Chetan Bhagat, the Feminist, is ready for the trolls15 min read . Updated: 06 Aug 2016, 11:28 PM IST
Chetan Bhagat, the bard of India's sunrise generation, assumes a female voice for his latest novel. Are you listening?
Chetan Bhagat, the bard of India's sunrise generation, assumes a female voice for his latest novel. Are you listening?
By the time I reached Chetan Bhagat’s office, a nice, cozy suite of rooms, which he had recently acquired in the Dunhill Building in Bandra, Mumbai, he had already done one interview. “A radio interview. That one got over, and now we have you." It was only 11am.
Contrary to the perception circulating in the liberal part of the social media, Bhagat is a modest man with his sneakered feet planted firmly on the spotless floor of his office. If he is cocky and arrogant, he hid it well through the day.
That would be not an easy task if you had had the kind of success Bhagat has had in the past decade or so. He is probably India’s most popular millennial gift to popular millennial literature.
His six novels, starting with Five Point Someone, a novel about three characters whose low grades are a source of darkish comedy, have sold more than 10 million copies so far. The successful movie Three Idiots is based on his first novel.
His seventh novel, Bhagat says, “is about Feminism".
“For the first time, I assume a female voice."
Feminism as we know it may not be the same after the 80,000-odd words he normally writes for each novel.
He is rather excited by the prospect, and ready to be trolled.
For his Feminism novel, Bhagat has interviewed “at least a hundred women on the topic", and his conclusion seems to be that the good Indian Feminist ought to be home-grown instead of aping the bra-burning Western kind.
“I will be trolled," he says as if it’s his favourite form of execution. “That’s for sure."
Bhagat is trolled like hell. “There’s nothing I can say without a million people jumping on me." He seems quite good-natured about it. “But my fans are rock-solid support. They get into the fray."
Bhagat has 7.5 million followers in the social media, whom he calls the CB family. No writer is more loved by so many nameless, faceless people, who all want to be like him. How to be like him is a question he is constantly asked. This social media “family love" easily translates into book sales. And Bhagat, in return, treats them with respect.
Bhagat prefers to be loved. Many writers I know don’t—instead, they like to dazzle and be admired. The normal author is a bit of a tyrant.
But Bhagat is not your normal author. His interactions with his staff and people who approach him on professional and personal matters are programmed to elicit warm responses. He IS that kind of person. He loves to be loved. A psychologist might attribute it to a childhood deficiency.
“I have not changed much over the years," says Bhagat.
In his office, done in white, with minimal furnishing and great-looking lamps, Bhagat could be mistaken for a middle-ranking executive who wears casuals on a Sunday—when I met him—to do some minor leftover work. Perhaps clear a few taxi bills. Or update a laptop.
He looks a little older than his prim and confident-looking photographs, his hairline receding like a wave that has reached the shore and is returning, and greying at the sides. He has a paunch that is prospering and whose soft and hairy prospect is revealed rather innocently through a lower button that has come undone. He wears a blue printed shirt and jeans, and the chair he sits in leans, to the right, almost on its own—perhaps out of habit. Incidentally, many of his “trollers" and similar foes consider him right of centre.
Bhagat is from an army family in New Delhi. The first years of his education were in a military school, and then he, as they say, “cracked the IIT exam", “because I have a good head for maths. But I did not particularly enjoy the IIT stint. What I kept wondering through those years was, hey, we are all reasonably intelligent here. How about some creativity in the course work?"
When he graduated in mechanical engineering, he thought he would like to do something close to “people skills", and all he could think of was the Indian Institute of Management (IIM).
So, he went about in his usual thorough fashion, and “cracked" that too. “I enjoyed the IIM experience. It’s about management and finance. But at one basic level, management and finance involve people."
As it happened, it certainly involved Anusha Suryanarayanan, a Tam Bram, whom he eventually married. “So, I suppose having a girlfriend had something to do with IIM being fun." She also could have had something to do with the novel Two States.
Fun is what he is having now, he says. It was not so in the early stages of his non-writing career. After IIM, he had got himself a job with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, where he was relatively miserable.
His boss at Goldman Sachs was first wary of and then cruel to him. He was denied promotion. “And not even the basic 10% annual raise."
It was around this time that he started writing his first novel, Five Point Someone, and in the process, saw an alternative career. “The choice was between turning into an alcoholic or pursue writing. If that 10% had come along, I may not be sitting here, talking to you."
Perhaps, it’s possible that his boss detected the Chetan in the Bhagat, and encouraged him in his own way, instead of have him persist on the road of the million-dollar perdition that Sachs guarantees to most of its promising employees.
Bhagat says he did 15 drafts of his first novel. And he sent it out to every Indian publisher. All of them declined his kind offering. “It was very frustrating."
The legend now has it that Bhagat then began sending a marketing CD along with his manuscript explaining that his alpha audience was the urban youth. Is that true? Bhagat only smiles.
Back to the IIT novel. Rupa finally agreed to publish the book, possibly thinking it was just more pulp to the usual list of trash.
But before the year (2004) was over, the book had been sold out. Several reprints happened. By this time, Bhagat had realized he was unstoppable. A sort of Rajinikanth in the publishing world without the slow-mo special effects.
Bhagat switched jobs, joined Deutsche Bank as chief of the distressed assets team. Why distressed? “Because you are talking about getting money out of people who are nearly broke. It takes more than numbers skill. It takes a relationship. You have got to understand the character." This has had some bearing on his fiction.
In between, of course, he was working on his next novel. One Night @ The Call Centre. The novel’s theme is exactly the title. This was also the time when call centres in India were flourishing. The novel sold out in three days. And its combined sales eventually topped 1 million. Bhagat quit his job. “But not before I bought a house for myself."
Bhagat bought an apartment in Waheeda, near Pali Hill, a place in Bandra where every second person you run into is a Bollywood actor or an aspirant. The building is owned by the great star of the 1960s and ’70s, Waheeda Rehman.
“When we bought this place," Bhagat says, with a sweeping gesture that takes in the horseshoe shaped hall large enough to play basketball, “it was really in bad shape. It was completely redone by Anusha. She is an aesthete." Bhagat pauses. “She was also a banker."
“Oh, now I do nothing," says Anusha Bhagat. She looks quite content doing nothing. Is her husband her favourite writer? “No, John Steinbeck," she says looking at the bookshelf at the far end of the room. Steinbeck, I tell myself, is not exactly her husband’s league.
“Are they filled with Mr Bhagat’s blockbusters?" I ask.
“In fact, you are not likely to find a single book of mine there," he laughs. “To fill one’s library with one’s own books would be extreme megalomania." Bhagat’s own favourite writer is Ernest Hemingway, whose quotes adorn his office wall.
Between Hemingway—whom Steinbeck resented—and the author of The Grapes of Wrath, “is Mrs Bhagat not involved with your writing?"
“She gives me critical feedback on what I write."
“He works all the time," says Anusha Bhagat.
“How long does it take you to write a novel, Chetan?" I ask.
“It takes about a year. Just the writing part. Ideally, I would like to bring out one novel every two years."
“Would he be having affairs on the side?" I ask Anusha Bhagat, “Just for distraction?"
“No, no, I am having fun," Bhagat says hurriedly, “Why screw it all up?"
Anusha Bhagat looks at me with disapproval. “When he is home, he is with the kids." The Bhagats have twins. “I take care of the home, and the kids." She implies there is no space for affairs in the equation.
“So, he is not the control freak as he sometimes appears?"
“Not at home," she smiles, perhaps relieved I am not out to wreck their family.
I make a mental note that Bhagat has introduced me to his wife as Mr C.P. Sundereshan. I forgive him as most north Indians experience difficulty in pronouncing my name.
We make our way back to the writer’s Dunhill office, which is around the corner. It’s monsoon time in Mumbai, and it’s overcast. “I had to buy that house. The family had to have a nest. We could have ups and downs. But we all need a roof. Money was always a problem when I was a boy." Bhagat’s parents separated when he was still young.
“Not now for sure?"
“I’m good now."
“How often do you visit your mother?"
“Oh, I bought her a small place down the street. To have that campus sense, you know."
Bhagat is into that kind of thing. The groupie feeling. Which is probably why he calls his fans the CB family.
Is all the income from the books?
“The books are a primary source. They turn into movies. For example Two States (romance between a girl from Tamil Nadu and a boy from Punjab) was a successful movie. I am in the middle of shooting Half Girlfriend. The books spin into other things. But I also give motivational talks all over the country. I participate as judge in reality shows like Dance India."
Bhagat is rather determined to stay in his ways. He believes the literary world is not greatly welcoming of his forays into what they consider their home territory. “Take a look at the social media," says Bhagat. “The liberal intellectuals are always asking me what business have I to be commenting on national affairs? A pulp novelist and reality show judge surely can’t be good enough as a columnist and commentator?"
“I am just as much concerned about India as anyone else. If I say I am a humanist, not a casteist or classicist, I am sure to be trolled. Actually, I am a humanist. That’s what I am."
He tells me of an experience at IIM. He had chosen to be an intern at the Cadbury’s factory. The chocolate wrapper machine had turned defective. Instead of wrapping 200 bars, it was wrapping 50.
“My boss at the factory said my project was to fix the machine. I had no idea how to do it. Late in the evenings, I would hang out with the workers at their quarters. The guy in charge of the wrapping machine became my friend. He would say the conditions at the factory were not too good. He was getting around Rs4,000; he was finding it hard to make ends meet. We became really close. One day, I told him about my project. I was supposed to fax the design to some plant in Germany and then they would get back, etc. My friend said, ‘Forget Germany and the fax; I know what’s wrong’. The next morning he had the machine fixed. The factory was losing out because of the ill will of the workers. In my presentation back at the IIM, I said, ‘It’s not the machines that matter, but the people.’ That lesson has stayed with me."
“Your critics consider you an ivory tower resident," I say, stretching the point.
“As a matter of fact, unlike my critics, I actually know a little more about how India works because I am fluid enough to flow through various segments of the society. I don’t restrict myself to biases and compartments. I hope to stay that way."
Despite the slight sense of persecution that Bhagat seems to suffer from, a Mumbai-based writer and poet said he had nothing against Bhagat except that he “hijacked the idea of reading. A million will grow up thinking Half Girlfriend is literature".
But that’s not quite how Bhagat looks at it. “When I began my writing career, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy were the icons. They still are. But most people can’t read and understand them even if they want to. I’m bringing a whole new bunch of reader-aspirants into the game. I am not writing for intellectuals." This sounds true to me. All you need to know is 5,000 words in English and you could become that rare thing, a novel reader.
“Would you nevertheless like to be another Salman Rushdie?"
“I don’t mind the Padma Lakshmi part of it. No, just kidding. What I want is a Padma Shree."
A few years ago, The New York Times, now strangely a byword in the upper-middle-class drawing rooms of New Delhi and Mumbai, quoted Bhagat’s publisher, Kapish Mehra of Rupa & Co., as saying: “He is not a literary writer, but, more importantly, he is a successful and popular writer."
While “more importantly" is a debatable point, for all practical purposes that’s where the matter rests as far as Bhagat’s contribution is concerned.
Is Bhagat insecure about other popular writers like Amish Tripathi or Ravinder Singh?
“Amish’s into retelling mythologies and he does it well. That’s not my expertise. Amish’s success is really good for me. Readers may go into a store looking for him and come upon me."
I mention an anecdote involving Singh, who is another popular writer of, for want of a better word, pulp. At a private gathering, when someone asked Singh about his target audience, he was precise despite the drinks. “The C segment in B towns."
“I don’t know," says Bhagat, “if I can be that exact. I write for young urban India. Their world is changing, and I am writing about that changing world."
“I forgot to ask you. Everybody wants to know if you are a Hindutva guy."
“No. I am a centrist." He chooses not to elaborate. Because that would be politics then.
By centrist, he probably meant he was not for Kaxit—Kashmir exiting from India.
When we get back to his office, things seem to have gotten a little out of hand. The Facebook shooting team had announced a time when their interview with Bhagat would start, and Bhagat, seemingly a master at the game, has returned—with me in tow—just giving them all time enough to have a minor nervous breakdown.
“All right, I am good to go live," says Bhagat. With the cameras and halogen lamps on, Bhagat is a new, improved man, though he is wearing the same shirt.
This particular interview is about promoting a reality show loosely based on the theme of his novel Two States. The boy lover goes to the south. The girl lover goes to Punjab. The two prospective in-law families break the guy and girl into their culture by various affectionate bullying methods, like making the girl sit among the old women of the family and chat, and make the boy climb what I thought—from my corner of the sofa—was a coconut tree. Bhagat is the anchor. “I talk. Clips. Cut. Links. CUT," Bhagat sums up his role in the reality show.
At the end of the interview, Bhagat fields questions from the viewers. These are mostly young people asking him how to be like him, and Bhagat, with his hallmark earnestness, says, “I advise you to be not like me, but do things that will enable you to make of the best of yourself."
One oddball question comes from a lady who says she is in her 40s and is quite lost; can Mr Bhagat help?
Bhagat says he has never been a lost woman in her 40s, but that she should not give up the fight.
The interviewer, meanwhile, has his own questions. Since Bhagat had married Anusha, from Chennai, surely he wrote the novel out of his own experience? “Yes," says Bhagat, “the first time they served me on a banana leaf, I thought I was supposed to wash my hands over it. Then I realized, this is what I was supposed to eat off."
This makes the interviewer very excited. “Fantastic," he says, “wonderful."
It’s a great interview. This is because Bhagat is determined not to disappoint any one of his million fans. He will give his all to keep them in good cheer. Exactly as he does in his books. And as far as possible, he will, as in life, give his books a reasonably happy ending.
He is clear that he is the new hope for a new generation. The kind of generation that is grimly set to succeed. With Englush, if not English. With smartphones made in China. With headphones, and unusual haircuts. The boys and girls who watch reality shows and aspire to become India’s talent. The boys and girls who are determined to be happy. The sunrise generation. He is their bard.
C.P. Surendran is a journalist, poet, novelist and screenplay writer. His new collection of poems, Available Light, is scheduled to come out later this year. He is currently working on a novel, 327ONE.
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