The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time Magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’. Meet Ramachandra Guha, one of the few intellectuals in India, who is a liberal in the classic sense of the term.
He has pioneered three distinct fields of historical inquiry: environmental history (as in The Unquiet Woods, 1989), the social history of sport (A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002), and contemporary history (India after Gandhi, 2007). He is currently working on a multi-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
His latest book Patriots and Partisans (Penguin/Allen Lane Rs 699) is a collection of 15 essays based mostly on all that has gone wrong in modern India.
“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre… He has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession,” he says in this interview to Vivek Kaul.
You write that “Indian constitution had always been impalatable to the Marxist-Lenninists since it did not privilege a particular party(their own), and Hindu radicals since it did not privilege a particular faith (their own).” Can you discuss that in a little detail?
Marxist-Leninists the world over believe in a state run for and by a single party, their own. Hence the problems encountered by the Communist Party of China, which is paranoid that a call for freedom and democratic rights will lead to the dismantling of their monopoly. Indian Marxist-Leninists are no exception. The Naxalites fantasize about planting the Red Flag on the Red Fort. Even the CPI(M) still somewhere believes that one day it will be the sole party in control in India.
And what about Hindu radicals?
A core belief of the RSS(Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh) is in a Hindu Rashtra, a state run and for Hindus. Muslims and Christians in this scenario have always to prove their loyalty, in fact, they have to acknowledge their distant or proximate, real or fictitious, origins in a Hindu family and in Hindu culture. When the NDA came to power, under the influence of the RSS they constituted a Constitutional Review Commission. Knowing that the former Chief Justice, M. N. Venkatachaliah, was a practising Hindu with a profound knowledge of the scriptures, they asked him to head the Commission, hoping he would advocate amendments in the direction they desired. To their dismay, Justice Venkatachaliah said the secular Constitution of India was completely sound.
Which is a bigger threat to India, naxalism or Hindu bigotry?
In the 1990s, Hindu bigotry; now, Naxalism. Things may yet again change, or an altogether new threat may emerge. Historians cannot predict!
In one of your essays you talk about the senior Congress leader Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was twice the acting Prime Minister of India, dying in a small flat in Allahabad. You also talk about Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight how upright Indian politicians used to be. What has made them so corrupt over the years?
Ironically, leaders of the CPI and CPI(M), despite their strange and archaic ideology, are perhaps the least corrupt of Indian politicians. They do not have Swiss bank accounts and do not sup with corporates. The compulsions of election funding, the state’s control over natural resources (including land), and sheer venality and greed have encouraged leaders of all other parties to become grossly wealthy by abusing their office.
There remain exceptions. Manmohan Singh is completely honest in a personal sense (though complicit in the corruption of his party and government). And there still remain some outstandingly upright judges, IAS officers, and Generals. The day his term ended, Justice Venkatachaliah moved out of his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and returned to his modest home in Bangalore. Others would have at least stayed on for the six months allowed for by the law, using that period to lobby for another sarkari post with perquisites.
You also suggest that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been around for sometime more India would have been different country than what it is today. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Shastri has been greatly under-rated both as politician and Prime Minister. It was he who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although Indira Gandhi took the credit). He was a far more focused leader in defence and military matters than his mentor, Nehru. He had initiated moves to open out the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. And he was scrupulously honest and completely non-sectarian. Had he lived another five or ten years India may today be a less discontented democracy and a less corrupt society.
Normally when people want to refer to dynasty politics in India they talk about the Nehru Gandhi family. You say it should be just the Gandhi family. Why do you say that?
I show in my book, with concrete evidence, that the dynasty originated with Indira Gandhi, not Nehru. I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre. Rajiv at least had a vision–of making India a technologically sophisticated society. Sonia has enormous stamina and determination. Rahul has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.
Has chamchagiri increased in the Congress party over the years? Are the chamchas of Sonia Gandhi bigger chamchas than the chamchas of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira Gandhi?
Quite possibly. As there is less to go around, there is more active chamchagiri to get what remains. The cult around 10 Janpath in Congress circles is sickening.
Are the Internet Hindus the new kar sevaks?
Yes and no. They have the same bigoted worldview and fanatical fervour of the kar sevaks, but express this through the safe medium of the Web. The kar sevaks had more raw energy, travelling to Ayodhya, provoking riots on the way there and on the way back. The Internet Hindus are as narrow-minded and sectarian as the kar sevaks, but, since their abuse is verbal and not physical, far less dangerous.
Gurucharan Das talks about the need for a new party which understands the Indian middle class in his new book India Grows At Night. You also make a slight mention in one of the essays. Do you see that happening? Does the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) look like filling in that gap?
The anti-corruption protests of 2011 were an important wake-up call to large sections of Indian society, not just the politicians. However, for the energy and passion to have a substantial and enduring impact, the movement must stay focused, and be patient. Too much media attention is inimical to solid grassroots work. The leaders of AAP should, for the moment, stay away from TV studios and build state-level units and forge alliances with civil society groups across India. To fight the next General Elections would be foolish and premature. They should aim rather to make an impact in the General Elections of 2019.
Over the years have we become less liberal as a society than we were before?
It may not be accurate to say that we have become less liberal as a society. On the whole, Indians are more aware of the rights of Dalits and women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Sectarian religious sentiments on the ground are markedly less intense and polarizing than they were 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, the media only gives space to extreme positions. And the state capitulates to bigots when it should stand up to them. This capitulation is sadly true of all parties.
Why did the UPA encourage India’s greatest artist to flee into exile? Could it not protect his life and dignity in his own homeland? Why did the Left Front not provide protection to Taslima Nasreen? The tragedy is that the so-called secular parties cave in most easily to the sectarians and the bigots—the Congress to the Hindu right, the Congress and the Left to the Muslim right, the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sainiks.
Could you elaborate on that?
About four years ago, I wrote a piece in a Delhi newspaper known to be read by senior Congress leaders and Ministers. I said there than when the next Republic Day awards were announced, the Government should give MF Hussain the Bharat Ratna and Salman Rushdie the Padma Vibhushan. This would be just reward, no less than their artistic and literary genius deserved. It would strike a blow for artistic and literary freedom. And it would simultaneously insult Hindutvawadis and the mullahs. The rest of India (namely, the majority of Indians) would praise the Government, and the bigots would be speechless, the Hindutvawadis not knowing whether to praise the Government for honouring Rushdie or abuse it for honouring Hussain, and the mullahs confused in the other direction.
But that moment has now passed…
Sadly, Hussain is now dead, the moment has passed, and one does not see the Government—any government—stand up boldly for liberal and democratic values. This is the tragic paradox—that while society as a whole may be becoming slightly more liberal, the further progress of liberalism is halted by the encouragement to illiberal forces by the state and political parties.
The interview originally appeared in www.firstpost.com on December 17,2012
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
Two-thirds of the way through singing Kolaveri Di, Dhanush sings a few words which you notice if you are the kind who listens to the lyrics of songs very carefully. He sings “cow-cow holy cow, I want to hear now”.
These few words can be used to best describe the situation which prevails after Girish Karnad said “Tagore was a great poet but a mediocre and second-rate playwright.” Not surprisingly the Bengali bhadralok are up in arms.
There are five holy cows that the bhadralok have and it’s best that people stay away from criticising or critiquing them. Here is the list.
Mohun Bagan is the best football club: This is not much of a holy cow now but in the eighties and till the mid nineties any criticism of this football club could have got you lynched. Then came ESPN-Star Sports and Bengal realised that their football is a slow motion version of the real football played in Europe.
Rossogulla/Sondesh is the best sweet: This can lead to minor battles especially if you have a bong girl friend who loves her food. She will never come around to appreciating the pleasures of eating Mysore Pak. Another version of this debate is whether the Hilsa is the best mach i.e. fish in the world?
Sourav Ganguly is the best cricketer: I realised how strong this holy cow was when in the late nineties India was struggling to find a good wicket keeper and a Bengali colleague of my father suggested that “Sourav se wicket keeping kyon nahi karata hai?(why don’t we get Sourav to keep wickets?” In a land of few heroes Sourav could do no wrong.
Manika Da is the best director: Manik Da was the daak naam or nickname of the great Satyajit Ray. I have watched almost all of what Ray directed and watching his movies has been a brilliant experience. But Pather Panchali isn’t my favourite Ray movie (Now did I do a Karnad here?).
In fact I loved the sequels Aparjito and Apur Sansar much more. My favourite Ray movies are the ones he made in the seventies. The Calcutta trilogy of Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971) and Jana Aranya (1976), and Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) remain perennial favourites. And I can watch Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) over and over again.
Ray was a rare director whose movies were much better than the books and stories he based them on. Anyone who has read Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Pratidwandi and Aranyer Din Ratri and watched Ray’s movies based on the books would realise that. The same is true for Sankar’s Seemabadha and Jana Aranya, and Prem Chand’s short story Shatranj ke Khiladi. Also I am not getting into the debate of whether Ray’s Charulata was better than the original novel written by Rabindranath Tagore.
Nevertheless, a lot of what Ray directed after Hirok Rajar Deshe in 1980 was very mediocre and nowhere near his best. But I wouldn’t recommend you say anything like that in and around Kolkata.
Rabindranath Tagore is the foremost intellectual: This is the holiest of holy cows for the Bengali bhadralok. Tagore cannot be criticised. Any criticism of Tagore, reasonable and unreasonable, is totally unwelcome. Girish Karnad is finding that out now. A stream of Bengali intellectuals and politicians have queued up to criticise Karnad. The basic argument is that what does Karnad know of Bengal? Even the criticism on Twitter and Facebook has been scathing. A struggling actor who happens to be a Bengali had this to say on his Facebook page “Karnad calls The tagore a second rate playwright!!coming from a mediocre actor and a boring playwright..I have said it..!moving on..”
Another interesting comment that I came across on my Facebook page was “Even Poonam Pandey and Sherlyn Chopra know how to seek attention. Girish Karnad would do better in taking a lesson from them.”
The backlash on Karnad’s comments raises several questions. Is any creative person above criticism? Even Tagore. Also Tagore was not a one dimensioned intellectual. He was a poet. A novelist. A playwright. A musician and even a painter. His interests were not limited to one particular domain. But that does not mean he was the best at all the things he did. And that’s precisely the point that Karnad was trying to make.
As he said “He was a great poet certainly, one of our greatest. And he got the Nobel Prize in 1913 when most of our modern literature was still in the state of formation. His greatness as a poet is there, his greatness as a thinker is there… he wrote plays, he certainly was a pioneer in breaking away from the unexciting commercial plays…he didn’t direct great plays. The point is he was a mediocre playwright.”
And Karnad does know a thing or two about writing plays having written several plays himself. He also won the Jnapith award in 1998, which is the highest literary award conferred in India.
Tagore was a great poet. But whether he was a great musician, painter or playwright remains debatable? And this debate or discussion one cannot have with the Bengali bhadralok. As George Soros’ Theory of Reflexivity states “People’s understanding is inherently imperfect because they are a part of reality and a part cannot fully comprehend the whole.”But why blame only the Bengalis. India as a nation is full of holy cows who cannot be critiqued. And here are some of the bigger holy cows whose criticism can get you into trouble.
Narendra Modi is the best leader: There are three ways to get people to read things on the internet in India. Criticise the Congress party and the UPA. Praise Narendra Modi (or NaMo as his fans like to call him). And the third and the best way is to criticise NaMo. That will unleash a barrage of negative comments on the website, with a lot of them bordering on abuse. But yes the website will get a huge number of hits, something that it has never seen before. The broader point being that any criticism or even an objective evaluation of his persona is immediately run down. But there are chinks even in NaMo’s armour starting with an abandoned wife and the fact that he doesn’t really come across as a team man and likes operating on his own most of the time.
Mahatma Gandhi: The father of the nation was a great man. But he had his weaknesses. The Mahatma did not have a great family life. And his eldest son Harilal converted to Islam. His opinions on sex for a family man were slightly weird. As an article in The Independent points out “It was no secret that Mohandas Gandhi had an unusual sex life. He spoke constantly of sex and gave detailed, often provocative, instructions to his followers as to how to they might best observe chastity. And his views were not always popular; “abnormal and unnatural” was how the first Prime Minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, described Gandhi’s advice to newlyweds to stay celibate for the sake of their souls.”
But any discussion or debate which does not show Gandhi in positive light is likely to create trouble.
Jawahar Lal Nehru and his relationship with Edwina Mountbatten: As Ramachandra Guha wrote in The Hindua few years back “The Indian public in general, and the Indian press in particular, has shown a keen and perhaps excessive interest in the relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. That they were intimate is not to be doubted — but did the bonds ever move from the merely emotional to the tellingly physical?”
Universal Studios was supposed to make a movie on the relationship but they later shelved the project. As The Telegraph reported “The Indian government had given permission for the movie, Indian Summer, starring Cate Blanchett and Hugh Grant, to be filmed on location there but only if physically intimate scenes were removed.” This is another holy cow which cannot be questioned.
Shivaji Maharaj: In the state of Maharashtra any critique of the great king who fought the Moghuls like no one else did can get you into a lot of trouble. As James Laine who wrote the book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India found out a few years back. Those who wanted the book banned felt that the book insulted Shivaji. Those who read the book felt that it was not a book about Shivaji but more a book about how Shivaji’s legacy has been hijacked by various castes and communities in Maharashtra to further their own ends.
Sachin Tendulkar is the best cricketer: This for a very long time was even holier than the holy cow. Any criticism of the great man was likely to attract trouble irrespective of the fact whether you were in Mumbai or Muradabad. But things have changed over the years and people are more open to the God being criticised. Nevertheless, any criticism of Sachin can get you a lot of abuse, as I found out when I wrote this.
Islam: Any criticism of the religion can create major trouble as Salman Rushdie found out. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was released on September 26, 1988 in the United Kingdom. Madhu Jain, a journalist working for India Today reviewed the book for the magazine. As she wrote in a recent column in the Openmagazine “It all began with my review of The Satanic Verses, published on 15th September 1988 in India Today (probably the first review of the novel.)…Unfortunately, the editor of the books pages of the magazine at the time, who later went on to edit a national daily, plucked some of the more volatile extracts from the novel—those about the Prophet’s wives—and inserted them into the book review. Not too long after the IFS bureaucrat-turned-politician Syed Shahabuddin read the excerpts (not the book as he admitted ) and demanded that The Satanic Versesbe banned. Protests erupted in India and Pakistan. In Karachi, a few protesters died when they were fired upon. It is believed that Ayatollah Khomeini watched this on television and ordered the fatwa.”
India became the first nation to ban the book on October 5, 1988, after Syed Shabbudin, a member of parliament, petitioned the government to ban the book. Rajiv Gandhi, the political novice that he was, banned the book immediately. Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa on Feb 14, 1989, Valentine’s Day.. Rushdie had to go into hiding after that and his been unwelcome in India since then. He had to pull out of the Jaipur Literature Festival last year.
MF Hussain: This is an interesting story. Hussain had to live a large part of his later life in exile given the large number of court cases pending against him in various parts of the country for hurting the sentiments of Hindus through his paintings. This included drawing several Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. Those in his favour say that artists need to have their freedom of expression, which is true.
But let me reproduce a paragraph from a piece that Shobhaa De wrote on him in The Times of India during his exile in Qatar. “Dressed in traditional Emirati gear, the painter is wearing socks , but no shoes. Mustafa, his handsome third son explains this is to respect local sensibilities regarding bare feet,” wrote De. Hussain had always walked bare foot but he was respecting the local sensibilities in Qatar and wearing socks. If he could respect local sensibilities in Qatar, couldn’t he do that in India as well? But any criticism of Hussain can get the so called intellectual class in Delhi and Mumbai ganging up against the person who dares to criticise Hussain.
The Gandhi family: During her peak any criticism of Indira Gandhi was unwelcome. Nayantara Sahgal, her first cousin, wrote a book Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power, which was very critical account of Indira’s tenure as India’s Prime Minister. The book written in 1982 was only released in India earlier this year. This trend has continued and any criticism of the Gandhi family is largely unwelcome. Arvind Kejriwal recently broke this trend by taking on Robert Vadra, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law headon.
Rajinikanth: Try criticising India’s highest paid actor anywhere south of the Vindhyas and see what happens. Manu Joseph the editor of Openwrote a column on the superstar in which he said “He has no talent, an unremarkable body, and has had no hair for much longer than we realise. When he puts his right elbow on his left palm and the left elbow on the right palm, he demands that everyone accepts it as dance. And his ability to toss a cigarette in the air and grab it with his mouth is attainable even to my mother. Have no doubts, even to Tamilians he looks grotesque in leather shirts and pants and previously unseen shoes. I have watched his films in the cheapest theatres in Madras and know exactly what happens when he makes his grand entry, boots first. The screams and whistles in the theatre are not the awe of respect, but an expression of love for a beloved clown. Nobody in those theatres knew why they were reacting in that manner to him.”
Almost all of what Joseph wrote is true but read the comments that followed his article to see how the people reacted to his critique of the star.
Ambedkar and reservation: BR Ambedkar and the reservation policy first initiated first by VP Singh and then carried forward by the United Progressive Alliance government is a bigger holy cow than even Rajinikanth. You might get away by critiquing Rajinikanth but expect no such mercy if you get around to criticising Ambedkar or the reservation policy. Arun Shourie, wrote a book titled Worshipping False Gods in which he challenged. Ambedkar’s contribution to Indian Independence. As Shourie wrote “There is not one instance, not one single, solitary instance in which Ambedkar participated in any activity connected with that struggle to free the country. Quite the contrary–at every possible turn he opposed the campaigns of the National Movement, at every setback to the Movement he was among those cheering the failure.”
Of course this did not go down well with people. As Rediff reported “Some Congress MPs did, however, burn copies of the book outside Parliament House, and called for a ban.”
The Holy Cow: Yes. The holy cow is the ultimate holy cow in the country. And every few years close to the elections the issue is resurrected with demands to ban their slaughter. Ironically enough India is set to emerge as the largest exporter of beef in the world.
The moral of the story is that India as a country has too many holy cows that one cannot critique and criticise. We make heroes, we worship them but we never get around to analysing them. As the Channel V ad went in the good old days, we are like this only.
The article first appeared on www.firstpost.com on November 10, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
It was sometime in late 2005 or early 2006 my memory fails me, when I ran into Chetan Bhagat at the Crossword book store at Juhu in Mumbai. Those were the days when he was still an investment banker based out of Hong Kong. He was passing by the book store and had decided to drop in to check how his second book was selling.
One Night At the Call Centre had just come out and was number one on the bestsellers list. He hadn’t become a celebrity as he is now and people took some time to recognize him. He sat down and started signing books that fans brought to him.
I must confess that I was a fan of his writing back then and had loved reading Five Point Someone (On a totally different note I was even a fan of Himesh Reshammiya for a brief period). So I promptly bought his two books and got them autographed from him.
Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone wasn’t a literary phenomenon but had broken all sales records. The story was set in IIT Delhi and had a certain charm to it. Bhagat must have borrowed a lot from his own life and that honesty reflected in the book.
But Bhagat had had a tough time finding a publisher for his first book. Bhagat had to do the rounds of several publishers before Rupa latched onto Five Point Someone. As one of the editors who had rejected his manuscript wrote in the Open magazine “He later went to a rival firm and became a publishing sensation overnight, and to this day, our boss complains bitterly that he missed out on the biggest bestseller of the decade because he went by the judgement of three Bengali women—a flawed demographic, if there ever was one!” (You can read the complete piece here).
In the CD that accompanied the manuscript of Five Point Someone Bhagat had also elaborated on a marketing plan. The M word did not go down well with the female Bengali editor and as she remarked in the Open “A marketing strategy that would ensure the book became an instant bestseller…If only he had written his manuscript with half the dedication he had put into his marketing plan! “
Hence, the so called “sophisticated” people at the biggest Indian publishing houses missed out on India’s bestselling English author primarily because his writing wasn’t literary enough. ,Bhagat eventually did find a publisher and the rest as they say is history.
The day I ran into Bhagat was a Sunday and I came back home and finished reading One Night At a Call Centre in a few hours. I found the book pretty boring and at the same time got a feeling that the author had decided to put together a quickie to cash in on the success of his first book. But then I was probably in a minority who thought that way. The book became an even bigger success than Five Point Someone. His next book was The Three Mistakes of My Life. I couldn’t read the book beyond the first twenty pages. His next two books, Two States and Revolution 2020, I haven’t attempted to read till date.
Very recently his sixth book and his first work of non-fiction What Young India Wants has come out. The book is essentially a collection of his newspaper columns. It is also an extension of his attempts over the last few years at building a more serious image for himself of someone who not only writes popular books but also understands the pulse and paradoxes of Young India.
As the Open magazine puts it “Years spent as a pariah in literary circles seem to have caught up with Chetan Bhagat, India’s largest-selling fiction writer. He’s excited that he’s moved on to some “meaningful” writing as well. “The charge against me is I’m too flippant,” he says. The author, who sees himself as a spokesperson for India’s youth, has just launched his latest book, What Young India Wants, a compilation of his essays on issues troubling the country, mainly corruption and discrimination based on caste and religion. He’s hoping that it will gain him some credibility as a writer.”
So what does Bhagat come up in his tour de force? Here are some samples.
“More than anything else, we want to teach Pakistan a lesson. We want to put them in their place. Bashing Pakistan is considered patriotic. It also makes for great politics.”
“We have to consider only one criterion—is he or she a good person?”
Money spent on bullets doesn’t give returns, money spent on better infrastructure does…In this technology-driven age, do you really think America doesn’t have the information or capability to launch an attack against India? But they don’t want to attack us. They have much to gain from our potential market for American products and cheap outsourcing. Well let’s outsource some of our defence to them, make them feel secure and save money for us. Having a rich, strong friend rarely hurt anyone
On Women: (Rajyasree Sen hope you are reading this):
“There would be body odour, socks on the floor and nothing in the fridge to eat,” writes Bhagat on what would happen if women weren’t around.
On Self Promotion:
“I had for years wanted to create more awareness for a better India. Wasn’t now the time to do it with full gusto?”
The book like other Bhagat books presents a very simplistic vision of the world that we live in and is accompanied by some pretty ordinary writing. “What young India wants is meri naukri and meri chokri,” Bhagat said while promoting the book. Bhagat also comes up with some preposterous solutions like the one where he talks about outsourcing India’s defence needs to America. Really?
At the same time the book stinks of self promotion. In interviews that Bhagat has given after the book came out he continues to refer himself as destiny’s child.
Thus it’s not surprising that Bhagat has come in for a barrage of criticism for his overtly simplistic views and his unabashed attempts at promoting himself. “Bhagat is not a thinker. He is our great ‘unthinker’, as sure a representative of heedless ‘new India’ as the khadi-clad politician is of old India,” wrote Shougat Dasgupta in Tehalka. (You can read the complete piece here).
The criticism notwithstanding Bhagat’s books sell like hot cakes. “His publishers, Rupa & Co., are counting on it. Rupa, which has brought out all of Bhagat’s novels since Five Point Someone in 2004, says that 500,000 copies of an initial print run of 575,000 were sold to retailers in a day, and booksellers have already begun to place repeat orders,” reports the Mint.
Given that there must be something right about them. The answer lies in the fact that the mass market is not intellectual. It’s mediocre. It would rather prefer the movies of Salman Khan than an Anurag Kashyap. It would rather go and watch a mindless Rowdy Rathore rather than a Gangs of Wasseypur, which demands attention from the viewer. It would rather watch a Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi than the History channel.
The mass market likes stuff which is not too heavy. Chetan Bhagat fulfills that need. There has always been space for the kind of mindless and simple stuff that Bhagat writes. How else do you explain the success of the Mills & Boons series? Also in a country like India where people are just about starting to learn English, it’s easier for them to understand a Chetan Bhagat than a Salman Rushdie or even a much easier Jeffrey Archer for that matter.
Bhagat’s writing is thus initiating people into reading. And in that sense it’s a good thing. Let me give a personal example to elaborate on this. Recently I started listening to Hindustani Classical music, more than 25 years after I first started listening to music. My taste has evolved the years. I started with the trashy Hindi film music of the 1980s, moved onto the Hindi film music of the fifties and the sixties, then went into Ghazals (which had its own cycle. First Jagjit Singh, then came Ghulam Ali, then Mehdi Hasan and finally came the likes of Begum Akhtar) and so on. It took me almost 25 years to start listening to Hindustani classical music. Maybe I was slower than the usual. But the point is that nobody starts of listening to Hindustani classical music from day one. We have to go through our share of “crappy” music to arrive at that. If I hadn’t heard the crappy music of the 1980s, I wouldn’t be listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan today.
Similarly readers who start reading books with Chetan Bhagat are likely to move onto much better stuff over the years. In that sense Bhagat’s writing is a necessary evil. The entire market for Indian writing in English has expanded since Chetan Bhagat started writing. Before that Indian writing in English did not appeal to the average Indian. Now it does.
It would also help them reach a stage of understanding where they will be able to understand the following paragraph written by Shougat Dasgupta in Tehelka.
“Bhagat is adept at this sort of corporate speak, bland pabulum that appears to be reasonable, but is buzzword piled upon truism piled upon platitude, a tower built on the soft, tremulous sands of cliché. A Bhagat column makes a house of cards seem as substantial as the pyramid at Giza.”
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 14,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/india/why-chetan-bhagat-sells-despite-the-mediocrity-tag-417177.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])