Bestseller's success upsets Indian literati

At 35, Chetan Bhagat’s chronicling of the trials and tribulations of the country’s middle-class youth has made him a publishing phenomenon in India.

His latest novel, a bittersweet, small-town comedy is set amid a trio of Indian obsessions - cricket, religion and business. His work will reach parts of India others can only dream of when the Bollywood film Hello, adapted from his book One Night @ the Call Centre, is released.

Bhagat covets mass appeal. His books are priced at 95 rupees—the same as a cinema ticket.

His last book was launched in supermarkets. “We don’t have bookshops in every town. We have supermarkets. I want my books next to jeans and bread. I want my country to read me,” he said.

Bhagat’s formula is simple: write in the quirky, quick-fire campus English that young Indians use and focus on the absurdities of how to get ahead in contemporary India. “What is the purpose of literature? It is to raise a mirror to society. What is the point of writers who call themselves Indian authors but who have no Indian readers?” he said.

Such brash populism has drawn barbs from the literary world. Many critics say his books have no lasting value. But Bhagat is unperturbed. Young people had begun to have far more options than their parents but their choices remain circumscribed by a traditional education system and overbearingly high expectations.

One Night @ the Call Centre, his second novel, is a romantic comedy set in an office where bored young Indians sit behind terminals helping to resolve inane queries from technologically challenged Americans.

Bhagat said he got most of the best lines from friends and relatives working in call centres. “In the book a trainer says that the brain and IQ of a 35-year-old American is the same as the brain of a 10-year-old Indian. That happened to a friend of mine.”

Bhagat’s own story is a reflection of the hunger that drives this young India. By his mid-20s he had become the embodiment of the Indian dream: an investment banker in Hong Kong. Disillusionment set in after his firm went bust in the 1998 Asian financial crisis just as his parents divorced and Bhagat’s father refused to accept his son’s decision to marry a woman from a different part of India. “I have not really spoken to [my father] since.”

For Bhagat the generational divide is the one India desperately needs to bridge. Bhagat’s model society is China because of its social upheaval. “India needs a cultural revolution to change mind sets.

Bhagat still works for an investment bank.—



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