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. —

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


Subscribers only

Ithala fails to act against board chairperson over PPE scandal

Morar asked to settle with the state and pay back the profit he made on an irregular tender

Vodacom swindled out of more than R24m worth of iPhones

A former employee allegedly ran an intricate scam to steal 8700 phones from the cellular giant

More top stories

Feathers fly over proposed wind farm’s impacts on great white...

The project poses a risk to declining great white pelican population at Dassen Island

Covid triggers crypto collectables boom

These one-of-a-kind digital collector’s items are being sold for unprecedented prices

Crisis response and accountability: Should leaders’ gender matter?

Women leaders are lauded for their handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the data is often cherry-picked

ANC North West factions fight on

Premier Job Mokgoro’s hearing begins despite move to stop it by party secretary general Ace Magashule

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…