Forbes India: Tell us about the young Chetan Bhagat. The one before IIT.
: I grew up in West Delhi, and went to The Army Public School. My father was in the army and my mother in a government job — a typical middle class setup. In school, I was a good student, though not extraordinary. In fact i see the scores required now and shudder on how one can get a good college. My class X score was 76% and class xii 85%.
Forbes India: You left a secure (though it isn't as safe a field these days!) and lucrative career to pursue the writing dream, a life that is notoriously unpredictable. What helped you make the decision? How long did it take to make the break? Any regrets? Did it help that your wife is a successful professional in her own right?Chetan Bhagat
: I think the continued response to all my books, and the rising fan base made me feel that ultimately I meant to something other than working in the bank. I still kept working all the way until three books became bestsellers and two movies based on them went on the floor. A top psychiatrist in Delhi told me that my impact on young minds is tremendous, and I have the power to influence them on how they live their life, if I want to take it. Hence, I should stop positioning myself as just a funny author. That conversation had an impact.
The ‘safety’ was the main reason to stay on, as were the middle class upbringing values that you just don’t quit an MNC bank job. I think the final point came when I was able to overcome the lure of money. I worked for a long time internally on letting go of my attachment and identity to the amount of money I made. When that happened, the bank job seemed even more pointless. There were things I wanted to do apart from books (like the talks and columns) and the job was preventing me from doing it.
My wife’s job, ironically, was not a factor in favour of quitting but quite otherwise. My wife working creates even more pressure for me to remain successful. I would though say that one big reason for me to leave was our kids, as with both of us working and me having this extra-large extra curricular activity, the kids had not time from us.
I am far calmer and happier today after quitting, but yes, the end of the month salary is missed. Forbes India: If things don't stay as good as they have been thus far — if your next books doesn't sell as much the previous ones, for instance — do you have a Plan B?Chetan Bhagat
: There is some sort of a plan B, but frankly life doesn’t work that way. I’ll just have to figure out plan-B if the need arises, but also only when the need arises. I have enough degrees to get me some employment. Dealing with the lack of writing success — well, I think I will devote myself to spiritual activity more. Forbes India: What, in your opinion, are the ingredients of your personal success story? How much of your success do you attribute to having the right skills and instincts, to doing the hard grind, to being the right person with the right book at the right time, to very intelligent marketing and pricing?
: It’s all of the above points you mentioned, and yes — luck and randomness are a big part of it. I think I have a talent to entertain, believe in what I do and I do try my best to care for people. The combination comes through in my writing or whatever else I do, and people have given me a chance. However, that still does not explain why I am read the most. That comes from luck, or if you want to be romantic about it, destiny. We also are in a winner takes all society, where the winner gets a lot more attention than the next guy, who may not be very different.Forbes India
: (We’re trying to go beyond the hoary old 'where do you get your ideas?' question.) What inspires you? And what helps you decide your subjects?Chetan Bhagat
: I think the Indian middle class life, or the so-called ‘Indian way’ inspires me. Indian values are a mixed bag. We are caring, loving, ambitious, proud people. At the same time we are prejudiced, live in the past and are cynical. The new generation is changing, and fast. It allows for very interesting stories. I get a lot of ideas on what I observe, but everything cannot be turned into a book. Whichever idea keeps knocking in my head hundred times over, wins.Forbes India
: Do you have several ideas in various stages of completion at any one point, or is it one book at a time?Chetan Bhagat
: Normally it is one book at a time. I may have many ideas, but it is difficult for me to ration my thoughts towards different ideas.Forbes India
: What's a day in the life of Chetan Bhagat like? If, that is, there is a typical day?Chetan Bhagat
: When I was working, days were more typical, but now they are not. I travel 25 percent of the time, across the country giving talks. When home, I am now a house husband. I make sure the kids and wife go to school and office on time respectively, along with their lunchboxes. Then, I have the few hours of peace before the kids come back and I write. Once the kids come back, I spend time with them over lunch. In the afternoons, I do work of lesser concentration such as emails. I am not a workaholic and do not like to work more than seven hours a day. In the evening, I’ll go with kids to the park or go for a walk. My wife returns in the evening and we all have dinner together. As you can see, it is pretty unremarkable. Of course, the normal day can easily be derailed if one of my directors needs me to come for script work or if my publisher calls for something else. Forbes India: You speak of doing around 50 talks around the country every year. You write regular columns. You keep in touch with your fans via your site and social media. How the heck do you fit it all in and still get the books done? Chetan Bhagat
: Yes, it is a tough balance. I have limited myself to four talks a month, or roughly once a week, though mostly I combine a couple of them on one trip. I also write my column once in two weeks, as a weekly one would be difficult for me. When I am writing a book, I withdraw from my blog and networking sites – something my fans are not too happy about but ultimately understand. Right now, I am not writing anything as 2 States just came out, so I have time to tweet. I also plan to slow the pace of my book releases. Four books in five and a half years is quite fast.Forbes India
: Who are your icons? And specific to writing, who are the writers you seek to emulate?Chetan Bhagat
: There is three sides to me. There is Chetan the entertainer — and my icons there are from the entertainment industry — whether it is Aamir Khan, Farhan Akhtar, Woody Allen, Rob Reiner. Then there is Chetan the writer — Hemingway, Orwell, RK Narayan would be icons there. And then there is Chetan the reformer — Mahatma Gandhi to Obama, there is a long list there.
I think it is better to emulate different qualities from various icons, as it is rare that one person will have everything you aspire to be. At least that is the case for me.
Forbes India: What does Chetan Bhagat read when he's writing? What does he read when he's between books? For fun? To improve his mind?
: When I am writing, I avoid reading other books, especially fiction as it will impact my writing. In between books, I try to read as my fun books as possible. I also love non-fiction books such as Black Swan
. And of course, I love watching movies and reading their scripts later as that is what I am trying to learn these days.
: As a writer, who do you see as your peer group?Chetan Bhagat
: I don’t see myself only as a writer, so in that sense I don’t think there is a peer group. However, all the modern Indian writers of my generation, I guess they are my peers. The Jaipur Literary Festival, where I met them all, was great fun. Forbes India
: When we buy a Chetan Bhagat product, what are we buying? What are the ingredients of Chetan Bhagat, the brand?Chetan Bhagat
: My fans can answer that question better, and everyone has their own interpretation. However, let me take a guess. You are buying something fun, inspiring, simple, original, Indian and modern. On Orkut polls, the two words used to describe me most by my fans are — awesomeness and coolness. I can live with that!Forbes India
: Who is your target audience? (And we don't mean this to imply that your output is driven by marketing forces; we ask in the sense that every communicator has someone specific, or at least a section of the universe, who they seek to communicate with.)Chetan Bhagat
: I’ve always written for young people, as that is the age one gets influenced most by books. However, today given my popularity, you will find my readers across all age spectrums. Sometimes, it is challenging to think what will work for my new found audience after 2 States, which is a universal book. I’d say I still write for somewhat younger Indians, who are of course educated as the books are in English. From 17–30 of five years ago, I’d now revise it to 14–45 age group.Forbes India
: Stephen King speaks of writing to or for an ideal reader, in his case, his wife. Do you have one? And who sees your writing first?Chetan Bhagat
: Stephen King knows how to get brownie points! Well, I can’t say the same now right? I think I imagine my ideal reader to be a young middle class person from a medium sized city in India, with a moderate grasp of English but an extraordinary drive to do well in life. Apart from the ambition, everyone else is medium about him at present. And after he reads my book, he feels he can make his mark in the world. That’s an ideal CB reader.Forbes India
: Do you have plans to widen your audience, by, say, getting translations of your work done, both in other Indian languages as well as abroad?Chetan Bhagat
: There are translations in almost all Indian languages of my previous books. They have done very well by regional standards. Foreign translations have occurred in Italian, French, Spanish and a few other languages. However, the foreign market is not my focus, as that is not what I have set out to do. It may make me more money, but as I said above, money is not the main criteria anymore.Forbes India
: So far, your impact on popular cinema hasn't been as big as your impact on the book world. By this I mean that the films adapted from your books haven't been promoted as being the product of your mind, as compared to, say, The Da Vinci Code
. Do you agree? And if yes, do you see that changing?Chetan Bhagat
: Yes, of course my impact is limited right now in films, and I’d like people to have reasonable expectations of me. It takes a long time and a lot of luck to make a name in Bollywood. Even the superstars have worked hard for decades to get to this point. I am super fortunate that all three books were taken up to be big, mainstream films and even 2 States has attracted a lot of interest. However, in Bollywood, adaptations are just starting, while in Hollywood, it is a seamless industry. Also, don’t forget the language switch that happens in my adaptations – which changes the audience and thus the marketing has to change. All I can say is, my name does add to the buzz of the movie. Even 3 Idiots
, which is a megastar Aamir project all the way, became a little more exciting because of its Five Point Someone
connection. And that, to me, is huge.Forbes India: What was it like working with Bollywood?Chetan Bhagat
: It is a lot of fun, and I think it is largely to do with the fact that I’ve worked with very good people. Writing books is lonely, but in movies you at least have some colleagues and leave the house so my kids can’t say ‘my daddy stays at home and doesn’t go to office’. Most importantly, the reach of Bollywood excites me. It is a chance to reach the maximum number of people possible.Forbes India
: You know, of course, that many people in the 'literary' world do not think highly of your work. What do you feel about that?Chetan Bhagat:
Of course I know. As far as feelings go, of course it hurts and stings because I am human and emotionally attached to my work. However, if there is a kernel of truth in their feedback I try and take it. Sometimes they benchmark my books to masterpieces, and show how it falls short. I don’t think it is fair. Saying Chetan is no Tolstoy is like saying Infosys is no Google, so Infosys is a crap company. Forbes India: How do you rate yourself as a craftsman?Chetan Bhagat
: Moderate. I’d give myself an A- on good days.Forbes India: What's with the numbers in your titles? Coincidence that they're all primes?Chetan Bhagat
: The first two were just a co-incidence. Then it became a fun thing to do and I carried it, though ensuring the title fitted the story. One benefit though, is it makes people recall the name of all my four books easily. Otherwise, you often forget the writer’s previous works. Mine have a mnemonic.Forbes India: If a budding writer asked you for advice on making it big, what would you say?Chetan Bhagat
: I’d say stop trying to make it big, because you do not control it. This is not a an office job where someone will give you a promotion if you work hard and you will make it big. You write a good book and hope for the best.Forbes India
: The music industry has been hit big time by the digital age. The news media is getting battered rather badly now. Do you think that writers will get affected too? What's your take on facing up to the challenge of piracy, of fragmented attention spans, of a culture that expects content to be free? What are your plans to take advantage of the new opportunities that change will indubitably bring as well?Chetan Bhagat
: Of course, there are challenges to the old traditional media from the Internet, but the people writing for it still have relevance if they adapt themselves. The Internet also gives you a chance to promote your work. I do wonder how my books, which are a thousand year old medium, will compete with Twitter and Facebook and the next big thing, when I want a young person’s attention. So far, I have found a place in their heart. I hope I can keep it.
Piracy however, is a big problem, particularly so in India. The laws are lax and it is culturally okay to watch pirated stuff. It only means incentives for top talent to create top quality work is reduced if it is done in India. So, people shouldn’t complain if most movies are foreign rip-offs. In books piracy particularly hurts as we work on thin margins. I hope people will see intellectual property as equivalent to real property, and not paying what it is due is no different from someone not taking money out of your salary when you were not looking.Forbes India: What's book five about?Chetan Bhagat
: I have no idea right now. 2 States
just came out, and I haven’t visited many cities where the launch needs to be held. I am a woman in the labour room right now. Even if she loves kids, now is not the time to ask when are you having your next child.