By Rohini Banerjee:
Halfway into “One Indian Girl”, Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, the male protagonist asks the female protagonist whether she’s read Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth”. “A landmark feminist book,” he (rightfully) calls it, “It talks about how women are culturally bullied into feeling conscious about their looks all the time.”
In that moment, you are caught by surprise, almost lulled into thinking that hey, Bhagat might not be entirely full of shit after all. But the moment is over way too quickly because almost in the very next instance, the female protagonist Radhika Mehta (a self-proclaimed feminist, by the way), gets distracted by said male protagonist’s ‘sex appeal’ and focuses on wanting to have sex with him instead. And that, my friends, is a cruel but accurate metaphor for the whole book.
Bhagat throws at us every prototype of the Strong Independent Woman – but none of these are fleshed out, and none of these are actually strong or independent at all. Our protagonist Radhika is a distressed debt analyst at Goldman Sachs, earns fat paychecks, is an achiever both academically and professionally, and is doing remarkably well for herself. But alas (as these things go), she’s unlucky in love.
And yes, she’s a feminist but she routinely judges and compares herself to other women. Yes, she’s a feminist but compares the pain she undergoes while waxing to the ‘lashes’ women in Saudi Arabia are subjected to (I kid you not). Yes, she’s a feminist but she thinks that a woman who fantasizes about kissing is a “super-slut” (oh, and the word ‘slut’ is thrown around too often, too casually for comfort). Yes, she’s a feminist but believes and buys into the patriarchal ‘Good Indian Girl’ stereotype. Yes, she’s a feminist but she constantly seeks male approval and validation and… I can go on and on.
Good old Bhagat tries to throw a bunch of women’s issues at us and effectively tries to mansplain them. While on the surface, he does ask some potentially important questions — on patriarchal policing within the family, gender inequalities at the workplace, male egos that cannot handle female success — the solutions he offers are entirely his own bizarre concoctions, lacking any actual nuance or understanding of these issues. Our Radhika slams sexism at work but continues to moon over a guy who broke up with her because she earned more than him. In fact, she is even ready to give up her job and fat paycheck just so that said douchebag guy takes her back and loves her again. She makes it a habit of switching cities (and countries even) every time she has a bad breakup —because apparently the world collapses once a sexist douche canoe (who actually has no respect for you) dumps you. Who knew?
All of this, though dressed in the garb of feminism, ultimately ends up being detrimental to the feminist cause. Much like when Radhika passes over a discussion on Naomi Wolf in favour of sexytimes with a ‘hero’ who can at best be described as a pseudo-intellectual man-child.
But the scene which truly encapsulates just how deeply flawed Mr. Bhagat’s idea of feminism is, is the following exchange between our heroine and her would-be husband:
“You haven’t heard the word ‘feminist’?”
“Of course I have. I sort of know what it is. Equal rights for women, right? Is that the definition?”
“Feminism is a movement which seeks to define, establish and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal and social rights for women. A feminist is someone who believes in this movement.”
“Wow”, he said.
If only he’d stopped at ‘wow’. But guess what he follows this up with?
“I think all human beings should have equal rights. It’s not men versus women, it’s human versus human. Feminist is a wrong term. It should be humanist. The right question is ‘Are you a humanist’? Well, everyone should be.”
One would think our strong, feminist Radhika would refute him, would call him out on his absolute ignorance and misplaced ideology, but guess what she does? She agrees with him.
Is this what Bhagat wants Indian women to do as well? To agree with him, to accept his definition of feminism and hail him as ‘progressive’ just because he has ‘represented’ a female voice and talked about women’s issues (from his very male perspective). But here’s the problem: Bhagat is telling an entire generation of Indian readers that a woman who’s successful still cares the most about male validation; that for her, professional success and marital bliss are still mutually exclusive; that she can feel beautiful only by comparing herself to other women. Oh, and most importantly, that ‘feminism’ should be renamed ‘humanism’.
Well, we still can’t ignore that Bhagat is one of India’s highest-selling novelists and has tremendous influence. And now, due to “One Indian Girl”, countless readers will be exposed to this thoroughly warped version of feminism and will go along with it. In a country like India, where rape culture, the gender pay gap, moral policing, fat-shaming and various other kinds of oppression is rampant in the most horrific of ways, we need feminism more than anything else, and this One Indian Mansplainer is making things worse by painting it in the most dangerous light.
Hope you enjoyed reading this review! While this writer has her own view, here’s another piece that talks about why Chetan Bhagat’s books could actually boost aspiring writers. What’s your opinion on Chetan Bhagat’s rise in the Indian writing landscape? Share it on Youth Ki Awaaz.