 2007 (Rupa and Co’s figure). HarperCollins India dispatched 9,000 copies of Bagchi’s Above Average in January, and without a formal launch, it is already Crossword bookstore’s ‘book of the month’.
Bhagat, who is on his third novel, talks about his writing as passionately as he justifies his reaction to existing English fiction: “Most authors write like they’re writing tourist brochures for India. They’re meant for awards and for old British men who judge them. My competition is John Grisham and Sidney Sheldon.” He is proud of the fact that readers in Indore and Bareilly hero-worship him.
Bhagat believes that the IIT factor in all these books is a coincidence. But 32-year-old Bagchi, a professor at IIT, Delhi, has a rationale: “People from IITs are telling their stories because being in these institutes makes them what they are. Things that they start wanting become similar. The voices may be different, but the sensibility unites them.”
For good or for worse, the book for “the young adult” is just about gaining momentum in India. Shrishti Publishers is now sifting through 10 manuscripts from IITans and former IITans, out of which, says, its owner, J.K. Bose, “about five will be published by the end of this year”. Publishers say that another category that will burst into the scene soon, is the IIM book.
Both these genres, if they can be called that, are what normally come under ‘lad lit’ (as apposed to ‘chick lit’) in the West. Written by young men, they are meant to recreate situations and settings that are easily recognizable and so, comforting. Their merit is that reading fiction is no longer a hallowed, sacrosanct pursuit. It’s an alternative to cosying up to the TV set at 9pm. Their flaws are many. Ten more titles, and I’ll weigh the scales.
A ride through the IIT Adventure
This book, part memoir and part journalism, is an authentic account of the IIT experience
What makes IITans what they are? Are they actually reshaping the world? Is IIT an academic workhouse or just a hub of brilliant minds? Sandipan Deb’s book, ‘The IITans: The Story Of A Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping The World’, offers certain definitive answers.
Deb travelled to the US to interview a host of former IITans such as Rajat Gupta, former managing director of McKinsey and Company worldwide, and Vinod Khosla, founding CEO of Sun Microsystems. An IITan himself, he also met the mavericks who chose fields unrelated to engineering. This Penguin India release of 2004 also has enough personal anecdotes and campus lore, making it a compelling read.
Deb says that the level of discipline in the IITs today is somewhat Orwellian in nature. He writes about the rules that forbid students from giving a ride to a girl on their cycles and from staging plays that run beyond 10pm.
Things might have changed a lot since his own time, but this is a must-read for anyone who aspires to be there