The Chetan Bhagat Effect

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Bhagat at the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival

As I noted in my first blog post, Chetan Bhagat stands as a massive figure in the field of what counts as Indian writing today. Crowned as the most widely read Indian author in history for his 2004 novel Five Point Someone and 2005 One Night @ the Call Center, Bhagat rapidly became a cultural force— Time Magazine listed him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, along with Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, and Lady Gaga. His novels have had the rare (and immensely profitable) distinction of translating to the Bollywood screen. In fact, the movie based  on his first novel, 3 Idiots, became the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time, starring the some of the most sought-after stars, Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor. His most recent effort, One Indian Girl shattered the numbers on Amazon for pre-orders and was far and away the bestseller of 2016.

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I’m less interested here in Bhagat the writer than I am what he represents as a kind of figurehead for a wave of popular Indian writers in English who have enjoyed enormous market success. And even further, for how they have been exalted as spokespeople for the “new India.” Despite Bhagat’s popularity and domination of the market, what’s interesting is that it has only been recently that he—and others—have been recognized as deserving critical attention from academics who study Indian literature.My faculty colleagues here in India have been quick to tell me that there’s been a recent flood of PhD dissertations on Bhagat’s work.

Nonetheless, up to this point Bhagat’s work has been recognized as many powerful things, but not quite literature. From the beginning, Bhagat’s writing has been dismissed for its lack of literary qualities. One of the very first reviews from Business Standard Magazine, for instance, tempered its praise of Bhagat’s popularity with this rejoinder: “I think he’s a crappy writer but I also think he’s a less crappy writer than Sidney Sheldon or Jacqueline Suzanne to name a couple of crappy best “sellerites” of previous generations.” Similarly, Bhagat’s appearance at the prestigious Jaipur Literary festival in 2009 and 2010 sparked animated discussions in the press and the blogosphere about whether or not he deserved to be at a “literary festival.” And I should note that in 2009 he garnered the second largest crowd at the festival, only behind the iconic Amitabh Bhacchan, India’s equivalent of Elvis, who made an unannounced appearance.

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Amitabh at the 2009 Jaipur Literature Festival 

Whether or not this writing counts as literature is not a particularly valuable distinction, unless of course you care about the category of “literature” and want to somehow define, preserve, and police it. The English (as in from England) literary critic Terry Eagleton famously explained in answering the question “What is Literature?”: “One can think of literature less as some inherent quality or set of qualities displayed by certain kinds of writing… than as a number of ways in which people relate themselves to writing” (Literary Theory 8).

The minute you call a piece of writing literature you are expressing what you and others think is valuable about writing. And, by extension, you are defining what is NOT literature. This becomes important because literature is what is supposed to matter; the rest is just writing. The stakes get raised even higher when talking about popular writing because then the people themselves, the readers, become defined as well. To call something literature is not only to describe a text, but to describe to some extent the readers, or the public, of that text.

On the whole, we tend not to be very honest about this fact. Most of the time the value of any given work is usually seen as residing in the work itself. Shakespeare plays are not taught and honored simply because people like them, but because there’s something that is deemed inherently valuable in the text. We can same the same of any representation we call “art.” Art doesn’t often attempt to define its audience. In many ways it aspires to transcend it, which is the very stuff of alienation. Similarly, the “literary” defines itself against the crassly formulaic, overly provincial, and predictable conventions and tastes of its popular audiences. You might say, then, that the world of literature and art has done a fair bit of damage in alienating a lot of those who don’t speak its language or share its tastes. Think of it as a kind of enforced distance.

The Marketing of the “Unliterary” 

It is precisely this distance that popular Indian writing and the reading industry have exploited and made their moniker. In the widening corpus of critical commentary about not only Bhagat but also other popular Indian novelists in English like Ravi Subramanian, Amish Tripathi, or Ira Trivedi, what appears again and again is how these authors both understand and serve their readers. In what is clearly a marketing ploy Bhagat has embraced the popular character of his novels and aggressively presented them as an unliterary alternative to the usual players in Indian Anglophone literature.

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Published by a Kolkata-based outfit that specializes in mass-market texts—cookbooks, folklore, and management—Bhagat’s novels were priced at an affordable 95 rupees—about a third of the price of most novels—and arranged for them to be displayed at bazaars and train stations, rather than exclusively at bookstores. As Bhagat explained in one interview, “”We don’t have bookshops in every town, we have supermarkets. I want my books next to jeans and bread. I want my country to read me” (Ramesh). In still another he stated, “I always had a problem with how writing that paraded as ‘Indian’ literature was only read by a few thousand people in big cities. The rest of the country never got a chance to flip through it. My biggest achievement is that at Rs 95, I have managed to make India read again.” In this way Bhagat has seized upon the most positive definition of the popular that early Birmingham Cultural Studies practitioners described, as meaning not only “of the people” but also producing a collectivity that is “the people.” Bhagat claims ordinary people as his own, allying himself and his novels with the everyday Indian that just wants to read. Here’s what he said about his writing and “literary culture” to the Wall Street Journal in 2012:

“The core messages are simple. Those looking for a literary challenge feel disappointed. I’m mature enough that I now accept that. But they have different expectations: Some people do art for aesthetics, and maybe I’m lacking in that. Some do art for impact, and I measure success by impact. I wrote a story when I was still a banker at Goldman Sachs that has become the best-selling book in India and has become a big movie in India. It’s not highbrow. Literary culture is very snobbish. I’m happy at being in economy class with a big audience, and not be in first class.”

The problem of alienation, at least according to Bhagat, is Literature. Bhagat’s publisher, Kapish Mehra, expresses as much in unselfconsciously stating, “He is not a literary writer, But, more importantly, he is a successful and popular writer.” . And apparently not a scary one. In this defiance, we can see that being literary is not only bad business, but to be Literary, reproduces exactly the kind of alienation I mention earlier.

To be fair, there is some merit to the critique here. Literature is not, and I would argue, has never been inclusive, because, literature has been a category used to sustain the exclusive social realm of what post-Frankfurt School theorist Peter Burger once called the “art industry” of galleries, museums, and universities. In so many words, Bhagat is saying that Literature produces elites, as much as elites produce literature. Bhagat therefore, just might be excluded from the club of Literature because he doesn’t want to be a member. And he is not alone in this.

At this year’s Jaipur Literary Festival, best-selling crime novelist Ashwin Sanghi proudly declared, ““I’m a storyteller, not a writer” and that “Crime writing is more of a craft than an art” where writing is a job rather than a romantic calling, a formula rather than creative endeavor. The discourse surrounding this distinction between writer and storyteller, and novels as the result of craft rather than art, is that these texts are not simply read widely, but that they have captured a more authentic national experience than literature does.

Even further, they claim to have democratized reading. They purport to know India’s readers and are giving them what they want. Reading becomes solely defined as consumption, rather than a kind of creative, reflective, intellectual, or even spiritual engagement. Penguin India’s Metro Reads imprint says as much in advertising books that “don’t weigh you down with complicated stories” and “don’t ask for much time.”

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CEO of Penguin India

Of course, there is a limit to Bhagat and others’ critique of literary elitism. The text of Sanghi and the rest may be popular, but as Anglophone authors writing for the people, their writing still only reaches a fraction of the population. Remember, only 5-10% of the Indian population is conversant in English. But like the most literary of his counterparts, Bhagat unapologetically embraces English as the language of authority. The popular writing may be of the people, but this population is clearly middle-class and powerful.

Novelist as National Guru

We see this most clearly in the way that Bhagat has emerged as a kind of cultural sage as a regular columnist for the Times of India, a motivational speaker, and a voice that politicians are listening to because of his apparent hold on popular culture. His garishly titled essay collections What Young India Wants (2012) and Making India Awesome (2015) highlight the unbridled arrogance of Bhagat’s position as a spokesperson for India’s urban, educated, globally connected elite masquerading as a man of the people.

There’s much I could say about the (thin) content of his columns. Suffice it to say that they are mainly vapid ruminations and a garbage salad of vague truisms about success and justice, ahistorical ejaculations about great cultures and education, policy proscriptions pulled straight from the playbook of right-wing free-market ideology, and facile milquetoasty nationalist chest thumping. As an example, one of his most recent pieces chastised Delhi University students for not having enough schoolwork to do and trying to be cool in their protests against violence and intimidation from right-wing nationalists. 

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Bhagat and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a discussion on job creation

Yet Bhagat is not alone is his position as a celebrity novelist-cum-culture-guru. Bollywood actress turned novelist, Twinkle Khanna, holds a similar status as “Mrs. Funnybones” in regularly publishing vignettes for the Times of India about love, parenting, family, shopping, and the wacky antics of well-heeled Indian suburban life. They repeatedly speak of “Indian life” but are clearly only speaking of, about, and for, a fraction of Indians.

We can begin to see then that the “people” being claimed is only popular in terms of market share, not population, making it in the end not popular at all, but rather the realm of a particular social class. But to normalize the everyday reader this way is of course to mystify its ideological import and its own elitist position. Upcoming blog posts will delve a bit further into the fiction itself and how it represents and dramatize this perspective. For now, suffice it to say that the dreams of the new India in these novels are the dreams of those Indians with the class privileges of access and opportunity. It claims the popular as means to critique the cultural elite, but merely reproduces its own exclusive cultural, economic, and ideological world.


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