Chetan Bhagat’s Achievement

Jai Arjun Singh has a superb post on Chetan Bhagat, in which he quotes Bhagat as saying:

See, reactions to any book take place on so many different levels. Literary critics think my books are so safe, and that they don’t challenge anyone at all, but the fact is that these books often shock the middle-class people who are their primary readers. Whether you like it or not, you have to take into account the responses and feelings of even naïve readers. In Five Point Someone, when I had the two lovers engage in pre-marital sex, I got so many responses from people who said they liked the book but felt that Neha should not have “given up” her virginity. There have even been readers who know so little about novels that they don’t realise this is fiction: I get letters reproaching me for ruining Neha’s life by telling this story. ‘Tumne Neha ki zindagi barbaad kar di, ab uss se shaadi kaun karegaa?’ (‘You’ve spoilt Neha’s chances of getting married.’) I don’t know how to explain to them that this is a made-up story.

This illustrates the enormity of what Bhagat has achieved: he has got lakhs of people who do not read books to try their hand at reading a novel in English. There is a family friend of mine who probably hasn’t read a book in the last five years—he went out and bought all of Bhagat’s three novels when the latest one was released. I once used to know a chap who boasted to me that he had only read 10 books in his life, and they were all “for studies”—I can totally imagine him buying a Bhagat book at some point. In a market where an English-language novel that sells 10,000 copies is considered a bestseller, Bhagat has sold lakhs, by writing books that people who do not read books have bought and enjoyed.

How has he done this? I have no clue. It is possible that he has captured the zeitgeist of middle-class India in a way that we elite readers of literary books simply can’t fathom. It is also possible that this is less a writing success than the success of a meme, and he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps he shall write many more successful books, and sell in crores; or maybe the fashion will wear off, and other writers will take the spotlight. Whatever the case may be, he has shown one thing: there are lakhs of people out there willing to pick up an English novel and give it a chance. That is a big deal, and well done Chetan Bhagat for that.

Do read the rest of Jai’s piece, by the way. On the subject of criticism, I’m on Jai’s side, but Bhagat’s thoughts on the subject obviously reflect how many people feel. He comes across as honest and unpretentious, and he has my respect for that.

As for what I feel about his writing, well, I’m not a fan. But as my friend Chandrahas once pointed out in conversation, most of the people who pile on to Bhagat are making a category error—he is not trying to produce great literature that reveals the human condition, but to tell interesting stories that lots of people want to read. The first demands a subjective assessment; the second has an objective measure: the sales of the books. Bhagat is succeeding at what he wishes to do, and more power to him for that.