Chetan Bhagat knows the best way to deal with haters
Get to know the brand new feminism recruit
When I first heard whom I had to interview, I groaned. He’s everywhere; his interviews pop up on YouTube, his tweets are quoted by news sites and at any given point, someone is hating on him on my Facebook wall. What was I going to say about Chetan Bhagat that no one had already said before? Interviewers looking for new angles have tried to analyse him by examining his bookshelves or wondering if he did not get enough love as a child. Criticism of his work is usually just a string of cheap shots. Like some sort of movie star, he is both ubiquitous and a bit of a puzzle. If his books are as objectively bad as some claim, how come they are enjoyed by brainy people like Amitav Ghosh and Leila Seth? If he is so influential, how come he’s not more careful about what he tweets? More than anything, I wanted to find out if he’s really a feminist or if his latest book—One Indian Girl (Rupa Publications)—is just an elaborate set-up to get actor Kangana Ranaut interested in his next script.
So then I got curious. Could I approach the omnipresent Mr Bhagat with earnestness and a sincere desire to engage and achieve some sort of breakthrough? There are a few things that helped me decide in favour. One: I am no literary snob and read 2 States (Rupa Publications, 2009) back when it was released. It has moments that are funny, insightful and packed with the kind of gnarly family drama that is so satisfying to read. Two: I am non-confrontational and he would have no reason to be on the defensive with me as he so often is in other interviews. Three: As a feminist, I was intrigued that the best-selling author, in his new book, had decided to wade into waters that most men are careful to diplomatically skirt.
After almost two hours in conversation with Bhagat and his wife Anusha, who joined us halfway through, I have some answers but mainly, I just have more questions. He is a generous interview subject and affects no prickly author vibe. But then, he also believes that most criticism of his work comes from “elitists” and “extreme feminists”. On the other hand, his critics can be sneering and bullying. Then again, Bhagat’s tone of smug presumption that he knows what’s best for women, men and India at all times can be provocative. But he means well, doesn’t he?
After meeting his very articulate but media-shy wife, I was even more confused. Anusha is even-handed, measured and serious, where her husband is hyperactive, voluble and emotional. He told me he didn’t see any merit in the points raised by the people criticising One Indian Girl, but when Anusha explained that the swapping of the term humanism for feminism (like a character does in the book) was inadequate, he accepted that perhaps it was. If his critics have the idea that Bhagat’s theories are accepted wholesale by those who love him, they could not be more wrong.
“I have always been attracted to smart, successful women,” confirms Bhagat. He sought the advice of smart, successful women on this manuscript too, to make sure it wasn’t offensive or mansplaining. He shared it with some 30 women, consisting of IIM batchmates, former banker colleagues and of course, Anusha, who is the COO of the multinational financial services company UBS. “She’s never really connected with my previous books, but this time she did. She considered this a feminist book. I thought she was my ultimate test; I didn’t realise that there was a degree of feminists above her also.”
One Indian Girl is the story of Radhika Mehta, an investment banker whose love life fledges at the same time as her career. Her high-powered job in Manhattan keeps her challenged and satisfied, but her boyfriends fall way short of expectations. The first dumps her because she earns more than he does, and the second assumes she’s too ambitious to ever want a family—something he, a married man and her boss, doesn’t deny himself.
Some feminists believe Bhagat is perpetuating the cliché of the successful woman whose personal life is a mess. “Some have said that if you’re writing a feminist novel, how can it be about this girl’s quest for love? There’s more to a woman’s life than love. Yeah, but love’s pretty important.” It’s certainly important to his readers; you only have to read the comments on his Facebook page to see this. Many of them are upset that the book isn’t romantic enough.
The real problem is not the love story, says Bhagat, but the fact that Indian feminists don’t really empathise with the problems of the average Indian woman. He says that of the 100 women he interviewed as research for this book, many didn’t even identity with the F-word. “We’ve made it a bad word. It has been used and abused by what I call extreme feminism,” he says. In my experience, women who say they aren’t feminists usually have no idea what that word means—and what it doesn’t.
But Anusha gets there before me. “So maybe it should be explained [to these women] that being a feminist doesn’t mean you’re an activist who participates in rallies or talks about gender equality every chance you get. Maybe that’s what they think it is. But for anybody who is exposed to the inequalities, this is a redundant question. Then saying I am not a feminist is like saying I’m okay with a situation where women are denied choice,” she says.
Stand down, ladies, Anusha’s got this.
It’s become painfully clear since the Trump victory that we live in our own private bubbles online and the degree to which these echo chambers can insulate us from the ground reality is shocking. Because no matter how many snarky op-eds are written about him, Bhagat is deeply loved by an overwhelming majority of Indian readers. It’s impossible to find a seat at his sessions at literature festivals. The pre-orders for One Indian Girl on Amazon overtook those of 2016’s other big release, Harry Potter And The Cursed Child (Scholastic). I don’t have a fan in my circle so my first brush with one was through an interview done by Scroll.in in 2014. Shreya Bhatia, a student of economics and CB superfan, described his writing as honest and raw. “He writes for the people of his country, in the language they understand and converse in.”
Can an author aspire to any higher praise than that? Just to be read and understood is miraculous enough, but to be considered the voice of a nation? Bhagat takes this responsibility seriously. Too seriously? He tours as a motivational speaker, writes columns with click-baity headlines (‘How to tackle radical Islam’) for The Times of India, has authored two non-fiction books titled What Young India Wants (Rupa Publications, 2012) and Making India Awesome (Rupa Publications, 2015), and in a bid to further his reach, has turned screenplay writer for Bollywood blockbusters—3 Idiots (2009), 2 States (2014) and Kai Po Che (2013)—as well.
“Sometimes you get tempted to try anything that can give you the reach you want. I always struggle with maintaining that balance between popularity and credibility,” says Bhagat. Handling the fame and fallout of being such an outspoken public personality can take a toll on the novelist persona, the one who observes more, opines less. But Bhagat won’t be moving to the mountains to write anytime soon. “There is a marketer in me, there is a thinker in me and there is hopefully a writer who writes emotionally in me. I’m not shying away from anything,” he says.
There is a quixotic fearlessness to Bhagat; he can call himself a thinker with zero self-consciousness. If he has a point of view on something, then by-god, you’ll hear about it. Sometimes it’s the kind of highly questionable statement that, if you were his friend, you would call him and say, ‘Dude, stop talking.’ Like when he said this in a column titled ‘5 things women need to change about themselves’, last year: “What’s the point of collectively harping on equality, when as individuals, you are happy to lapse into being clueless eye-flutterers, just to keep men happy?” Raise your hand if you think the problem is not women who flutter their eyes, but a system that ignores talent in favour of said fluttering.
I think we do a huge disfavour to Bhagat’s readers by attacking and not engaging him on points like these. With each new book release, the author actually comes off looking better than his critics, most of whom are too incoherent with rage to really make a point. Or they’re too busy chasing page views. A DailyO.com take on his book that went viral and pegged itself as the “nastiest review of Chetan Bhagat’s new book” was filled with personal attacks and gleeful hostility. “The gloves are off,” says Bhagat. “There is a mini industry powered by Chetan Bhagat-hate and it is a viable one too. The Internet has no patience; people want instant gratification. But it is a slippery slope for the website because ultimately this sort of thing kills credibility.”
When a writer of popular fiction bemoans the culture of instant gratification, it makes you consider the corrosive effects of fame. The fact is that 2016’s One Indian Girl is a lesser book than 2009’s 2 States. It proceeds at such an impatient clip, so keen to get to its destination and make its point, that it misses some obvious points of interest. There’s a scene in it ripe for dramatic possibility, where Radhika confronts her mother for almost aborting her because she (the mother) didn’t want another girl child. But that conversation is left unexplored. To write a book that’s ostensibly feminist and not explore an avenue that would find resonance with millions of Indian women is a baffling choice for both a novelist and a thinker. When he was asked about this in an interview with TheWire.in, Bhagat remarked that if he had fleshed out all these details, the book would be about 50-100 pages fatter. Well, so what? I think Bhagat might be shortchanging his readers by anticipating that all they want is a quick, digestible story with only one point to make.
Bhagat agrees that there is a crisis in popular Indian fiction today. “Publishers are making the same mistake they made when literary fiction was booming—chasing the next Arundhati Roy. Now they are chasing the next Chetan Bhagat. That actually annoys my critics even more because they believe I have created this mediocrity.” The truth is that Bhagat is no more to blame for this mediocrity than feminists are to blame for some women not seeing the point of feminism. We could all stand to try a little harder.
Photograph: Anish Sarai.
On Chetan: Cotton shirt, Chetan’s own; wool blend blazer, Anas Dokadia; Styling: Surbhi Shukla.