Chetan Bhagat arrived on the IWE (Indian writing in English) scene at a time when many readers mostly looked westwards for their everyday novel. Read or unread, rubbished or relished, his books continue to sell voluminously. After Five Point Someone, One Night at the Call Center, The Three Mistakes of My Life, 2 States, Revolution 2020, Half Girlfriend – plus nonfiction What Young India Wants and Making India Awesome – he is now all set to launch his latest book, written in a female voice, One Indian Girl. What follows is a conversation between me – his editor – and Bhagat.
Banker to bestselling writer, what was your life like while growing up?
I grew up in West Delhi, with my father posted in the Army. My brother and I studied in the Army Public School. We had a middleclass life, where there was never a lot of money. But we managed to have some fun. My upbringing in Delhi might be the reason why so many of my novels are at least partially set in that city: Five Point Someone, One Night @the Call Centre, 2 States, Half Girlfriend.
What does writing mean to you?
Writing for me is a way to make the world a better and happier place. I always wanted to have a writing style that connects,whether to simply entertain with funny stories or to be thought-provoking. Personally, it is a way to keep myself challenged and engaged. Writing uses every part of my brain. The end result may be a simple book, but that simplicity comes about after much soul-searching and complicated thought. The writing may seem easy, but to those who go "anyone can write that", I say, try it.
Writing has also been therapy for me. All my life I grew up with self-confidence and self-esteem issues. Writing has helped me deal with my dark side. Like 2 States helped me deal with father issues. The new book had me go where men fear to go - a woman’s mind.
When did you first feel an urge to write?
All through my school and college years I have written articles for the campus magazines. I also wrote plays, and directed a couple of them. I never thought I could write a book but finally attempted one while working at Goldman Sachs.
Humourist, storyteller or social reformer?
Storyteller. I do a lot of things but at heart I am a storyteller who is constantly striving to connect, to tell a story.
As a humourist how far are you ready to go?
Quite far, if you mean how much I push the limits. I used to be far more politically incorrect, and probably still am. People doexpect you to be a good boy or adarsh purush (which incidentally I am not). So when you have 7 million followers on twitter you could get self-conscious. I can't do, though I admire, what AIB does sometimes. We are gasping for laughs in this country.
What do you appreciate as a reader in a book?
I notice the author's ability to articulate. They should have something interesting or different to say and be able to say it clearly. If the plot gets me in I consider it a good book.
How did the idea for your latest novel come to you?
I’ve been wanting to write in a woman’s voice for a long time. To write about a woman means getting to know her, her psyche, and not just pen the dialogues she speaks, more likethis is what she thinks while she says that. It took me a long time to gain the confidence to be able to even attempt this.
What fascinates you about women?
Oh everything! They make life worth living. Imagine just men, men, men everywhere... the aesthetics of earth would have been so skewed. So many women have influenced my life, so many women are my life. All writers think for all their characters, put themselves in the protagonists’ shoes. As a writer I had always wanted to do this, write a woman’s story. Julian Barnes has said in an interview: “Writers of either gender ought to be able to do the opposite sex — that's one basic test of competence, after all.”
Would you say your perceptions of women changed between the time you began and ended One Indian Girl?
I like to think I have become generally less insensitive. Womendo suffer a disadvantage in this world designed and run by men, and we need to acknowledge this and not just laugh it offas a figment of someone’s imagination. The word ‘feminism’ has gained more connotations for me, every connotation positive.
Which was the most difficult part to write in this novel?
The sex scenes. To be a man and write about sex from a woman's view was challenging. It required me to keep my male ego aside and let the character do the talking.
Compared to the rest of your books, this one must have thrown up challenges vis-a-vis voice, characterisation, love scenes etc...
Yes, it is different from any of my previous books, the female lead changed everything. To understand what women want is an eternal human paradox. I had to somehow navigate the complexities of a female mind.
How is Radhika different from your other heroines?
She's quite different in that she takes charge and drives every aspect of the story. Since it is in first-person, the reader can get inside her head, rather than ‘see’ and ‘hear’ her through others. But then I’ve always had feisty heroines.
How egalitarian do you think Indian men are? Are they ready for the New Indian Woman?
You cannot generalise, of course, but at a pan-India level I’dhave to say no. Forget men, even Indian women are not ready for the New Indian Woman. To a certain extent, even the world is grappling with what to do with this new species of empowered women and how to fit them in.
What do you think of India's current crop of writers?
I think we have far greater variety now. You have several writers in the commercial arena alone doing good work, whether mythology, crime, mystery or self-help. At the same time, the Indian literary novel continues to flourish. The large number of lit-fests around the country is a healthy sign. However, as a nation we need to read more, and not get lost in our TV sets and apps. Remember, they only say a well-read person, never a well-TV-watched person.
Do you think a writer can over-write or have written too much?
I guess so. If you write to pay bills or take on assignments that you are not really into, write too much too fast, you either burn out or hurt the quality of writing. I have had to say no to amazing assignments - screenwriting blockbuster films, columns for top international publications - only for this reason. I write a book every two to three years, and have a column that runs twice a month. Even that seems too much at times. Bestselling writers sometimes write a book every six months, I can't do that. After every book I take a year off to live, just live. Where will stories come from otherwise?
How easy or difficult is to be seen as an icon, to be loved or even hated blindly?
It's nice for the most part, especially the love. It means people trust you and will pick up your story. Apart from that, it doesn't do much for me. Screaming fans and selfie mobs at airports do not excite me, even though people say, "that must feel so amazing". It doesn't. What feels amazing is the honest feedback from readers.
As far as hate is concerned, I don't think any human being enjoys it. The biggest stars, journalists, musicians, all get trolled and every now and then react to it as it simply hurts them too much. A troll attack that often hurts is often the troll making an assertion that is technically plausible but actually false. However, you have no way to disprove it. For instance, you could say I am being paid by a political party to write columns. In reality I am not. However, it is technically plausible. I have learnt these troll tactics and I find I am less affected by them compared to many other celebrities. I won’t lie, it does hurt sometimes. But then I think that’s a small price to pay for being read.
In my case, I also have to deal with the so called keepers or 'literary brahmins' of literature. These are often people with a good command over the English language and exposure to English books, but often poor analytical or logical arguments skills. They had a special position in society when only a few people read English books. I have demolished that and brought their high chair crashing down, with everyone reading books now. Of course, they will get hurt. They will try to demean me, try their best to isolate me from their world (‘but Chetan Bhagat is not really literature, is it?’) and in those attempts expose their fakeness and lack of understanding of what literature is meant to be - a mirror to society. My books are doing so much better than many pretentious books out there, and it hurts them that despite their great knowledge of English they can't write one article that has impact. I understand their pain.
So yeah, that's what it feels like, to be adored and to be trolled.
In most of your books heartbreak and the turnaround of life thereafter seems to be a recurring theme...
I write about ordinary people. Relationships are highly important to most. I can't write a story about an ordinary person and not cover their relationships. I am fascinated by human behaviour, particularly in the way we bond with each other. It's the kind of writer I am. I can't, for instance, write sci-fi or fantasy. Real people are far more exciting to me than any superhero out there.
Are there any feminists you identify with?
I have liked the words of Sheryl Sandberg, Melinda Gates and even Hilary Clinton on feminism. I also see Priyanka Chopra and Kangana Ranaut as my heroes, who came from nowhere to rule the film industry. Non-celebrity women, everyday women inspire me. I saw a woman jog in Central Park, pushing a baby pram with her child in it, such was her dedication to fitness. When you see women cutting vegetables in the Mumbai local, so they can cook dinner, on their way back from a fulltime job, it inspires you to work harder too. Given the modern world, there are more heroic women than men out there, I can tell you that.
You have lived both in and out of India. As a writer has any one city or country affected your flow of thought?
I think Delhi features in a lot of my books, though I am trying to change that. Varanasi and Patna inspired me enough to write books set there, and I did visit these cities a few times. Ahmedabad taught me about the Gujarati entrepreneurial spirit. I have lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade and the buzz and can-do spirit of that city has had a big impact on me as well. The benefits of capitalism I witnessed there have formed my pro-economic reform stance. Now I live in Mumbai, a city that inspires millions. I consciously stay away from writing articles or books on the greatness of Mumbai - there are just too many good ones already.
Journalists are always scoring points off you...
Maybe they are frustrated writers getting nowhere. Maybe they are just frustrated, period. Or maybe they are right and I don't deserve my success. When I am writing my stories they are people I barely remember.
Am I writing my next book? No. I am just enjoying not writing. Now is the time for some silence. As I say in One Indian Girl, awkward silences lead to interesting things.