Chetan Bhagat’s feminist lens
The author, who is selling his new book as a piece of feminist fiction, on redesigning the world to make it a better place for women
“Chetan Bhagat is back! This time as a girl.”
If you’re on Twitter, or even just on the Internet, you can’t have missed this unfortunately phrased promotional tactic. Yes, Bhagat is indeed back with his new book, One Indian Girl—its USP is that it is the first book he has written from a woman’s point of view. His seventh work of fiction, to be published by Rupa Publications, broke the record for pre-order sales on Amazon India within a few hours, according to a Twitter announcement from the e-commerce site.
More than a month ahead of its release, the book has begun eliciting strong reactions. C.P. Surendran, in a Mint On Sunday profile of Bhagat, says that “feminism as we know it may not be the same” after the novel is released. Shinjini Bose writes for Scroll, quoting a Q&A session from the author’s blog, that “Bhagat betrays his lack of understanding of what the practice of feminism can be at its best”.
So why a book from a woman’s perspective now?
“Two reasons,” says Bhagat. “One is I wanted to challenge myself—I’ve done several books, they’ve been accepted, read by so many. So I wanted to…come up with something fresh, because when you do so many books and all your books are read so much, you could end up repeating yourself…. And second is, I write books about issues…. All my books have a social issue in them, and I try to find a very universal sort of issue; something which a lot of people can relate to. So feminism is one issue. But this was a tough one, because I’m a guy and…you know. I just thought I can do this, because I’ve done many columns on women and got a very good reaction.”
Bhagat is speaking to me over phone from Cape Town, South Africa, from the sets of the movie based on his last book, Half Girlfriend, which he is also co-producing. Mohit Suri is directing the movie, which stars Arjun Kapoor and Shraddha Kapoor.
But having a female point of view does not necessarily mean the book is a feminist one, does it? And what exactly does feminism mean for Bhagat?
“Well, firstly, just a male author telling a story from a female point of view is, it’s kind of bringing attention.... Because a popular male author is doing it, I think that itself.... It tries to understand feminism.... This is a world designed by men, and it doesn’t take into account certain basic needs women may have. For example, say, work career and being a good mother.... And a woman may have both needs. But even the so-called feminists will say, okay, women should have the choice.... But men are not asked to make a choice. Men get what they want.... And therefore, even a woman like Indra Nooyi—one of the most successful women on the planet—has to say that women can’t have it all,” says Bhagat, referring to PepsiCo chief executive officer Nooyi’s comments in 2014 that it has been difficult for her to balance her personal and professional lives.
As Bhagat continues, one word stands out: “boyfriend”. When a woman becomes super-successful, he says, she becomes a bit of a misfit in society. “They find it hard to get a boyfriend…. We know very well what to do with a girl if she conforms to traditional routine, domestic routine. But the moment a woman gets empowered, is successful, they find it difficult to get a man who accepts them as they are. I felt that is unfair. When a man becomes successful, we celebrate it. When a woman becomes successful, we celebrate it, yes—we are celebrating our Olympic medal winners and our actors who are successful—but finding a man for them is difficult.”
But surely, that is not the only problem successful women face—finding a man?
Perhaps visualizing my story’s possible headline, Bhagat is quick to clarify. “No no, that is not the problem. But it just shows you the biases. It just shows that you’re not accepting them. It’s not like the ultimate goal is to get a man. But it just tells you that we actually penalize them for being successful…. Why aren’t they desirable?... Every working woman faces guilt about being a mother. Men don’t. Why is that? For my own sake, I wanted to understand.”
So after writing this book, did he find some of the answers he was looking for?
“Yeah, I think so. The answer is that men have designed this world, and we need to understand what women want and maybe redesign it. For example, office timings. We take it for granted, 9-6, 9-7, and then weekends. It works for men, it doesn’t work for mothers,” he says.
Ah, now we come to some of the reasons Bhagat’s articles on women have been soundly criticized. Childcare isn’t just a woman’s job, I point out. Fathers can also take care of children.
“I know, I know. It goes with the territory. But like I said, things like office timings are designed by men.... Now this set-up doesn’t work for men or women—for parenting it’s not the ideal set-up. So then what happens, one of the parents has to take a back seat. Now who’s that back-seat parent? Normally mothers. But today with technology and everything, all that can be rejigged, all that can be changed if we understand the issue. A woman may want to be a CEO and a great mom. And it’s okay, and we should encourage that. Feminism is not about—yes, to a certain extent it’s about men versus women. But at a broader level it’s just about equal rights. It’s not about ‘men should do this, and men should do the dishes’. For me, I felt all that comes a lot in our feminism arguments. I had to do something new. I had to do a different take on it.”
This is the person who wrote in a 2013 Times Of India column titled “Five Things Women Need To Change About Themselves”, that too many Indian women are “emotional fools” who try to demonstrate “eternal selflessness” by giving up “their lawful property rights for their brothers, sons or husbands”. In the same piece, he advised women not to laugh at “men’s jokes when they aren’t funny” and to stop judging other women for being fat, wearing a short skirt or cooking a bad dish. How did he go about understanding the systemic oppression that women face everywhere, from homes to schools to offices to public places?
While there can be a broad range of issues in feminism, says Bhagat, he decided to focus on “the subtle sexism that exists in society. My character is a successful character, my character has choices. But there is still subtle sexism one faces and I basically researched by talking to women. I spoke to around a hundred women for this. When I was writing, researching the book, wherever I used to go…. So if I was in a flight, I’d talk to the flight attendant, I’d talk to them, what are their dreams, what are their career goals, what are the problems (they) face and men don’t. And across ages, across socio-economic profiles, across countries…. I wanted to write something more universal…. So I did that and I read as many feminism articles as I could…. Even some books from the past.”
Can you name a few of these books for us?
“A book called The Beauty Myth (Naomi Wolf). And then all kinds of articles, basically, on feminism. Sheryl Sandberg has written a lot, Melinda Gates has written, Hillary Clinton has talked a lot about it. See, at the end of the day, once you get it, it’s not such a complex issue also. It’s about equal, it’s about human, it’s about people, right? It’s like, women are people, it’s as simple as that. But, somehow, accepting that is difficult.”
Bhagat has said he is an issue-based writer. He has dealt with topics such as the state of the education system, communalism and inter-community marriages in his books. But does one issue have to be specific to just one book? A feminist or a properly developed woman character can appear in a book about communalism or education as well…
“See, none of my women characters have been regressive,” he replies. “All of my women characters have been feisty, and it may be for you, who is a journalist living in a big city, for you feminism is different. But for women who read my books in small towns, for them to just read about a girl who wants to have a boyfriend, who wants to have a drink or who wants to become something, who wants to have a career, that’s a big thing for her…there is no book of mine where the woman doesn’t have career dreams or goals. So there is always an attempt. But of course if the book’s theme is different it will not go so much into feminism all the time.”
Okay. So who are his favourite women writers?
“Well, so many, Jhumpa Lahiri, Arundhati Roy, all of them are very, very good…,” he trails off.
In a 2014 interview with India Today, Bhagat had said he felt like a pariah in the literary world. Does he still feel that way?
“I don’t feel that way any more. But I constantly feel there are attempts in the literary community to somehow deny me my place, which is very silly because they cannot. They cannot deny whatever reach I have.... And I don’t understand the hostility. Actually I do understand but yeah, I think it’s about time we got over it. I have done it and I’m there and I’m doing my work and I’m doing stories I want to do and I’m not trying to compete with anyone and I should just be allowed to do that without having to prove myself…. But I’m not a pariah any more, I don’t think so.”