Indian F(r)iction Part 1 – Chetan Bhagat Times

So the other day someone said:

“The timeline of the history of Indian Fiction can be divided into two: Before Chetan Bhagat and After Chetan Bhagat”.

Quite a statement to make, considering the fact that the only other major figure in history who had enough clout to split the timeline of anything was Jesus Christ. But yes, it is true to an extent.

Yesterday was the hallowed day renowned bubblegum-fiction-writer-cum-socio-political-commentator Chetan Bhagat (CB) blocked me on Twitter. Not getting into details about that, but I just thought that it might be just apt that I write something about ‘India’s most widely read new age author’. Now, this post is not going to be exactly about the man or his blocking, but a story on the impact of CB novels on ‘New Age Indian Fiction’. Or more precisely, How CB and his set of ‘bubblegum novels‘ changed the landscape of Indian fiction writing, in two parts.

Traditional Indian English literature is rich. We had our Naipauls, Seths, Rushdies, Khushwant Singhs and Arundhati Roys. But Chetan Bhagat has achieved something all these highly named authors were not able to: He got today’s mall-going, beer-drinking, so-called traditional-Indian-values-breaking, ‘future-of-the-world’ I-don’t-give-a-shit yuppy young Indians to buy paperback novels (pirated ones, no less) and yes, READ them! No mean feat, I say!

Really. It’s not that hard.

Chetan Bhagat’s works are no masterpieces of literary fiction. Not even close. Sorry if I sound like Kotler, but his books are, like him, well packaged products designed specifically to cater to a targeted consumer segment. This ‘segment’ being the misinformed ‘young India’ I had mentioned above. They constitute the hordes of fans, ‘readers’ who might have not even heard of Khushwant Singh or Jhumpa Lahiri worshiping CB as if he was the one who invented writing in India and for some reason is nowadays considered to be the cure to everything that ails India.  There is a running joke stating if someone says: “Chetan Bhagat books are the best ones I have ever read” they mean to say: “I haven’t read anything else”!

The guy is an IIM graduate and he knows his marketing and his market and he caters specifically to it. While in Hong Kong, he must have realized that there is a gap in the market: There are plenty of Sydney Sheldons and Mills and Boons to read for millions of  young Indians – kids of the new economy – but there is no viable Indian alternative! And where there is a gap, it has to be filled. And boy, did it get filled!

Typical Indian English novels are heavy and hard on the eyes, brain and arms, and usually deal with overly serious subjects. Readers of these books were typical bookworms, viewed as nerds and geeks by the ‘cooler’ community. Now there comes a refreshing type of novel: Comparatively short, written in easy-to-read language, about everyday life and problems of today’s (young) people who could be me or you. And has all the ‘cool’ and masala stuff thrown in good measures – coffee shops, malls, misery, alcohol, sex, poverty and so on. Sure, his books do contain stuff that would sound ridiculous and sometimes defies logic (calls from God?), lack any flow, are irritatingly over-melodramatic, sometimes feel like a movie script and are shoddily written in some parts. But as I said before, target market. They don’t know and don’t care.

Dont believe the cover as well

‘Five Point Someone: What not to do at IIT’ by Chetan Bhagat came out in 2004, and was an instant hit. I was in my first year of MBA, (Albeit the MBA of a lesser God – the glamorless non-IIM type churned out of second grade B-Schools – who have no choice but become sales managers for insurance/NBFI and telecom companies) and the book was all the rage in my campus. I bought 3 copies (yes, all original – from Landmark) and all were stolen. It connected to an entire generation of young Indians and suddenly, reading was cool again. He wrote about his own experiences, (with some imagination thrown in, I guess) the guy has today acquired teen-cult status. Just saying: Some other teen-cult status figures include Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.

The success of his book started a new phenomenon. Suddenly, many Indians, ‘inspired’ by CB, recognizing that there is more demand in the market for bubblegum fiction and realizing that they too can jump on the bandwagon, suddenly discovered inherently hidden literary talents within them and there came a deluge of (horribly mediocre, save a few) literary works of all hues by new generation, aspiring young Indian writers, resulting in a literary boom.

Most of these works take off on the same irritatingly repetitive templates:

1. IIT/IIM guys having a whale of a time drinking, scoring, smoking up, being ‘cool’ by not studying, being general losers but getting the girl in the end.

2. Douchebags (mostly girls) spending their time and money lavishly eating, shopping, partying, drinking, scoring and smoking up, cursing their ‘underpaying’ jobs and bosses, painting a woeful picture of their ‘drab’ lives.

Common to both templates: Falling in Love, managing multiple partners, having sex, going through breakups and so on.

And most of them did/are doing quite well too. Really.

How? Why? Is this what ‘young India’ wants to read?

Yes. Unfortunately. If numbers and popularity are to be believed.

Read more in part 2. Here

Disclaimer: I know am no one to judge anyone’s hard work. I appreciate the effort authors put in towards bringing out their works. Please view this as a work of criticism, and not as anything personal or abusive. I don’t hold any grudges or something like that towards anyone. Also, please don’t sue me. I don’t have any money.

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  • Kd

    That’s a good post. Loved the line, ‘the fact that the only other major figure in history who had enough clout to split the timeline of anything was Jesus Christ.’

    Keep Writing.

    • Thank you! Somehow that statement came automatically. Maybe CBag will start a religion some day. NOT! :)

  • Well written. There’s truth in it & no one can deny it.

  • agentsJ

    Nicely put, Mr. Vadakkus. CB has indeed taken advantage of the head-turning effect caused by his so called bubblegum fiction.
    Waiting for part 2.

    • Thank you :) Part 2 is on its way

  • You have hit the nail on the head. Won’t be surprised if the new generation will be referred to as chetan-bhagat-books generation. Also no denying that the guy has made people read. The fact that many ‘IIM novelists’ surfaced after the success of CB is evidence enough of his success. And sad. Cause reading C-Bag novel is in no way ‘reading’. It’s more of a smoking weed for time-being pleasure. Doesn’t have the lasting effect.
    Very well written. Kudos.

    • Haha ‘The lost C-Bag generation!’

      The weed comment was very apt. Coz you get a headache!

      Thanks for the comments! :)

  • Titto Antony

    A Clean one on CB. Nicely Criticized. :)

  • I cant imagine a really wonderful work by Samit Basu, The Game World Trilogy dint become a massive hit like this one. So sad.
    But I must admit that I loved 5.someone and even 1 night @ call centre call-from-God part. It was uncanny and fresh….
    But his works are not the Best Indian literature.
    Well reviewd post. ‘I dont have money’ part was nice :)

    • Will try it out. Hehe. I have to state it as it is :) Thank you!

  • Nice work man, very well written!!

  • Anonymous

    I do agree ,well said …Keep it up dear friend !!

  • blocked u? Nice … and good post!!!

    . But the every book has its readers. CB’s book was a hit coz all college goers incl myself had something to relate to. But his views on thE national daily is all crap!

    • Yeah, blocked! Thank you. Going through your ‘crapbook’ now. Nice! Couldnt agree more with your views on his columns.

  • Pingback: Indian F(r)iction Part 2 – I Can Haz Bubblegum! « Banana Corporation, Inc.()

  • I have read so many things about him from others without reading a single work of his.
    You have written an informative observation. We can only hope he goes into oblivion or start speaking snsefull things knowing that he has huge appeal to a dumber section of youth

    • ‘dumber section’ is right. And not just the youth! You should read some of his works, as well as his wannabes.

  • Wow. I love your take on this. Its true, a lot of India is turning to Chetan Bhagat simply because he’s simple, and can mention sex and drugs, and writes about topics that touch their day-to-day lives. Not because he’s a literary pinnacle of any type.

    P.s. – I love Randy Ingermason (author of “Writing Fiction for Dummies” that you posted a picture to) – one of the best online guides of how to write clearly, plot well, and end up with a coherent novel.

    Going over to the next one now.

  • S

    Jus wondering – while I do agree that CB has been riding high on the stupidity of the Indian elite, may be, it doesn’t matter. I mean, isn’t CB what they deserve? I find it amusing that you should be perturbed enough by it to be making a statement at all. However, its a nice read – I hope your friends and colleagues are reading this. And indeed, the self-reflexivity tempts me to ask : do you wallow in self-loathing? ;-)

    • CB might be what they deserve, but maybe the book reading Indian public deserves better. As far as my readership is concerned, well, there aren’t many readers for my blog :) However, I am immensely thankful to those who do read it, though :)
      How can self-reflexivity be an indicator to self loathing? But you are right.

      • S

        :)
        Certain varieties of self-reflexivity are indicators of self-loathing. My master is Dostoevsky on that one.

  • i would appreciate your comments on my blog post about chetan bhagat
    http://getupdated.in/?p=581

    search chetan bhagat on the blog , i hope you write something on atleast one of them

  • Pingback: The Chetan Bhagat Conundrum « Banana Corporation, Inc.()

  • Pingback: Revolution 2020 by Chetan Bhagat. The Review. | The Banana Corporation, Inc.()

  • rkguru

    Completely agree with you – my only regret is you have left out RKNarayan – one of india’s greatest fiction writer and an author whose humor and simple writing will never be replicated.

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