Saturday, February 7, 2015

Chetan Bhagat...bringing Young India back to reading? Or is that a double edged sword hanging in your cupboard?

I was woken up to find my mother shoving her smart phone into my face, almost squealing, "Read this! Read this!" I took the proffered device and blearily stared into the screen to see this - 'India is a semi-literate country and Chetan Bhagat is the best it can do'

I had always remarked at the sense of mediocrity that reeked from most upstart Indian writers and how almost everyone was trying to do a Chetan Bhagat! I even had a friend exclaim that she was going to a book reading by some bloke named Ravinder Singh. He's the author of the book, "I too had a love story". I was intrigued... My friend was a person who was never the bibliophile! As a matter of fact, I remember being the butt of her jokes when I buried my nose in a book, as was my wont.

A few days later, she showed me the photos from the day. They'd all gathered at the local Apple iStore and he'd apparently answered questions about his book and life in general. And then, he'd read a few passages from his book. It did not miss my attention that most of the audience were girls in the late teens or early twenties. And the fellow wasn't a face that only a mother would love. I didn't need to rack my brains that much to figure out what his USP was. But being the good fair sport that I am, I decided to give his books a try. The next time I was at a book store, I searched for his books and went through them... thumbing through the pages to get a feel of his writing style and narrative.... I have never put down a book that fast!

Once again, he was so desperately trying to be a Chetan Bhagat. An author who appealed to the senses if not the intellect of Young India. A man whose books read out like a movie. A success story in the most commercial sense of the term.

I personally don't hate him. I've read worse. But to claim that he got Indians back to reading.... now that, my friends, is something I just cannot agree with! When I was a teenager, awkward and shy, I turned to reading and writing to express myself. It was the only outlet where I could truly be who I was.... To write in abandon, not worrying at the least how it would be perceived. And in a way, my style of writing has been heavily influenced by the authors I read. Enid Blyton, the true queen of children's novels, she kept my afternoons engaged as I went on an adventure myself, with the Famous Five or the Secret Seven! And then it was Nancy Drew... followed by classic masters like Dickens, Alcott, Bronte, Austen, O.Henry, Mark Twain.... and a lot more! I had discovered Tolkien in high school and reading his works always brought a sense of belonging to me. I could go anywhere, read any book. But Tolkien would be like coming home! Then there was always John Grisham, Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown!

I was lucky enough to meet a few good people who introduced me to Dostoevsky and the other Russian masters! And I noticed that my writing had also evolved to include the styles of all the authors whose works had impressed me. And an amalgamation of the various styles finally settled down to become what was uniquely mine.

In the midst of this Utopia of mine, someone threw in Chetan Bhagat. I had always rued that we had very few Indian writers to look up to. We had powerhouses when it came to regional literature... O. Vijayan, Kalki, Tagore to name a few... but when it came to English Literature, we Indians were really left wanting in some intangible way. If an Indian writer wrote well, they had some stint abroad... either they lived abroad and write their books there or at least had some other form of connection drawing their time and person away from the subcontinent.

So, when I first discovered Chetan Bhagat, I was understandably excited. Perhaps this person could be the answer to my prayers, I thought. If millions were reading him, he had to be good, right?

Well... I did read his first book. It was interesting... different even. And then I read his second... then his third. By the time I had reached Two States, something had become clear to me. His writing had a sense of commercialization to it. He wrote for the masses. He had his audience in mind throughout. And that, did not feel honest to me.

Don't get me wrong. We all write, knowing in a way that someone, somewhere will read what we wrote and perhaps like what they read. But to write solely for an audience robs a writer of a part of their soul. Recently, I started reading the History of Middle Earth series by Christopher Tolkien where he has put together most of his father's notes... and it gave me a chance to glimpse at a writer's mind. I saw Tolkien writing solely for himself first. The story edging its way out in bits and pieces and the writer having no peace till he has put it down on paper. I know that feeling all too well! I have countless notebooks filled with random drabbles that I daren't publish but would have suffocated me had I not written them out.

A truely good writer manages to strike the balance... finds his inner voice and still finds an audience to write for. But more than the listener, for a true writer, the story is of tantamount importance.

So now you see why I have an issue with Chetan Bhagat's books? They're loved by millions and millions of readers claim to relate to his characters... all of it is well and good. But that sense of hiraeth that one must feel once the book is finished... it is missing in his works. As much as I commend him for bringing people to the books, I sincerely hope they don't stop at his works alone. Let them move on to better authors... to newer ways of telling a story...

Books are meant to liberate you... to elevate you.... to make you a better person. And somehow, I've never truly felt Chetan Bhagat's books did that for me.

What be your take in this matter, reader?

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