Dear Chetan Haters,
Let’s go back to the 90s. Days of bad Bollywood films and great literature. One of the two got the cash register ringing. No prize for guessing which. Books, well, they won awards. And they sold abroad.
Back in homeland, the scenario was bleak. A bestseller sold 5000 copies. Rich text (font and content) was a non-mover in its own country. People just didn’t get the plot. People weren’t supposed to. Such is the nature of all things creative. Everyday stuff is lapped up. Which, if you go to think, has little to do with the creator, and everything to do with the consumer.
Come 2004, things changed. A little white book hit the stands. No fanfare there. No gun to your head to buy it. No social media, no twitter, no flipkart. No front page Times of India ad. No, Five Point Someone ran on its own.
Let’s see why. The cover was interesting and so was the title. It was slim, fast paced, and relevant to the time. IIT was sexy then (how sexy it’s now is debatable). And so a book with the tagline ‘What not to do at IIT!’ was almost like a little black book (white book if you have to be pedantic) of secrets.
But let’s not attribute the success to Chetan Bhagat’s marketing acumen. Let’s assume he didn’t make a ‘proof of concept’ of what could work in Indian fiction. He wrote Five Point Someone because that's all he could write. That was all he knew. So then why did the book work? Clearly, people liked the story. All the things which traditional authors avoided because it didn't add to their idealistic romance (or let’s be fair, they didn’t write it because they just couldn’t), but which were part of India, found place in the book. Like ragging in college or cheating in exams or screwing girls (or girls screwing boys). This was rebranded India. Real India, no doubt, but put in neat little box which would incessantly be exploited later.
So then what went wrong?
Success came to him. Success came to him for writing things you were doing and seeing around you all the time. He was the voice of your generation, but your silly Indian judgmental personality just couldn’t accept it. Vikram Seth was your voice (like really!). But not Chetan Bhagat, especially after you found that grammatical error.
Some of you say his plots are nonexistent. And then you say Catcher In the Rye is your favorite book. What really is there in that cult classic other than a rebel boy who gets beaten up in the hostel, runs away, spends a night in a brothel, gets beaten up again, meets his little sister, pisses her off and then makes up in a zoo? Where is the plot? And where is the plot in the Hungry Tide where innumerable pages are spent observing Gangetic dolphins and in the end a giant tidal wave kills the protagonist? They are brilliant books, inspite of an apparent lack of plot. There would be many other plot-less books that you swear by, and so it's tough to accept your argument that his success is undeserved because the plots are thin. The plots are as thick as the spine of the book and consequently its pricing. If you’re getting a monkey, you should know that you’re paying peanuts.
As far as language is concerned, commercial fiction relies on simple/direct language. If you’ve not understood this basic rule, and use it as your argument, then the joke is clearly on you. There is no difference between you and the fool who said: “Tiger is a strange elephant, it has no trunk.” They are two different species. One comes with a trunk, the other with stripes. Just like commercial and literary fiction, where one comes with the merry-go-round language intended to put you in a tizzy, while the other bends over backward to be straight as an arrow, just so that it’s easily understood. If it is the former you prefer then you deserve Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings with all the prose removed. Just song after song sung by giant trees and strange bears.
In fact the (often considered) greatest British writer, George Orwell, used lucid language. The first purpose of writing is communication, which means being understood by your reader. One thing that Chetan Bhagat books manage. Are you trying to say you hate Chetan because he communicates clearly? That you understood him the first time he said it, and you can’t stand that.
So what really is the problem here?
When I meet Chetan haters, they usually fall in one of the three categories:
- Wannabe writers, have-been writers,
- Genuine haters
The third are usually the least vocal. If you ask them, they’ll try to dodge the question, and if you press on, they’ll make an off-hand observation that he’s a poor story teller. And they’ll move on to more interesting topics. I fall in the third (that’s because I don’t like the genre rather than the author, even though I quite like Five point Someone). If you’re with me in this category, then congratulations. You’ve figured that the world will go on inspite of your opinions. You hate him, but you’re not a hater.
The second category is of pretenders who use topics like ‘munchies’. You know what munchies are? Pop-corn in theater. Or peanuts in a bar. Munchies are fillers. These people use Chetan Bhagat as a munchies. To keep the conversation going, and of course when you bash up Chetan Bhagat (or Shah Rukh Khan) you’re clearly saying: “I’m not from THAT India! I’m cool. I’m intellectual. I’m sexy and now you know it!”
The first is by far the most ungrateful. You can dislike Chetan Bhagat, but you cannot disrespect him. Can you imagine anyone in Bollywood doing that to Salman Khan or Shah Rukh Khan? Chetan Bhagat hasn’t just raised the publishing industry standard, but he has, single handedly, raised publishing to a standard of an industry from mom-and-pop shop.
Let’s do simple math. Pre-CB (or even today, other than CB and a handful of other authors), titles sold 5000 copies a year (a stretch assumption because most titles sold 5000 copies in their lifetime). This sale quantity, on a price band of Rs. 150-300, made its author richer by 1.5 to 2 lakh. This is terrible! No wonder writing has, for the longest time, been shunned as a hobby which needs a day job to support it. Come CB and books were now in 'million copies sold' club. A million copy of a single title?! Shocking, wasn’t it? Even at a price band of Rs. 99 that fetched him an eight figure sum. An almost equal sum for his publisher, and perhaps for the seller. Except that Flipkart does not believe in making money. It is a modern day Robinhood which takes from the rich (VCs) and gives to the (always) poor Indian customer.
And then each of his book is made into a movie. With one even being named after his book. (A very uncharacteristic show of character on part of Bollywood that!) If anything, the publishing industry should’ve been carrying Chetan on its shoulder, singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. They should have been screaming: “We need more like him! Does he have a brother?” (Which, incidentally, Chetan does; who co-incidentally couldn't crack the bestseller code.)
He’s giving you hope, and he’s keeping the mom-and-pop shops alive. You should be creating five more Chetans. But your sorry lot, blinded by jealousy and plagued by laziness, is hell bent on destroying him. Get one thing straight. Only Chetan can destroy Chetan. You can, at best, join me in the first category. That is, shut up and watch.
Which brings me to the final point. Where are Chetan lovers? Why are they conspicuous by their absence? Once upon a time there was Team Jacob and Team Edward created by LA-LA-Land (LA-LA meaning Los Angeles meaning Hollywood meaning USA meaning We-Can-Sell-Any-Fucking-Thing).
So where is Team Chetan?
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