I recently found my copy of Chetan Bhagat’s first novel, “5 Point Someone”, at my house. It was comfortably tucked between “The Hungry Tide” by Amitav Ghosh and “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry, and the sight caused me slight discomfort. Why? Because since my childhood, I have grown up hearing about what kinds of books ‘intelligent people’ should read and what they should avoid. Be it through conversations with friends, the school librarian, or the Internet – I realised that I have grown up being a snob about reading. This is also the reason I find it difficult to digest how Bhagat has become a literary giant over the 10 years that his books have been published and read by millions in India.
He has captured the Indian imagination in an unimaginable way, and as much as I hesitate to admit it, he has captured mine as well. This hesitance is also a way of defending my “intelligence”, without admitting that he continues to intrigue me and that I have bought most of his books and read them cover to cover. And after 10 years of constantly criticising him, I have only now started confronting what really makes me queasy about his success: he exposes my snobbishness and privilege as a reader.
Hear me out.
When I scoffed at “5 Point Someone” and “One Night At A Call Center” being priced at only ₹99, I completely overlooked my privilege of growing up in a house full of books and that of being able to afford books that cost more. Without thinking, I even put a price to the joy of reading. Did my access to books make me think that I am better than the lakhs of others who don’t? Over the years, I have realised that snobbishness comes easy with the privilege of reading, but it’s so important to keep it in check.
Bhagat’s books and his rise to fame have also forced me to rethink my definition of reading and being a reader. I used to read a lot, and over time, I stopped. I started getting intimidated by the size of the book and the size of the print, something that I’d never even thought of before. I read a few books last year, including parts of Bhagat’s “One Indian Girl”, but I didn’t count most of it as “reading”. I probed deeper to understand that my definition of reading has always been so influenced by what I have grown up learning, and so narrow, rigid and not inclusive – where reading a Marquez calls for appreciation, but reading a Bhagat justifies being made fun of.
And boy, I do know how snobbish readers like me love making fun of Bhagat. We wait for when his next book will release so we can decimate it. Heck, last year, a critic even called his latest a ‘dildo’. It’s like making fun of Bhagat is a testament to our intelligence as readers. We spend hours trying to come up with the best and most hilarious ways to take him on, while thousands are buying his books across bookstores, not giving a fuck about what we think or say. And here’s the thing – they never will.
By this, I don’t mean to say that the problems in Bhagat’s books should not be called out. Of course, they should be. I personally have a problem with his ideas about feminism, stereotyping his characters, and the sexist language he has used in the past, apart from many other things. What I am saying is that it’s important to also confront where we’re directing our angst – because it’s often possible that our criticism goes beyond just Bhagat, and ends up making fun of the thousands who relate with his books. I have realised I am not one to tell them that it’s not “real literature” they’re reading.
Writing this piece takes me back to what a fellow intern at an NGO told me while reading “3 Mistakes Of My Life”: “I don’t want all this heavy literature, man! I am just happy that I am even reading a book.” She taught me something that makes so much more sense now: just because someone isn’t reading the book you are, it doesn’t mean they aren’t reading at all. I have been a snobbish reader and I am not proud of it. But it’s important for me to call myself out, and if it took 10 years and Chetan Bhagat to do that, then great, so be it!
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