The Chetan Bhagat Conundrum

Yesterday, India’s uncrowned king of bubblegum literature, Chetan Bhagat, decided to celebrate Father’s Day by recycling an old locker room joke about child custody and a Coke vending machine. Minutes after the tweet was published, all hell broke loose and a shitstorm of outrage ensued on Twitter with all kinds of people, trolls, bots and even taslimanasreen coming out of the woodwork to ensure that he gets his due for the susceptible atrocity he had just committed on humankind. He deleted the original tweet, but here is a screenshot that Jairaj P had thoughtfully saved:

Later, as the twitter community ripped him apart, he apologized and requested everyone to move on (And deleted all of yesterday’s tweets, including the apology). Now, all this just proves again what had been proved time and time again: We Indians have zero humor sense. We just cannot take a joke. We outrage to any piece of satire as we are taught not to break out of our straitjacketed sense of entitlement and stiffer-than-British upper lips to sit back and smile. We take it as our bestowed-on-by-heaven cultural duty to rush to save and protect the honor of those destroyed by random wisecracks even though we might not turn to look at someone lying on the road bleeding to death after a traffic accident. The outrage mentality is more pronounced if a joke is made on religion, caste, community, women and other such ‘sensitive’ issues. But if you are any well known person you will be in the dock no matter what the joke is, even if it is a popular one and you just recycled it. People like Shashi Tharoor have learned this the hard way with his “Cattle Class” joke, and others like a well known journalist couple are almost permanently at the receiving end. Ever wondered by we Indians are nowhere among the world’s coolest people?

Make no mistake, I have no love lost for the man and would consider the troll attacks he endured some sort of divine justice or things coming full circle. Chetan Bhagat is notorious for not taking kindly to people who disagree with him or criticize him. He outrightly blocks anyone who dares say something he doesn’t like, yours truly included, and #Chetanblocks has become a staple meme of the Indian internet scene). I would just say he got a taste of his own medicine and rightly so. Intolerance works both ways and we Indians have tolerance that match our humor sense, especially so on anonymous public forums where spewing venom at anything and everything is almost fashionable. And Chetan Bhagat is no stranger to that with plenty of “not so subtle” tweets and statements to his credit, and his tiffs with Gul Panag and a journalist named Priya Ramani (Mint) are well known. Yes, he can speak his mind, but he has a greater responsibility. A person like him should grow up and be open a little more about tolerance and stuff since he is worshipped as a role model by a large mass of pubescent and impressionable young Indians and his tweets have a profound influence on the 400,000 followers he has.

How to make a politically correct joke

As my friend Jahangeer Paleri rightly pointed out,

So what is the problem here? I would say: The wording, not the content. If you are all going all out to compare women to vending machines, you are asking for it. It is crass to compare those who gave birth to all that is there on earth to a machine which dispenses consumable carbonated sugar water on insertion of round metal objects. We have a saying in Malayalam: “The father is just a concept, the Mother is the only reality. Your father is only whoever your mother says is your father.” (“പിതാവ് എന്നത് ഒരു സങ്കല്‍പം മാത്രം, മാതാവ് മാത്രം ആണ് സത്യം. മാതാവ് ആരെ ചൂണ്ടി കാണിക്കുന്നോ, അയാള്‍ ആണ് പിതാവ്”) Before outraging, think about it for a minute.

Now, this joke was not invented by him. But it is rather quite an old one, the original version is here. (Quoted below) (It is not mine, I disown any ownership, it is put here only for illustration purposes)

A man and his wife are in court getting a divorce. The problem was who should get custody of the child. The wife jumped up and said: “Your Honour, I brought the child into the world with pain and labour. She should be in my custody”. The judge turns to the husband and says “What do you have to say in your defence?” The man sat for a while contemplating. Then slowly rose. “Your Honour, if I put a dollar in a vending machine and a Coke comes out, Whose Coke is it, the machines’ or mine?”

So what is the difference between Bhagat’s joke and the original one? Bhagat’s was close-ended, outright, direct, final, certain. The original one is open-ended, situational, indirect, questioned and leaves room for interpretation. T, maybe even a Red Herring. Articulation is what makes the difference, in my opinion. And things like this is what is missing from Bhagat’s writing as well. Living in India and being a “celebrated” writer and with people ready to jump on him for the smallest mistake he might commit, he should have known all this.

Still, however it be worded, there are jokes that can be cracked in public and those which should not be, especially in India. But if you are hell bent on making jokes that you know will invite backlash like the one in question or say, a racist one, you should make efforts to make it as innocuous as possible (Making jokes on politicians seems to be still acceptable). However, it did not stop there.

What I found more disturbing is this tweet of his. (My Retweet, he deleted this one too)

What would the poor teachers who taught this guy English feel now? Yes, grammar does matter! I think now what Mr. A. Sathyanaranayan said is absolutely right:

Chetan Bhagat has skills; he portrays emotions, he tells a tale, but he writes like a jerk. It is almost like a Punjabi writing in English; his idioms are home-bred. Being charitable enough, I am not even referring to grammatical errors, this man needs to go to a writing school.

If you would want to counter my argument saying how he has millions of readers and all, I have no answer. It is just deplorable. What comes to my mind here: In the epic Malayalam comedy film “Mazhapeyyunnu Maddalam Kottunnu, when accused that he does not know even the basics of English grammar, the uneducated driver Shambhu (played by Mohanlal) loudly retorts: “Americayil grammar illede!” (“There is no grammar in America!”). Maybe he was right?

Finishing, as a well wisher (Yes, he has made tens of thousands of lazy Indian youth to buy books and read, and as I had said before, no small achievement that.) I have some advice for Mr. Bhagat:

1. Self-promotion is a bitch. People hate it. (Someone was comparing him to Rakhi Sawant)

2. You have close to 400,000 followers on Twitter. Be careful what you tweet, people get easily influenced by you.

3. Power, Responsibility and all that. And humility is an awesome, almost magical trait to possess.

4. Articulation works. A lot. Intolerance also works, both ways.

5. Don’t be fooled by your target market, the “youth” who nod their heads to whatever you dish out. They will turn around and bite you back at the first possible chance.

All the best for your new book release in October. Rest assured, will buy (original), read and review it.

Also, deleting a tweet won’t change anything. This is the internet. Content once created will be there forever.

LOL

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  • Hmm, but was this actually about “sense of humor” or our tolerance of certain behavior?

    1. This wasn’t a one-off joke by an innocent. He’s a responsible man who keeps doing things of a similar nature. There is a pattern if a man keeps showing a certain attitude towards women.

    2. His first reactions to Sunday’s incident aren’t completely represented: in reality he first put up a pretty arrogant response: gist was “I listen to advice, but do only what I want.”

    3. Within literally 30 minutes, an “apology” appeared. Some are impressed, but it stinks of convenience and belated cowardice.

    Why all this concern?
    – 1000s of readers follow him
    – To some, he is a role model
    – Gujarat even titled him “Youth Icon”

    Should not a popular public figure be held to a higher responsibility?

    The answer will shape our future society….

    • vadakkus

      Yeah. Foot in the mouth. What to do. If you can’t take the responsibility, don’t go after the limelight. Thanks for the comment! :)

  • Chetan Bhagat should read this.. I never read any CB books, but I’m following him on twitter..
    If CB blocked you. Its his loss :D

    Well, I’ve a question 4 u :) If CB is the Lady gaga in writing, then who according to u is Bryan Adams or Iron Maiden? Take it lightly.. I juz need some good books to read :)

    • vadakkus

      Yeah. He has blocked everyone but those who sing praises of him. His loss.

      Bryan Adams? I would say Fredrick Forsyth. And Iron Maiden, definitely Michael Crichton.

      On an Indian perspective, Arvind Adiga and Karan Bajaj. But Adiga is expensive. Not a great fan of them, but still.

  • jay_ambadi

    Well written .. captures the whole drama that went on yesterday.

    What I found most interesting was that Ms Taslima Nasreen, who advocated for the ABSOLUTE ARTISTIC FREEDOM and Right to Offend and Right to be Offended, in her interview appeared in Times of India, in the morning, found it objectionable, by afternoon, that such joke that expresses ‘misogyny’ (in her view) has been uttered by someone! Talk about double standards!

    Also it is funny that Chetan Bhagat decided to delete not only the ‘Joke’ but also entire tweets relating to it!

    • vadakkus

      Cold feet in the mouth disease. And as for Ms. Nasreen, she is just another of the breed of hypocrites. Who cares what she says. Whatever suits her is “freedom”

  • very well written and well put especially the advice at the end.

    • vadakkus

      Thank you! :)

  • Loved the last part of it… :D I mean, the article is nice, I love CB, but his character… I am not sure. But i hate it that many people don’t take a joke as it is supposed to be.

    I’ve been reading your articles for a long time, but never found time to comment. Amazing ones, they are!!..Kalakkunnund ketto bhaii!!

    • Thank you saar! Appreciated!! :) You are right, a joke should be taken as a joke. People should learn how to have fun..

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  • akshay

    what Mr. A. Sathyanaranayan seem exactly opposite of right

    CB has skill. ah no. he tells a tale. ah enough already

    ah of all the things you have problem with home-bred idioms and ‘Punjabi writing in english’ I wonder what you think about khushwant singh.

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