Monday, December 7, 2009

On Disliking Chetan Bhagat

It is as fashionable these days to dislike Chetan Bhagat, as it is to say that one doesn't  watch Ekta Kapoor's serials.  One of the reasons for disliking Bhagat is what his detractors call ` atrocious' English. The guy, these detractors say, cannot write `decent' English and is artistically very inferior when it comes to things like the plot or characterization or dialogues. I find these charges rather snobbish and elitist.

One reason why I find Chetan Bhagat interesting is because he is so different from academically hyped `Indian Writing in English canon comprising mostly of the diasporic writers like Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri or Kiran Desai. The guy writes about people and world with which the ` Eng. Lit' academics are not really familiar. Bhagat's novels are about India that is more recognizable than the one you find in The Moor's Last Sigh or The Midnight's Children. The Eng Lit. scholars are more conversant with Jhumpa Lahiri's expatriate NRIs living in New York than with people who work in the call-centre just round the corner.

Bhagat's world is the contemporary urban upper middle-class world. His language is the one that you hear in this world. This class emerged largely in the post-nineties era of  privatization, liberalization, and globalization. This is the  Hinglish speaking generation from the English medium schools from towns and cities. Chetan Bhagat's English is the English of this generation. It may be `inelegant' and `atrocious' to some local  Brahmins of Good English. But then who cares, Bhagat's bhagats will read him anyway.  Chetan Bhagat's world is easy to identify with.

 Interestingly, some of these Brahmins cite Rushdie's chutnification of English with pride, though his India is a tourist India seen through NRI glasses. These Brahmins don't seem to complain about absolutely unreadable style of  `high-browed' hyper canonical  authors like Joyce of Finnegans Wake or Pynchon of Crying the Lot 49.

While it is incorrect to impose elitist academic grid of canonical literary values on the popular fiction, it is equally incorrect to impose our expectations from the western popular fiction on the emergent Indian popular fiction in English. What is needed is to contextualize this emergent genre historically and analyze its content to understand the class it caters to. We need to place it along with the writers like Rajashree, Anuja Chauhan and Swati Kaushal ( of ` Indian Chick Lit fame).

Bhagat is indeed no Borges or Joyce or Kafka, but he is for me better than people like Rushdie who pretend to be Borges, Joyce or Marquez and offer cheap imitations of those writers. Bhagat is low profile compared to people like Rushdie and more modest. He knows his limitations and within these limitations, he seems to be working fine for me.

However, the reading taste of the new generation is very interesting and funny. I find fascination for Dan Brown, JK Rowling, Paulo Cohelo or Stephanie Myer incomprehensible and even silly. I never understand why Indians admire Dan Brown, for instance. While Dan Brown may be saying something shocking for the Western Christian world, Indians have simply too much of ` divine feminine'. We have too much ` divine feminine' in Baroda, for instance, where the Navratri Garbas are quiet a rage.  It is people who have never read Marquez or Borges who find Cohelo `profound', while he is actually peddling out silly self help stuff under the guise of wisdom.

I suspect the success of people like Chetan Bhagat, or Dan Brown or Cohelo in India owes a lot to the emergent literate class which has discovered literacy rather late, and have not discovered the literary at all ;)


yasho said...

Totally agree with you here... I really get carried along with chetan bhagat's narration...and cant for the world imagine why people go crazy over Coelho... he is not even chick lit...not that chick lit is bad in my eyes...any writing that grips even one reader is writing and something that someone has taken effort over... it should be given its due is what I think...have never been able to read Rushdie



jaymehta said...

A superb write up!!!
Enjoyed it thoroughly.
As I've gone through all the work of Bhagat, I find your views largely agreeable. however, I've not read the "giants" discussed by you, so cant dwell upon it.
- Jay Mehta.

Anonymous said...

Bhagat is funny/timepass/sarcastic at places in 5 point/2 states. his interesting/readable books. However he is shallow and a lazy/limited writer. His characters do not seem to be real (except where it is about his own life). A great marketer and self believer. A lesser Baba Kadam of 'navsakshar'/newly literate english readers.

Aparna said...

I agree with your views. It is precisely his language and his easy style that makes his readers warm up to him. I have seen many people whi wouldn't touch a book even with a yard long pole read Bhagat's books because they say they show a world in which they identify themselves.

Thoithoi O'Cottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thoithoi O'Cottage said...

Yes, language is the site of literature happening, whatever language that work of literature may be in. But let alone his language/English, what is more problematic in Chetan Bhagat’s writings (concerning only his first two (?) novels I have read) is their being nothing more than commonsense (and that not presented in some way to absolve the novels of the blame of the lack of thought/intellect/insight). Yes, it all depend on where you look at the novels from—from left, right, within, above, below. And as you noted “the success of people like Chetan Bhagat…owes a lot to the emergent literate class which has discovered literacy rather late, and have not discovered the literary at all.”

Every person is entitled to his/her own views/tastes. My dislike for Chetan Bhagat’s writings are neither informed by NRI literary tastes nor due to imposition of Western or Eastern or Southern or Northern or Internal (of the Earth) literary sensibilities. Our contemporary Indian literary/critical understanding tends to be tampered (in varying degrees) by postcolonial critical creeds, which was not the case with my reading of Bhagat. My view was rather (simply) from philosophy, say logic (and found say 3 Mistakes of My Life very illogical/unreasonable and hence immature considering Chetan’s age). The trajectory in this is it won’t be appropriate to dump dislike for Chetan Bhagat’s writings as an intellectual fashion informed by a subtle form of colonial mindset and NRI literary taste. And I personally think writing about current India by living in India in the language people can identify themselves with more easily does not necessarily make the writing countable. And I think your concluding remark “the success of people like Chetan Bhagat…owes a lot to the emergent literate class which has discovered literacy rather late, and have not discovered the literary at all” is ‘significant in a strange way’ in the context of your preceding arguments. Its sounds like an about-turn to me.