Half Author: Why India Needs More Chetan Bhagats For Aspiring Authors To Thrive

Posted on August 7, 2014 in Culture-Vulture, Society

By Mayank Jain:

What’s worse for a writer than people disliking his writing? Having a dedicated following of haters who critique his/her writing without even reading it.

On the 20th anniversary of Hum Aapke Hain Koun, which is a very celebrated, but repeatedly told story of people falling in love amidst lots of drama, Chetan Bhagat announced his next book. ‘Half Girlfriend’ took twitter by a storm with a done to death introduction and a title which gives away the fact that he is running out of numbers as well as plots. Irony was right there for those who could see it. It has been 20 years since Hum Aapke Hain Koun released, and we still have similar plots in our movies; at the same time, Chetan Bhagat is only getting more popular. Probably this is why any publicity is good publicity.

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I was on Twitter too, among those who seized the opportunity to poke some fun and express disappointment over the Indian writing scene which seems to be drowning in the Chetan Bhagat formula. Popular fiction= small towns + sex + a complicated love story + education. Add cricket or mythology to taste and you have got a bestseller in your hands. But there was more than just criticism what caught my eye that night.

Before I went to sleep I was working on a story that I am trying to get published. I couldn’t complete it. Self-doubt and second guessing took over my will to write and tell a tale. And then, it dawned on me. How would I feel if someone told me my story is bad before even reading it? How would I be able to write a good story when people have already categorized my writing as trash? If people can’t spare someone as successful as Chetan Bhagat, will they allow me a chance to speak in my own voice?

Criticizing writing is not only okay, but much needed in the current times when only age old plots peppered with sex are gaining popularity. However, it has become a dangerous trend to criticize an author even before his/her writing sees the light of the day. The worse thing is the fact that even self-confessed non-readers do it. Chetan Bhagat is only one of the sensations whom we all love to hate.

The Indian publishing industry can be easily divided into two eras: pre-Bhagat and post-Bhagat. It is because of the sheer popularity that this IIT-IIM student turned author received without having a godfather in the industry or any background in writing. He wrote about the lives of common people from smaller towns of the country, in a language they understood. He kept metaphors and figures of speech to a minimum, substituting them with more exciting elements like college escapades and a certain number of pages attributed to just sex. And voila, the Indian youngster was hooked to reading before we knew it and there were just as many potential authors who dreamt another dream before giving up on writing.

When Indian bestsellers were the books which managed to sell 5,000-7,000 copies, Chetan Bhagat came in and sold million copies a year of one single book. Many of his books are still in reprint, 9 years later. How much more motivation does a writer need in today’s time to write instead of doing that blood sucking boring job in a cubicle? And do we really need to think twice before attributing this trend of easy reading fiction (which is certainly not the best writing) to Chetan Bhagat? Some of us, including me, will never call him a great writer. But he is definitely a storyteller of the masses.

He is the first author non-readers generally start reading with. My first book was ‘3 Mistakes of My Life’ and some years later, here I am, currently reading existential detective thrillers. I doubt if reading Arundhati Roy or Jhumpa Lahiri would have made me pick up the next book with as much excitement. I would have given up on trying to understand it, given my average English background that can be attributed to my Central Government school education. People graduate and people learn to appreciate better writing when they encounter a mediocre one. But expecting everyone to churn out Shakespearean works or expecting every reader to appreciate spectacular writing like that of Amitav Ghosh is just wishful thinking of what I call, the reading elite.

There are many who lie about the first book they read because they are too scared of being looked down upon by the so called ‘readers’. We would rather have someone lie about reading Gone With The Wind or Great Expectations but we won’t spare the person who started with Chetan Bhagat.

We criticize and ridicule him because he doesn’t write well thought through stories or even grammatically correct sentences for that matter. His half-baked political stands in the newspapers and speeches at universities don’t deserve a lot of praise. And his pompous attitude which makes him write about himself in international publications doesn’t help my case either. What does help in establishing his supreme reign over the birth of new popular fiction is the fact that New York Times called him ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history’, in 2008. Time magazine followed suit and named him as ‘one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World’ in 2010.

Chetan Bhagat’s rise paved way for people like Ravi Subramanium who writes financial thrillers like ‘If God Was A Banker’; he bought a BMW from his first book’s royalties and the very next deal with Penguin fetched him Rs 1.25 crore for a two-book deal. It also gave hopes to people like Amish Tripathi who took to writing in a more serious manner once they saw the rise of the reading population in the country. Writers in the class of Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie and even Khushwant Singh benefitted from the graduation of readers from Hinglish to English to a deeper storytelling weaved in complex sentence structures- one book at a time.

Chetan Bhagat proved to be an aberration in the system; he created a dent large enough for writers to look beyond selling 1000 copies and carrying on with their jobs. His writing might never be as good as we wish it was, but his story of rising on the power of dreams is what fuels so many writers across the country to tell their stories and tell them better. We have found the originator of college love stories, it is time to find the Chetan Bhagats of thrillers, adventures, science fictions and celebrate them. We need to give them room to breathe, a chance to be read and then improve.

Chetan Bhagat is not our best bet at getting a Pulitzer or Man Booker prize home but, there is someone who deserves it and he won’t come to the light if we keep putting nascent authors down and assuming that their writing is mediocre. For every 10 copies of Chetan Bhagat’s books, there lies a completely new story waiting to be read. Look up works of Rohit Gore, Vikas Swarup and Ashwin Sanghi if you think Indian English writing is yet to mature.

The dejected writer probably broke his nib in frustration when he toiled through his life during the day and etched his best words at night. He knows he can write better. He knows he deserves to be read. He wants to be the next Khushwant Singh and not Chetan Bhagat. Give him a chance. Pick that copy up.

To know more about this story and what I think, follow me on Twitter at @mayank1029

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