How Chetan Bhagat sells, despite the mediocrity tag

It was some time in late 2005 or early 2006 when I ran into Chetan Bhagat at the Crossword book store at Juhu in Mumbai. Those were the days when he was still an investment banker based out of Hong Kong. He was passing by the book store and had decided to drop in to check how his second book was selling.

One Night At the Call Centre had just come out and was No 1 on the bestsellers list. He hadn’t become a celebrity as he is now and people took some time to recognise him. He sat down and started signing books that fans brought to him.

I must confess that I was a fan of his writing back then and had loved reading Five Point Someone  (On a totally different note, I was even a fan of Himesh Reshammiya for a brief period). So I promptly bought his two books and got them autographed from him.

Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone wasn’t a literary phenomenon but had broken all sales records. The story was set in IIT Delhi and had a certain charm to it. Bhagat must have borrowed a lot from his own life and that honesty was reflected in the book.

But Bhagat had had a tough time finding a publisher for his first book. He had to do the rounds of several publishers before Rupa latched onto Five Point Someone. As one of the editors who had rejected his manuscript wrote in Open magazine, “He later went to a rival firm and became a publishing sensation overnight, and to this day, our boss complains bitterly that he missed out on the biggest bestseller of the decade because he went by the judgement of three Bengali women—a flawed demographic, if there ever was one!” (You can read the complete piece here).

The CD that accompanied the manuscript of Five Point Someone Bhagat had also elaborated on a marketing plan. The M word did not go down well with the female Bengali editor and as she remarked in Open, “A marketing strategy that would ensure the book became an instant bestseller…If only he had written his manuscript with half the dedication he had put into his marketing plan!"

Bhagat’s writing is thus initiating people into reading. And in that sense it’s a good thing. AFP

Hence, the so-called “sophisticated” people at the biggest Indian publishing houses missed out on India’s bestselling English author primarily because his writing wasn’t "literary" enough. Bhagat eventually did find a publisher and the rest, as they say, is history.

The day I ran into Bhagat was a Sunday and I came back home and finished reading One Night At a Call Centre in a few hours. I found the book pretty boring and, at the same time, got a feeling that the author had decided to put together a quickie to cash in on the success of his first book. But then I was probably in a minority who thought that way. The book became an even bigger success than Five Point Someone.

His next book was The Three Mistakes of My Life. I couldn’t read the book beyond the first 20 pages. His next two books, Two States and Revolution 2020, I haven’t attempted to read till date.

Very recently, his sixth book and his first work of non-fiction, What Young India Wants has come out. The book is essentially a collection of his newspaper columns. It is also an extension of his attempts over the last few years at building a more serious image for himself of someone who not only writes popular books but also understands the pulse and paradoxes of Young India.

As Open magazine puts it, “Years spent as a pariah in literary circles seem to have caught up with Chetan Bhagat, India’s largest-selling fiction writer. He’s excited that he’s moved on to some “meaningful” writing as well. “The charge against me is I’m too flippant,” he says.

The author, who sees himself as a spokesperson for India’s youth, talks about the issues troubling the country, mainly corruption and discrimination based on caste and religion. He’s hoping that it will gain him some credibility as a writer.

So what does Bhagat come up in his tour de force? Here are some samples.

On Pakistan: “More than anything else, we want to teach Pakistan a lesson. We want to put them in their place. Bashing Pakistan is considered patriotic. It also makes for great politics.”

On Voting:  “We have to consider only one criterion—is he or she a good person?”

On Defence: Money spent on bullets doesn’t give returns, money spent on better infrastructure does…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.

On Women: (Rajyasree Sen hope you are reading this): “There would be body odour, socks on the floor and nothing in the fridge to eat,” writes Bhagat on what would happen if women weren’t around.

On Self-Promotion: “I had for years wanted to create more awareness for a better India. Wasn’t now the time to do it with full gusto?”

The latest book, like other Bhagat books, presents a very simplistic vision of the world that we live in and is accompanied by some pretty ordinary writing. “What young India wants is meri naukri and meri chokri,” Bhagat said while promoting the book. Bhagat also comes up with some preposterous solutions like the one where he talks about outsourcing India’s defence needs to America. Really?

At the same time the book stinks of self-promotion. In interviews that Bhagat has given after the book came out he continues to refer himself as destiny’s child.

Thus it’s not surprising that Bhagat has come in for a barrage of criticism for his overtly simplistic views and his unabashed attempts at promoting himself. “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,” wrote Shougat Dasguptain Tehelka.(Youcan read the complete piecehere).

The criticism notwithstanding, Bhagat’s books sell like hot cakes. “His publishers, Rupa & Co, are counting on it. Rupa, which has brought out all of Bhagat’s novels since Five Point Someone in 2004, says that 5,00,000 copies of an initial print run of 575,000 were sold to retailers in a day, and booksellers have already begun to place repeat orders,” reports the Mint.

Given that, there must be something right about them. The answer lies in the fact that the mass market is not intellectual. It’s hallmark is mediocrity. It would rather prefer the movies of Salman Khan than an Anurag Kashyap. It would rather go and watch a mindless Rowdy Rathore than a Gangs of Wasseypur, which demands attention from the viewer. It would rather watch a Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi than the History channel.

The mass market likes stuff which is not too heavy. Chetan Bhagat fulfils that need. There has always been space for the kind of mindless and simple stuff that Bhagat writes. How else do you explain the success of the Mills & Boons series? Also, in a country like India, where people are just about starting to learn English, it’s easier for them to understand a Chetan Bhagat than a Salman Rushdie or even a much easier Jeffrey Archer, for that matter.

Bhagat’s writing is thus initiating people into reading. And in that sense it’s a good thing. Let me give a personal example to elaborate on this. Recently I started listening to Hindustani Classical music, more than 25 years after I first started listening to music. My taste has evolved the years. I started with trashy Hindi film music of the 1980s, moved onto the Hindi film music of the fifties and the sixties, then went into Ghazals (which had its own cycle. First Jagjit Singh, then came Ghulam Ali, then Mehdi Hasan and finally came the likes of Begum Akhtar) and so on.

It took me almost 25 years to start listening to Hindustani classical music. Maybe I was slower than the usual. But the point is that nobody starts out listening to Hindustani classical music from day one - unless you were born in a Paluskar, Vilayat Khan or Ravi Shankar family type of family. We have to go through our share of “crappy” music to arrive at that. If I hadn’t heard the crappy music of the 1980s, I wouldn’t be listening to Ustad Bismillah Khan today.

Similarly, readers who start reading books with Chetan Bhagat are likely to move onto much better stuff over the years. In that sense Bhagat’s writing is a necessary evil. The entire market for Indian writing in English has expanded since Chetan Bhagat started writing. Before that Indian writing in English did not appeal to the average Indian. Now it does.

It would also help them reach a stage of understanding where they will be able to understand the following paragraph written by Shougat Dasgupta in Tehelka.

Bhagat is adept at this sort of corporate speak, 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.”

Whether you think Bhagat is writing crap or Shougat is depends on your current stage of literary evolution.

Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com


Published Date: Aug 14, 2012 10:16 am | Updated Date: Aug 14, 2012 12:34 pm