We asked a number of people in the literary world to talk about Chetan Bhagat. Here's what they have to say about him
Literary World on Chetan Bhagat
"It's our thesis that he has done publishing and writing in English in India a lot of good by opening up the world of books written in English to much larger audiences. People who are intimidated by the literary novels, people who dream and swear in other languages, young ones who would only otherwise watch TV or the movies; they're reading him in droves, and looking forward to his next book.
We were wondering if you'd like to comment on that, or indeed about Chetan Bhagat and his work in general. Positive, negative, nuanced, ambivalent; whatever works for you."
Here are extracts from some of their replies:
His significance has less to do with what or how he writes than the fact that an audience exists for his kind of writing.
-Manjula Padmanabhan, writer and artist
Bhagat hit an audience, which is first generation English readers, the books are cleverly placed at a decent price point, very good distribution and marketing.
He's also picked subjects that work for that audience. Incidentally I quite liked Five point..., the first book, because he caught something of the tech hostel atmosphere with its skewed gender ratios and its tunnel-vision bright kids. I reviewed that for Outlook.
One interesting factor — pre ...Call Centre, the concept of reading simply for pleasure and fluency didn't exist. The average aspirational middle class kid would have been discouraged from wasting time reading "story books". Post ...Call Centre, there's a host of kids who have twigged that fluency has a direct correlation to getting a decent job. Some have been forced to read because of the job and its insistence on developing cultural familiarity with the US or wherever. So in that sense, he's tapped the first generation, which is perhaps reading "story books" in English as "timepass".
Another part of the puzzle — there are actually far more young people living on their own now and that means more time to read — it's considered rude to read in most crowded middle-class homes when you could actually be discussing f***-all with your parents and siblings instead or vegging in front of the TV.
More power to him — I think he's a crappy writer but I also think he's a less crappy writer than Sidney Sheldon or Jacqueline Suzanne to name a couple of crappy best "sellerites" of previous generations. In terms of themes and milieus (rather than plotlines), I wish more skilled writers had tackled the same milieus. Maybe they will eventually?
- Devangshu Datta, columnist, reviewer and author, wrote one of the first reviews of Five Point Someone
Chetan Bhagat does not claim to be anything but an entertaining, accessible writer who writes for the young and aspirational. He has become astoundingly successful at it. He also has a keen sense of marketing and a publishing house that appreciates it, and both have done very well by it. We writers (and publishers) would do well to acknowledge this complete lack of pretension; and display of professionalism.
- Sudeep Chakravarti, author of the non-fiction work Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, and two novels, Tin Fish and Once Upon a Time in Aparanta.
In 2006 when my book, Above Average, was accepted for publication by HarperCollins, 3000 was still an acceptable number of copies to put out into the market (and 5000 was some kind of high-water mark, where bestseller status could be accorded) and a price below Rs 200 was considered impossible for a novel length work. But the influence of Chetan Bhagat's success was evident when my publishers decided to price my book at Rs 195 and print 15,000 copies in the first run.
Clearly there was some idea that the IIT theme could piggyback on the success of Five Point Someone, but the cycle of timidity was broken. Subsequently books like Advaita Kala's Almost Single were also put out at the same price point and that book has now sold more than 50,000 copies. Above Average itself is in its fourth printing and there are probably something like 25,000 copies of it out there.
I've met people who have told me they have read only two English novels, Anurag Mathur's Inscrutable Americans and Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone. The interesting thing is that Inscrutable Americans, a publishing phenomenon in its time (and still selling well today) was not able, at the time, to goad the rest of the publishing business into being more aggressive the way Five Point Someone was. Perhaps that is a product of the rise of a media culture that Bhagat was able to navigate successfully. In fact, today, publishing houses like HarperCollins and Penguin send their authors around the country to do book readings. That was unheard of except for the biggest of names earlier.
I did it, largely on my own expense, because I had seen Bhagat do it earlier and had realised that if you want to have your work known to the larger population that doesn't read book reviews, preferring to spend their time reading the City supplement, then you have to have your name in the City supplement.
The book readings I did, in Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi, were moderately attended (except in Mumbai and Bangalore where they were well attended). But more than the impact on the fifty or so people who came, it was the news reports in the city pages of the newspapers the next day that helped make my work known.
It isn't my belief that every novel must be written for an immense audience. In fact, I don't believe that good novels can be written with the least common denominator in mind. But, having said that, I feel that even serious books written in India are not pushed to the largest audience that might appreciate them. This problem has eased a little (though not as much as it should have) after Chetan Bhagat demonstrated that rising entertainment spend in urban India can be translated into rising sales for novels in English.
- Amitabha Bagchi, author of the novel Above Average
I think in a country like ours where reading habits are appalling, Chetan has at least managed to get a couple books down almost every non-reader's gullet — which is no mean achievement. He writes the language which a large section of the Indian society understands. I may not have the patience for that kind of reading but I certainly am glad that a Chetan happened to India.
As a publishing success, the pricing of his book opened out a new direction for the others to tread on — which was required.
- Mita Kapur, columnist, literary consultant and CEO, Siyahi
I’m hugely ambivalent about Chetan Bhagat. I think it’s wonderful that he writes, gets read, and makes money. More power to him. But I’m not sure his impact is particularly deserving of hosannas, because getting kids to read rather than watch TV is not that great a thing if what they’re reading is Chetan Bhagat (assuming that’s mainly the sort of thing they’re reading). I don’t object to light, easy reads; I’m just uncomfortable with the increasing tendency to read only light, easy reads.
Not particularly helpful, I know, but that’s my two cents.
- Mitali Saran, freelance writer
The good thing is that he's taken the stuffiness and club snobbery out of publishing in English.
- Gouri Dange, novelist, columnist and family counsellor
I actually had a pretty good time with CB when I did an in-conversation thingy with him at the Osians film festival last year (or was it the year before) just before the film version of One Night at the Call Centre came out.
Bhagat has a knack for writing prose which makes for effortless reading. This is in some ways a bad thing — and definitely excludes his work from the category of 'literary', where the reader is at least engaged in assessing, enjoying, stumbling over or being challenged by the language the writer chooses to employ. Bhagat's stories are mostly told in dialogue which lends itself to the colloquial, off-hand writing style that he embodies. Having to read his entire oeuvre in preparation for the talk was not an entirely unpleasant experience for me. The stories jogged along reasonably well. The characters jogged along reasonably believably. It was all fairly easy, fairly forgettable, but not as bad as I'd anticipated.
What was nice, at the talk, was the range of fans there. I'd expected the 'youth' — the college-kids who are his staple diet — but there were older people, who'd clearly read and enjoyed his work as well. In this way, he reminded me a bit of Shobaa De, who also has this amazingly wide appeal. I'd done an in-conversation thing with her a few years previously, and she had elderly gents and 8 year old kids, all equally starry-eyed.
My only serious qualm was about the author's apparent condoning of the violence and humiliation one of his characters fantasises about (and, I think — if memory serves me correct — actually carries out) on his boss. The boss character hasn't done anything really seriously bad, but Bhagat seems to think that slapping / assaulting and thinking about killing a superior male for merely being a bit petty minded is an entirely understandable and ok thing to do. But when challenged on this point, he sort of shrugged if off, as if to say that 'well, it's just a story'. It's difficult to make a big judgement on the basis of one interaction, but he struck me as being reluctant to take responsibility for his work. Or perhaps he's just not a terribly critical or intellectually thoughtful person...
That's part of the problem with populist writers like him and De (although, maybe less so her) that the 'messages' that inevitably accompany the narratives goes out to hundreds and thousands of readers — is, arguably, far more sociologically impactful than the 'message' of any work of literary genius — and yet, when confronted with these kinds of issues, they retreat into the "oh well, it's only a story" position. As though populist literature (as with popular films) cannot be critiqued with any degree of seriousness. "It's just entertainment."
- Anita Roy, writer and commissioning editor, Zubaan
Whatever other authors might say about Bhagat, he's demonstrated that there are lakhs of readers out there who are willing to read a novel in English. It is now up to us, as authors, to produce quality writing that these new readers would enjoy reading. If we do not do so, that is our failure, not theirs.
- Amit Varma, author of My Friend Sancho, the biggest-selling debut novel in India this year.
I agree with what you say here, and I wrote some similar things in this blog-post I did about Chetan
One thing I really admire about Chetan is that he knows exactly who his readership is and what their needs are, and he knows how to connect with them. At the Jaipur festival panel discussion earlier this year, Namita Gokhale and I were reduced to silent spectators while he interacted with the audience almost as if he were speaking personally to each of them. Despite talking in a (partly rehearsed, I think) rustic style, he is one of the most articulate speakers I know, and he had them in the palm of his hand. (It's relevant, of course, that the audience mainly comprised people who were already fans of his work.)
Some things I don't like much about him: the knee-jerk inverse-snobbery, built on the idea that "literary" writers are necessarily pretentious or writing for a Western readership; his belief that reviewers should be "objective" (whatever that means!); his excessive and ostentatious chest-thumping about how he writes only for Indians, and an occasionally ugly jingoistic side that goes with this.
- Jai Arjun Singh, writer and journalist who blogs about books and films at Jabberwock
I agree with your assessment about Chetan Bhagat, he's done many things — opened up Indian publishing in English to that thing called the mass market book and done it with supreme indifference to the more 'literary' stuff that has dominated the market for Indian fiction in English so far. He doesn't aspire to be one of 'those' writers so to speak, and really, he does fantastically well in his genre. He's young, and his voice is young, he writes about stuff the young like to read and think about, and he picks on subjects that speak directly to a wide range of young people, not only the elite, not only the literary types.
I have a young neighbour who goes to a government school and aspires to be a writer. Chetan is his ideal, he wants to be like him and it's not only for the money! Also, I think his publisher has done some very intelligent pricing with his books, making them cheap, and this helps — he's done what I like to call a Kishore Bayani; if you recall the Bayani book was priced at Rs 99 — you can't beat that, and the pirates couldn't either. With Chetan, also because the books are a bit longer, he hasn't managed 99 but he isn't far off! It isn't often that writers get a following like this and there are a number of books that Chetan's success has spawned, by young writers from the IITs and elsewhere. They're not in the same class, and haven't had anywhere near the kind of marketing his books have had, but they haven't done too badly, so clearly there's a market there. So yes, he's a phenomenon. Pity he's not a woman, had he been, I would've liked to have published him (whether he'd want to come to us though is another story)
It strikes me that what he's done to the mass market English book (and I keep saying English because the numbers he has sold are pretty common in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, etc) is in a sense the kind of putting on the map that Rushdie achieved for Indian literary fiction in English.
- Urvashi Butalia is a writer and publisher, and director of Zubaan
I heart Chetan Bhagat. I think he is the JK Rowling of India, in that he has got completely unlikely people to pick up a book and read. I like his writing but I wish he had a better editor.
- Sayoni Basu, “a Bhagat sceptic turned admirer,” Scholastic India
I read Five Point Someone with great expectations - a friend who'd passed out of Manipal had recommended it to me, saying that he had enjoyed it tremendously. Had I picked it up on impulse at a bookstore, I may have been less disappointed. I didn't entirely subscribe to his style of writing and perhaps because I've never been to a professional institution such as the IIT myself, the story didn't appeal to me either. That said, however, I wouldn't deny that his book has been a landmark in the history of Indian writing in English. The fact that Five Point Someone was sold as pirated copies at Mumbai traffic signals alongside a Jeffrey Archer in early days is proof enough.
Apart from the fact that he's opened up the book market, I think contemporary Indian writers owe much to him — I think I certainly do. It was the success of FPS that made publishers sit up and take notice of the fact that Indian readers were more than ready for new Indian writers.
- Janhavi Acharekar, author
I have known young people who don’t usually read, reading his books. Most recently, I met a boy on the bus from Palampur to Delhi, who would not normally read, and was not so comfortable in English, reading The Three Mistakes..., slowly, but enjoying it, and proud too, to be reading a book in English.
- Kavita Bhanot, formerly with the Osian’s Literary Agency, now running a small guest house and working on her first book.
I think its always great when anyone gets people reading, and his sales show what a mass book in India can really achieve. The rest of us are used to thinking of 35000+ being a bestseller in hardback. Kapish Mehra of Rupa says they’re aiming to sell 10 lakh copies in 10 weeks of the new one which is staggering, even as an ambition!
- Chiki Sarkar, Editor-in-Chief, Random House India
What Chetan has done is this: He's shown how wrong Indian publishers are when they explain away their failures to sell Indian fiction to large numbers of Indians by saying there are no readers. Of course there are readers; Chetan's managed to let them know he exists. He's the only one of us who's really mainstream, in a way that even the Booker winners are not. He's done this largely on his own, bringing a few things to the table that most Indian publishers don't — a clever marketing strategy, excellent pricing, a clear pitch and a willingness to spend on advertising and wait for people to turn up and read his books. There have been a fair number of Bhagat clones in the last few years. I don't remember any of their names, though. This is because they've tried to replicate his writing style, hoping that simple, anyone-can-read stories will get thousands of people lining up. Not going to happen. It's not about the writing, really — it's about the all-round approach Chetan brings. I don't think people are intimidated by other Indian writers; they've just never heard of them — very few people have, outside our largely inward-looking media/publishing circles. Chetan Bhagat is a step towards Indian fiction publishing realising there are readers out there if you can figure out how to reach them. I hope this happens soon.
-Samit Basu, author