Book Talk – Ten years on, Chetan Bhagat says better prepared to face critics

October 10, 2014

Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. If you’re in India, the chances are that there’s at least one of his novels on your bookshelf or one of his columns in the newspaper in front of you on the table. If you still haven’t escaped from him, there are tons of interviews lately like this one showing up in front of you.

Once dismissed as persona non grata by literary critics for being a non-writer, Chetan Bhagat is India’s bestselling author to date, according to his publisher.

Through his plain prose, the banker-turned-writer has touched India’s young people, who see echoes of their lives in his stories of campus life, call centres, cricket, entrepreneurship, communal violence, inter-caste marriage, and love.

Ten years on as a professional writer, Bhagat, 40, says he is better prepared to face criticism. “I can dispassionately talk about it. It cannot bother me enough to disrupt me. But in the initial stages there were real moments of doubt,” he told India Insight ahead of his latest book’s launch in Delhi.

“Half Girlfriend” is a novel about a timid, non-English speaking Bihari boy’s journey in a world dominated by “English types”, and who “half-romances” a rich Delhi girl.

Here are edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: So, it’s been 10 years since you started writing. Have you become a better writer?
A: Yes, I think I have improved as a person and I have improved as a writer. The flow of writing, technically, is much better than my first book. There’s a lot more confidence. As a person, I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve been writing so much or it’s because of age, I’ve just become more mature, calmer, less reactive and more in touch with yourself.

Q: And what are the areas in your writing that you think need improvement?
A: I just sometimes feel I lack discipline, in the sense that I get impatient in my writing. I just want to get it done.

Q: You have been criticised for writing something which is too simplistic and not considered serious literature or what a writer is expected to be. What does good writing mean to you?
A: I feel you have to reach people. You have to connect. And it has to be fun. But at the same time it should stand the test of time. Longevity decides.

Q: Do you think your books stand the test of time?
A: I cannot predict that. People still know “Five Point Someone”, which came 10 years ago. People still read it. People still allude to it. It wasn’t a quickie as people made it out to be that Chetan writes quickies. All the books have had some impact. Are they classics? No. But are they absolute read and throw variety? No. There are somewhere in the middle. That’s where I want to be. I want to reach people and have a little bit of impact. Until it connects how is it good writing?

Q: Your books are fairly easy to read, even for people who never read a book in their lives. What does it say about the ordinary reader and how bright they are?
A: They may be bright. They just may not be very proficient in their language. People mistake brightness with proficiency in English. English is a foreign language to us. There are vast portions of India, which doesn’t have that. So they may just want a simple book in English. For them simple English is good enough. But to equate brightness, which means being intelligent, with being (good in) English, that is where the snobbery and elitism begins. And that’s where I have an issue.

Q: Do you think the Indian middle class suffers from an inferiority complex?
A: Not just the middle class. The whole country suffers. I have seen it. Around this language, there is a lot of inferiority. There’s a line in the book. He says, “my English is not that good. I have a Bihari accent.” He says French people have French accent and it’s considered very sexy. So why is it? There’s an assumption of inferiority associated with the whole culture.

Q: Did you ever feel a sense of inferiority?
A: I think in my initial stages when my first few books came out, a lot of the literary community tried to dismiss me as somebody who is not serious or not a real writer. And you still find vestiges of that on Twitter. But there was a time…when there were up against (me). Because that was the culture of literature. Today, popular fiction is far more accepted. Popular fiction was not accepted when I started writing. It was not considered literature.

Q: How did you deal with the criticism? Did it affect your self-confidence?
A: That’s where I feel in 10 years I have changed. I have become much better at handling it. I can dispassionately talk about it. It cannot bother me enough to disrupt me. But in the initial stages there were real moments of doubt. Maybe I write very badly. I don’t know. Do I write really awfully? Why are so many people criticizing it?

Q: Did you ever think of quitting?
A: I thought maybe I don’t have it. Maybe it was luck. Maybe it was a fluke. But after three, four books I thought that’s not true.

Q: So, what exactly was that that pulled you back?
A: I thought let me see how long I can take this through. Let me write one more book. If it was the first book, it was a fluke. Let me write two. And if the second one … and (if someone is) saying he is not a good writer. Let me see if that is the case. But that hasn’t happened. Ten years on and there’s still excitement.

Q: Which was that book that established you as India’s bestselling author?
A: Third book. “The 3 Mistakes of My Life” in 2008. That’s when the New York Times wrote that (I am) the biggest selling author (in India).

Q: What about Indian or India-origin authors? What do they say about your writing when you meet them?
A: They don’t say anything about my writing. They will not tell me anything. These things are best said through Twitter accounts, anonymous Twitter accounts. I am not friends with too many of them. When they meet me, they say, “wow you are creating a lot of buzz. Congrats. Your book did really well. And everybody is talking about you.” Some do say, “Because of you I got my book published. Because you opened the gates for a lot of new writers.”

Q: People tend to make this distinction between popular literature and literature that is written for western countries and that may be chasing awards. How do you see your writing placed in that context? Is there an “us” versus “them” dichotomy?
A: They are doing something different. I am writing to reach Indians. Now if it fits into the Booker Prize. It’s fine. If it doesn’t fit, then what can I do about it?

Q: How is your writing different from, say, a Jhumpa Lahiri, a Neel Mukherjee or a Jeet Thayil?
A: I think we are writing for different people. We may be writing about the same things, which is India. And we may all be Indian. But I think they are writing for a different audience. I am writing for a different audience. People say they are very good writers. Much better than me. So maybe that is the case. I don’t know.

Q: Have you read them?
A. I have read them. I have read Jhumpa Lahiri’s books. I liked them, enjoyed them. It’s less plot-driven. It’s more introspection. It’s interesting. It’s a different way of writing. I just considered it different. Like there are different TV channels. You have different books.

Q: Do you imagine yourself writing in that genre?
A: I cannot. I can’t, even if I want to.

Q: Why is that?
A: Because it’s like the DNA. It’s like your face, your writing. I don’t think you can alter it too much. I don’t want to. Why would I? I enjoy doing it. People love it. Is there a certain need? Am I supposed to feel inadequate somehow after doing so much? I don’t feel the need at all. It’s not a competition with other writers for me. Ever. It never has been. I have to wean the young kids away from YouTube, from WhatsApp, from Candy Crush and make them read my book.

Q: We have an India-origin author once again in the race for the Booker Prize. Have you read Neel Mukherjee?
A: No, I am dying to read it. Listen, these are brilliant authors. I write for very different reasons. I want every Indian to pick up an English book. Every slum girl or kid to pick up an English book. And for that I have to write a certain kind of a book.

Q: Do you ever think of broadening your horizon from your current purpose which is to make every Indian read a book?
A:  It’s a billion people. It’s a pretty broad horizon.

chetanbhagatQ: I felt that your new book reads like a quick Bollywood film script. Did you intentionally write in that way?
A. It’s a love story. Love stories, you know, render themselves very well for movies.
But … I have written on Godhra riots or what young India wants. This was more cinematic, yes.

Q: Your main character, Madhav Jha …
A: Oh, you’ve read it?

Q: Yes. He’s a Bihari, who can’t talk in English. What is your perception of Bihar?
A: I found it to be a state which … has very smart, passionate and aware people. But not English speaking. But they are otherwise very astute people and very driven and very ambitious. They want to do civil services. But I think somewhere the state government has let that place down a lot. They’ve not been lucky.

Q: Is it the face of backwardness of India?
A: Unfortunately, that is the stereotype. But now it’s changing in the last five, ten years. But yes, it carries lots of baggage. There is a stigma about not speaking English. There is a double stigma of being a Bihari.

Q: And you think that your book reinforces some of those stereotypes?
A: No, I think it needs to…in the beginning. There will be some characters with those stereotypes. But by the end of the book, I don’t think you feel that way. The guy has become a global citizen.

Q: But Patna has seen a lot of development, of late. We don’t see that side of the city in your book.
A: It has not changed that much frankly. Go to Patna and go to other state capitals. It is very different.

Q: I think that your lead actor, Jha, is as much of an underdog as probably you were when you started out as a writer…
A: He’s more exaggerated, but yes.

Q: Is it?
A: Yeah. This is more direct… the English types versus the non-English types book.

Q: What do you need to become a writer in India, apart from the fact that you have a storyline, that you can write well?
A: You need the discipline to write the entire book. You need to know how to connect with readers. You need to have a good style of writing, which is enjoyable to read and you need to know marketing.

Q: Would you have survived without a huge marketing campaign?
A: There has not been a huge campaign actually. It’s just that I am good at marketing. I have never spent one rupee on an ad. Today the reach is so much that Flipkart wants to come on board. Moviemakers want to come on board. I have not done that campaign. We are good at marketing, but at the same time there is no huge campaign. People in social media are talking about it. That’s the hype.

Q: That’s campaign enough …
A: But we don’t do that campaign. We announce it and it gets picked up. So the campaign size is not big, the impact is big.

Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: In life?

Q: As a writer.
A: Should have started a little earlier.

Q: Is there anything that you have not written about and want to write?
A: I want to write in a female first person. Like a women’s point of view story.

Q: Would that be your next book?
A: I don’t know. It’s very difficult to do. I am not sure if I am ready. I have tried in this book. There are some journals of the girl. But full book is different.

Q: Who are your favourite authors?
A: Too many. Hemingway, Dickens, George Orwell. Anybody who’s written simple books. They had a big profound impact. Those are my inspirations.

Q: And who did you vote for in the general elections?
A: Like I am going to tell you!

Q: Which political party do you like or dislike?
A:  I don’t favour a party. I favour actions. I favour people who do good work and if tomorrow they’ll do bad work I’ll criticize them. My independence is my biggest strength. I did vote for someone. If I tell you it’ll come across as if I am supporting someone.

Q: You’ve met Prime Minister Modi more than once. Has he commented on your books?
A: He knows my columns. I don’t think he’s read books. On columns…once he said, “India needs more people like you.”

Q: What do you think he means to the country?
A: Today, he’s a symbol of hope, you know. He’s a very big symbol of hope. That’s the only hope for a lot of people. There’s a lot of expectations and hope from him. Let’s see now whether he delivers.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Ankush Arora on Twitter @Ankush_patrakar and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

One comment

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Good interview. Answers are inspiring.I’ve published my first fiction”Where Love Begins Vibhavari” from Balboa press.I published my poetry book “Shaswat”( 105 poems)from Create space. My nonfiction book “You Can Know Your Psyche” was published from
When I wrote my first fiction, my relatives criticized me and I thought to stop writing. But reading the above interview I’m really feeling that I’m not the first person who get betrayed.
Thank you . God Bless you.

Posted by Yashodhara | Report as abusive