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Chetan Bhagat: Right place at the right time

Rihan Najib | Updated on November 23, 2018 Published on November 23, 2018

His own category: Chetan Bhagat’s first book Five Point Someone changed the landscape of the Indian publishing industry   -  V SUDERSHAN

Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat believes it is not his writing that sets him apart, but the fact that he creates stories people can relate to

Fame can be exhausting. Take Chetan Bhagat. He is in his hotel room, signing copy after copy of his new novel The Girl in Room 105. Based on pre-order sales alone, the book was on Amazon’s bestseller list. It is still ranked #1 on the e-commerce behemoth’s website. Just for a sense of scale, former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s eagerly-awaited memoir Becoming is #5.

But the 44-year-old author is suitably modest about his success. He lapses into the third person to underscore the humility that unbridled fame is known to induce in people. “This is not a usual Chetan Bhagat-type book,” he points out helpfully. “This is what people expect of Chetan Bhagat,” he tells BLink at another point of time.

Occasionally, of course, modesty clashes with candour. What else can a man do but write when he knows that he has the gift? “Critics keep getting lost in the grammar and language, but I have seven editors. They can check my manuscript day in and out, and they do. But they can only polish the story. They can’t create it. I think it’s a gift,” he says.

Born and raised in Delhi, Bhagat’s education in two of India’s premier institutions — Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi and Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad — epitomised middle-class success. He joined Goldman Sachs as an investment banker in Hong Kong, and then realised something was amiss. “I was just not very happy in my bank job,” the author recalls, “I was like — I’ve done it all IIT, IIM, working at Goldman, but I was happier in my tiny hostel room in college. Maybe I was feeling lonely in Hong Kong, but I just wanted to go back to the old times and reminisce.”

Out of those reminiscences came a book that changed the landscape of the Indian publishing industry. Five Point Someone: What Not To Do At IIT, published in 2004, sold more than a million copies worldwide, and created a new genre in commercial fiction. But he recalls that he had trouble getting the book published, with every major publishing house turning him down.

“Back then, they were looking for the next Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy,” Bhagat says. “My novel was not Booker-winning material at all, so from that perspective, the publishers were doing the right thing. But what they were ignoring was that India was just coming into its own. Millions of people were learning English in schools, accessing technology and learning basic tech functions in English — Save, Delete, Send. These people could read a simple book in English, but not a Rushdie. I stumbled on those millions of people.”

“I was at the right place at the right time,” the author sums up.

Seven novels down, some of which have been turned into commercially successful films such as 3 Idiots and Kai Po Che, Bhagat has cornered the fiction market, even if that has meant he is also a byword for kitsch. With recurring themes of star-crossed lovers, coping with unemployment, fighting familial pressure, his novels are written in colloquial English with inflections of regional dialects. “People relate to my books. I think that’s the real ability, even more important than the writing,” he explains.

 

The Girl in Room 105 Chetan Bhagat Westland Books Fiction ₹199

 

His latest book The Girl in Room 105 is a murder mystery set in Delhi, and generated controversy on social media for featuring a romance between a Kashmiri Muslim girl and a Rajasthani boy whose father is in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Discussing the contentious pairing, he explains why he chose the locations for the characters: “I felt that Kashmir is really misunderstood by people. You only hear about the extreme elements — terrorists, army violence etc. People all around the country read my books, and I thought that if they read about this Kashmiri girl and what Kashmir is actually like, they will probably learn more about the Kashmir issue than what they see in the cacophonic debates.” Without a trace of self-doubt, he says, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

His evaluation of the RSS, on the other hand, is generous to say the least. “The organisation is trying to come into the 21st-century, while they also have a legacy — some parts of it are good and there are some parts they are not proud of. I think they are finding it hard to shake that legacy off and evolve into the new, but I think there is a desire to,” he says.

An active Twitter-user, he is often trolled for his controversial statements, but he insists it’s all part of his marketing strategy. “I use trolls before a launch and they play right according to plan every single time,” he had tweeted in September.

More recently, in the slew of the sexual harassment allegations that came to light as part of the #MeToo movement in India, Bhagat was accused of sexual misconduct by author Ira Trivedi. Following Bhagat’s denial of the accusations, Trivedi has sent him a legal notice.

Meanwhile, the author continues to make appearances in the literary circuits, promoting his latest book and decrying the harassment charges. Perhaps the most Chetan Bhagat-type thing he has done so far is make it very difficult for anyone to ignore him.

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Published on November 23, 2018
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