CLEAN CUT, in a smart Oxford shirt, box fresh blue jeans and chunky running shoes, Chetan Bhagat gives the carefully cultivated impression of a software engineer, Internet entrepreneur, or an analyst at an investment bank on ‘dress down Friday’. He dresses to represent his constituency and to provide an aspirational model to the hundreds of thousands of consumers of his fiction. It is tempting to read Bhagat’s awful fiction and dismiss him. Don’t. You’d be giving him the response he wants, the response he needs to continue to promote himself as the voice of the “middle class urban youth”, the young men and women in small towns and cities around India who want what Bhagat describes as “the good life”. Bhagat’s popular fiction has tapped a vein, what he describes as the youth’s “desire for English”; his books, he says, “are a stepping stone to English”. ‘English’ here is a synonym for modern, contemporary, the lifestyle promoted by the mall and the multiplex. The English language is not an end in itself, only a means to achieve ‘English’.
The prevalent narrative in India, Bhagat tells me — at the India International Centre in Delhi, on a busy day promoting What Young India Wants, his new book, a collection of non-fiction mostly in the form of short columns written for The Times of India and the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar — has been ‘bad guys rich, poor guys good’. He represents those, he says, who “want a good India but also want a good life”. The old narrative is why a man like Anna Hazare, Bhagat says, relies on irreproachable austerity, on “living a simple life”, for his moral authority. For the new India, though, a favourite Bhagat formulation, “it is not enough to be honest, you need to be wealthy”.
He admits that the success of his fiction, leading to newspaper columns that reach, he writes in the introduction to What Young India Wants, “a combined readership of four crore Indians”, has given him a “disproportionate platform”. “My entry into non-fiction,” he says, between sips of tea, “has been a little preposterous, but so was my entry into fiction.” In his inimitable style, an earnest mix of popular Hinduism and corporate waffle, Bhagat tells me that he is “destiny’s child”, that he wanted to use the opportunities provided to him by destiny to “reflect what Indians think,” to “create change”. He writes in ‘My Journey’, the essay that opens the collection, “I had for years wanted to create more awareness for a better India. Wasn’t now the time to do it with full gusto?”
You cannot accuse Bhagat of lacking gusto. “I measure myself,” he tells me, “in my ability to influence people.” “I do not believe in extreme positions. There is no such thing as ‘I am right’. I believe it’s better to consolidate points of view. My columns are solution-oriented; I always give solutions because that is a more positive approach.” Bhagat is adept at this sort of corporatespeak, 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.
Take a typical Bhagat piece, for instance ‘In Defence of the PM’, roughly in the middle of the book, in a section titled ‘Politics’. It begins with a stating of the perceived problem: “On the one hand, our relationship with Pakistan appears to be improving. On the other, we seem eager to ensure that we never regain a balanced relationship.” Bhagat then identifies a consequence of not solving the perceived problem: the nation, that is we the people, suffers because our dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan means “our defence expenditure is never questioned”. “I think all Indians,” he writes, “must have a rethink about three areas before we arrive at a consensus on our defence strategy.” In three swift sections, Bhagat arrives at the conclusion: “Money spent on bullets doesn’t give returns, money spent on better infrastructure does.” To save money on bullets, he suggests hiring the United States to patrol India’s borders. Forgive me, but I have to quote here at (relative) length: 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.
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
If you’re not peeling your splattered brain off the wall, consider how Bhagat is described with a straight face by his publisher as a “thinker” who “with great insight… analyses some of the complex issues facing modern India”. Bhagat is the opposite of a thinker. He is our great ‘unthinker’, and as sure a representative of a section of the heedless ‘new India’ as the posturing, khadi-clad politician, he excoriates as representative of the old, outmoded India. Bhagat likes to link himself to the story of India, observing of his admission to IIT Delhi, in clumsy, tautological prose: “I joined in 1991, which was also a turning point for India given the economic reforms. IIT did for me what liberalization did for India — created opportunities and changed me forever.”
BHAGAT IS, in his way, egalitarian. He genuinely believes everyone should have the same access he did to an education that serves as a catalyst for money and success. “Is a desire,” he asks plaintively in a column, “to see my country as rich as some other nations materialistic?” Bhagat lionises the rich. He admires the West for its wealth, but is not interested in the source of that wealth (hint Chetan: some of Britain’s wealth came from your country), or the development of modern societies. History cannot be smoothed over, wished away. Bhagat acts as if we’re at year zero, as if all it takes to solve our problems is to wipe the slate clean.
He wants to go shopping, like so many of us, and can’t understand why India, that precarious project, keeps getting in the way. Bhagat likes to talk about “innovation, imagination and creativity”, but he uses these words as the human resources department of an international corporation would, as synonyms for conformity. Bhagat is not interested in ideas, only in “the good life” as conceived by the builders of Gurgaon apartment complexes. And so, as they do, he sells his readers a mirage, a cut-price American dream. Surely ‘young India’ wants more.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.