Chetan Bhagat is a self-proclaimed messiah of the common man of India, expert on politics, and every bit as wooing of women empowerment as Rahul Gandhi.
He is also the same man to considerably revive the domestic literary press market. His books are almost always bestsellers that are later adapted into Bollywood movies, but what brings him greatest credit to fame is his background – a degree from two “prestigious” universities of India whose names would make an Indian bride’s parents go weak in the knees.
The man faced many rejections in getting his first novel, 5 Point Someone, accepted by a publisher. But I’m sure someone in the marketing department thought of the potential of his educational credentials and realized – “Jab IIT ki coaching institutes logon ko bewakoof bana sakti hain, toh hum kyun hahi?”
Naive students jumping on the engineering bandwagon were curious to know what life is like inside an IIT, apart from the aura of horniness.
Like the students who graduate out of IITs and IIMs can tell you about their education, the after-effects of reading Bhagat’s books is largely disillusionment.
Below is an excerpt from his latest release – “Half Girlfriend”
“Most likely I am a crass Bihari from Dumraon whose true animal nature had come out.”
Funny that Bhagat had to choose Bihar, out of all Indian states, to show crassness in a man. That’s just one of his many overwhelming generalizations.
The ‘Subject’ivity of English — India versus US
School years are formative to the development of our first crushes, teenage angst, but most notably – our creativity. Rigidity of curriculum can easily suppress any endeavors one may have harbored to become something outside the system. Whether that dream career is actually hiring or not, the least a school education can do is to nurture a student’s ability to think freely.
I distinctly remember reading MacLeish’s Ars Poetica poem in XI grade. My teacher spent a considerable portion of the period detailing what the poet intended to say from her notes. Naturally, we were expected to regurgitate the same answer in tests.
For anyone who is familiar with Ars Poetica, MacLeish describes the very essence of writing with his last line–
“A poem should not mean, but be.”
The interpretation of any form of writing is open to the reader. My English teacher’s efforts to feed us the meaning of the poem contradicted the poem itself.
In short, my school was in dire need of a Dead Poet’s Society kind of revolution.
Poetry is powerful tool of self-expression and healing. When my grandfather passed away in 2006, I penned a few lines in his memory. Without much thought, I submitted the poem to Hindustan Times, one of India’s national newspapers.
A week later, my classmate was casually reading the paper and told me that my name surfaced under the Artist column of that day! Here is the link — “We Must Go On” 🙂
Even my busy school Principal walked in to my section and congratulated me. That gave me hope to write more.
In my first year of college at Rutgers, I was required to take an Introductory writing class known as Expository Writing or “Expos”. It is still a mandatory class and dreaded by many students because it involves writing outside one’s comfort zone and intersecting the themes of 2 or more authors, all diverse and complex in their own way.
My teacher was Catherine Sameh. Today she is the Associate Director at the Barnard Center for Research on Women at Columbia but back then, she was just a simple Intro level teacher who cemented the idea that I can write.
What surprised me the most about my first English writing class in America was that I could question the work I was reading. I was granted the grace to think on my own accord.
We had to write 3 papers over the course of the semester, with each paper increasing in difficulty in developing connections.
A year later, I was given further encouragement to write in a class that was uniquely offered on campus – “Mythology”. My professor, of Romanian background, asked the class to make masterful connections between books that were even harder and more complex in nature.
1. Nobel Laureate Jelinek’s “The Piano Teacher”
2. James Joyce’s stream of consciousness/masterful creation – “The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”
The greatest challenge lay in theorizing the overarching themes of those two novels with the psychological work of Carl Jung.
That class remains my all-time favorite.
A fun course in Greek and Latin Roots of English to improve my vocabulary and a Professor of Comparative Literature, Steven Walker, who later became my Honors mentor made me love writing even more.
In all, those classes and my mentorship taught me that we can develop connections with every member of humanity and their artistic creations.
Coming back to Chetan Bhagat, here’s another excerpt from “One Night at the Call Center.” I bought it from a roadside vendor, hoping it would be original. Notice how Bhagat suggests in the last para— “She stopped crying after 90 seconds, around the time any girl would stop crying if you ignored her.”
Boy, would I like to see the statistical research on that claim.
Below are a few quotes of Bhagat’s from Goodreads, though it is safe to say there aren’t any good ones.
Bhagat writes to appease the psyche of that Indian reader who does not wish to think beyond the context of his or her set notions; who is happy being fed the curriculum by a teacher; who thinks Bhagat writes well because Bhagat is all he/she reads.
Of course, there is no crime in thinking that way.
But I urge you to read stories outside your comfort zone, especially those that don’t mislead you into thinking that IIMs are 24/7 humping zones and women land jobs in placement interviews with Alia Bhatt type speeches.
Notable and not so Notable Authors & their Nationalities
Anita Desai completed her education in India and published books that met with critical acclaim, with my favorite being Fasting, Feasting. Amitav Ghosh is another Indian author who is known for his books on partition and self-identity and received a doctorate from Oxford. Jhumpa Lahiri, most famous of the three writers, is at the other end of the spectrum, whose alma maters are all in the US. Thus, one cannot say that Indian education is solely responsible for severing all creative pursuits but it certainly lags behind in harnessing it in a student who has potential. While India has Chetan Bhagat, America has Twilight’s Stephanie Meyer and UK has 50 shades of Grey (poop)’s E.L. James. Good and bad authors will surface from every country and sell to an audience that cannot digest more than cock-a-doodle-do spoonfeeding.
Education, In Its Excess and Regress
Hirani’s blockbuster 3 Idiots was loosely adapted from Bhagat’s first novel, 5 Point Someone. I stress on “loosely” because nobody from that team wanted to associate themselves with a book with such banality.
The movie had a wonderful quote that Bhagat’s book did not – “Yahaan par koi research nahi hota, koi nayi ideas ki baat nahi karta.”
(In India, students are rarely thinking of new ideas or research)
Ironically, that advice needs to be rendered to Bhagat himself and perhaps to every student receiving higher education in India. Though it is wonderful to read recent headlines about India’s succesful Mars mission or of our 8th Nobel Laureate, the concept of education in India is akin to the dulha who wears a maala of rupee notes at his wedding – the more degrees, the more is your worth. It is not so much about learning but about appearing to be educated. Arindham Chaudri succeeded in fooling students with worthless MBAs for years until his colleges were recently debarred from doing so. But this is not just an India issue. Just as India has IIPMs and Lovely Professional Universities, US also has its menace of for-profit Berkeley College (not to be confused with the real Berkeley), ITT Tech and severity of student loans in the capitalized education market.
Art & Its Future in India
No one is born a spectacular artist. Some of the best jewels of writing have come from years of practice of the art and some of the best writers spend years getting their work published or even recognized. While money is important to survive, a noble writer will never write for the money, but rather for the sustenance of the soul.
Debates, art festivals, writing competitions, and “book addicts anonymous” groups are a few avenues for readers and writers to vent their creative pursuits. Jaipur Literary Festival is perhaps, the most recognized of those forums in India.
Hopefully, the tides are changing and one day, we can have more students from abroad coming to study sciences, humanities, etc. in India than vice versa.
In conclusion, I will say that Bhagat is not a bad writer. He is just mediocre at best. Perhaps, he is happy with his mediocrity that serves as the fodder for Bollywood movies.
But as Rancho suggests in 3 Idiots– “Mujhe poora yakin hai ki aap zaroor shikhenge” I’m also sure Chetan Bhagat can improve his writing with sincere practice in the years to come 😛