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Chetan Bhagat is not so ‘mass’

Chetan Bhagat is not so ‘mass’
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First Published: Fri, Nov 06 2009. 08 37 PM IST

Best-seller:Bhagat’s found a formula. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Best-seller:Bhagat’s found a formula. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Updated: Fri, Nov 06 2009. 08 37 PM IST
Chetan Bhagat is the reliable purveyor of middle-class male fantasy and its key elements: masculine angst, sexual triumph and material success. His latest offering, 2 States: The Story of My Marriage, hews close to the well-worn script.
Krish does indeed get the girl, who is beautiful and liberated, but in that safely middle-class way. Ananya, the TamBram hottie, prefers beer with her chicken pakoras, but is horror-stricken at the sight of cleavage; a good little virgin who gives it up for true love. As for being upwardly mobile, Krish’s degree from IIM Ahmedabad and fancy job at Citibank will do very nicely, thank you.
Best-seller:Bhagat’s found a formula. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Attacking Bhagat’s literary credentials is like shooting fish in a teacup. As critics have noted ad nauseam, his writing is execrable, as are the wafer-thin Bollywood-style narratives. When Bhagat tells Open magazine, “My books are not that great,” he’s not being modest, but merely accurate, perhaps even a bit kind. Since the best defence is offence, Bhagat routinely dismisses his critics as nasty little elitists who “move in circles where the common people and their tastes are looked down upon”. In a speech at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit last year, Bhagat described himself as “the mass-iest English author ever invented in India. My books sell on railway stations and next to atta (flour) in Big Bazaar”.
Yet Bhagat’s books are aspirational fantasies for those who have the privilege to aspire to a degree from IIT or IIM, a well-paid corporate job or a business start-up. None of his protagonists are coolies, maids or farmers—the people who better represent the Indian “masses”. His novels, instead, pander to the worst kind of middle-class materialism.
In Bhagat’s universe, self-fulfilment is a patriotic imperative. It’s why he often compares 20-something middle-class Indians—who, not coincidentally, are also his biggest fans—to the generation of freedom fighters who marched against the British, courted arrest and valued community service. His novels pretend that young people serve their nation just as well by courting parental disapproval, inventing money-making schemes and having sex before marriage, especially with Tamil girls.
While promoting 2 States, a Panju-weds-TamBram love story, Bhagat told The Times of India, “(B)y marrying outside one’s state, the aam aadmi (common man) can do his bit towards making the country one.” In order to sell this spurious proposition, Bhagat does his best to lard his book with over-the-top inter-regional hatred—and ignorance—that ring grossly untrue in post-liberalization India.
Denying reality allows 2 States to peddle a faux version of youthful rebellion that affirms middle-class values in the name of tweaking them. The characters cross the barriers of caste and community—for a well-educated mate from a “good family”—but never of class, which would be entirely unforgivable and unthinkable. Krish will likely do a lot more for national integration by marrying the dhobi’s (washerman’s) daughter, but that would truly upset his parents and, worse, make him downwardly mobile, which is just plain unpatriotic.
Write to Lakshmi at postscript@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Nov 06 2009. 08 37 PM IST