Chetan Bhagat ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai?
Iconic but needs to introspect
We know that hell hath no fury like an ardent lover scorned. But last week Chetan Bhagat would have run them close. Bhagat’s fury spilled onto the editorial page of a newspaper as he vented his pent up angst, dissected a social phenomenon and simultaneously supplied us with enlightenment, all in one.
The immediate occasion was the shutting down of a leading publishing house from the south. But that, I suspect, was only the tipping point for he has always nursed a grouse at being treated, along with others of his ilk, as the writer of a lesser muse.
His immediate targets were three: the late lamented publishing house, Rahul Gandhi (as soft a target as they come), and the streaming platform Netflix.
At first glance, none of them seem interconnected. But like a medical researcher who discovers that a common deficiency is the cause of unrelated ailments, Bhagat’s diagnosis is that all three failures were caused by losers.
And the reason they are losers is, hold your breath, because they speak English and read English books.
By way of a mnemonic, he even conjured a term for them – India’s Intellectual and Discerning Elite (IIDE). Well, as acronyms go, it’s hardly scintillating and I wish he had asked for help from the nearest IIDE.
Essentially, Chetan Bhagat’s complaint seems to be that the commissioning editors of publishing houses, the Congress party and head honchos of Netflix would have been successful if they had only been built in his own image.
So what exactly is this image? Let me tell you straight off that it glows like neon. He has topped off his IIT with an IIM-A. This kind of academic baptism should have turned Bhagat into a formidable IIDE himself, but then he took the path less travelled: writing fiction. Next thing we know, he attained cult figure status.
For his first book 5 Point Someone, he put the vast, transcontinental network of IIT and IIM alumini to work, and thereby aced the initial hurdle of creating awareness of the book’s existence.
After that dream debut, he demonstrated remarkable marketing savvy in promoting his wares. Just before the movie based on The Three Mistakes… hit the screen for instance, he manufactured a controversy in cahoots with the film’s producers. The issue made it to the headlines and his books flew off the shelves. It is an old trick but it works every time.
For all this, approval from the critical class remained elusive. Bhagat had ticked all the boxes: high visibility launches, good packaging and a formidable marketing and distribution network. So what was wrong - it could not… or could it possibly be the product?
To investigate the suspicion, let me venture into subjecting the product to a closer look. Bhagat’s plots are thin as rails. His world is populated by characters - especially in the later novels - who converse entirely in clichés, and he has never considered investing depth, nuance or richness in his narrative. That sweet spot between too much and too less is where great literature resides, and Bhagat misses it by miles. That’s not to say that he is not funny but more often, he is forced. Yes, he has Pied Piper-like led a large number of readers to the bookstore. But the more successful he became, the more glaring was the gap between mass and class, between the dhafli and the surbahar.
It’s not as if he has no friends among card-carrying IIDEs. He has loyal followers at home and abroad. I personally know of a woman of letters who defies convention by pointedly reading Bhagat in the tony environs of Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. Above all else, he has made enough money to buy off his critics twice over. So he shouldn’t be complaining - but as we saw last week, he is still miffed that he hasn’t been awarded a place at the high table.
Well, marketing muscle, clever promotional strategies and money can only take you so far. Beyond that, your book is on its own. It is easier to win readers than respect - and if Chetan Bhagat wants to win respect, he needs to introspect.
Meanwhile, it will help if he stops knocking his critics’ antecedents. Losers whine, winners don’t, and in commercial terms he is an outright winner. If the grudge continues, we will conclude that Chetan Bhagat’s rage is the rage of Caliban on seeing his face in the mirror.
Jairam N Menon is a Bombay-walla all his life, he has contributed to several newspapers and weeklies. His views are personal.