Chetan Bhagat: “I’ve been told by women that I understand them better than many men”

Just saying!
Just saying!
Image: Reuters/Altaf Hussain
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When Chetan Bhagat writes, India reads.

Since his debut in 2004 with Five Point Someone, Bhagat’s books have sold over 12 million copies, making him one of the country’s most commercially successful writers. He has written nine books, four of which have been adapted into Bollywood blockbusters. Yet, the former investment banker is often derided by India’s intellectual class, dismissed by literary critics for his simplistic prose rife with stereotypes.

But Bhagat doesn’t care, arguing that he’s writing for a different Indian audience, one more interested in uncomplicated popular fiction.

Over the years, the dichotomy in his growing fame and his unpopularity among critics has remained consistent. And it played out publicly once again with the recent release of his new book, One Indian Girl, in which Bhagat assumes the voice of a female protagonist for the first time. Publicised as a successful attempt at figuring out Indian women, it is the story of the ambitious, young investment banker Radhika Mehta and her relationships with various men who fail to accept her aspirations. As usual, it has provoked a new wave of Bhagat-bashing online.

Nevertheless, the book made history when it topped Amazon’s pre-order list in India within two hours of its launch online, further establishing Bhagat as a voice who connects with the masses. Earlier this week, Quartz had a long conversation with the writer in New Delhi. Here are the edited excerpts.

Why did you take up a female voice and why now?

The idea has been with me for seven years, I’ve always wanted to do it… I’ve had a feminine side to me, for the lack of a better word. I’ve been told by women that I understand them better than many men, I think that just may be because I understand people. I thought it will be interesting to do this because they do think differently from me. But to do a whole book was a different task because I write in first person and if the voice doesn’t work then whatever your story is, it will crash. That was the fear I had seven years ago and I didn’t have enough experience as a writer. I told myself this—when I cross a decade then I could say I have some understanding of this process. I wanted to do a book, not just about a female character who is, say a detective, that is still simpler, I wanted to do a book from a woman’s point of view about women. And when you have so many books you’ve sold…you have so many safe options behind you, to do something so risky scared the daylights out of me.

You spoke to over 100 women to get this book going. Has this been a form of mid-life learning for you?

Yes, huge, every day was a new awakening. And then I realised what is missing is that feminism has become too hard. The idea of feminism is that it gives women strength. Feminism doesn’t mean that a woman is always strong. For example: if a guy breaks up with you on WhatsApp (referring to his protagonist Radhika) you will be devastated. You have to be real, and human, and emotions have to flow out of you. You cannot say that I’m a feminist and I won’t let this man affect me.

Feminism is not what 20 women who go to Khan Market decide. It is not an elitist cause. Even though their (the average Indian girl’s) feminism is less modern, it is not coming from articles in the New York Times. Their feminism is: I want to educate myself and do other things for my life but I better look good tonight, he must like me. That’s the movement in India, that’s what the girls need to get. At the same time, I don’t want him to push me to have sex with him, at the same time I don’t want him to disrespect me, or ask me to quit my job for him. I want him to care about my dreams. These are all the real issues. They aren’t regressive issues.

Feminism in India is quite complex, partly because of a regressive society. How do you address that?

So, yes, someone needs to grow that feminism 101. Bring those girls into the fold and the forefront, and not make it a four letter word but get them to relate to, say, a Radhika and say, “Oh, I think like her.” Nobody is really reaching out to the average Indian girl. It is confusing. Sometimes there is a film like Pink on one end and then item-numbers on the other hand. She cannot understand or make sense of it.

And do you, a male author, feel responsible for carrying the baton forward for women?

No, no, I do not. I’m a fiction author, I do justice to a cause. I’m no activist. I’ve written books on the education system, on inter-community marriages. I write books on what stories need to be told in India. But please, the experts, the people who are passionate about the cause, take over, use this book. It is selling anyway, I don’t need you to sell the book. It has enough entertainment value in it for itself or for it to become a movie. But you can take this and use it as a starting point with Indian women and say: Do they feel this way? Will you be forced to make a choice (between your job and family)? Will your boyfriend make you do something that you don’t want?

Power and sexual freedom are key themes in your book. But in India, women are merely waiting to be heard. Aren’t your themes then misplaced in the Indian context?

It is more than just that to Radhika. She wants a man who will accept her the way she is and she is finding it hard (to find such a person). For me, her sex life is no big deal. Today’s young generation is far more out there. I don’t think she has a sexual agenda. But the bigger agenda in her head is, can a man accept the fact that I love my job and that I also want to be like Kusum (another female character in the book who is a married woman with two kids) and have kids and a family?

Is this the definition of feminism for you?

Feminism is a very broad topic. It is one story and it cannot cover everything. Small-small scenes (in the book) are there to show instances of feminism. But broadly, it is about the average working woman’s life and what she faces. If Radhika was a guy and the same thing was happening i.e. working at Goldman Sachs, dating a girl and made three times the money as his girlfriend, I don’t think the protagonist then would have had a problem.

So gender became very important. If Radhika was a guy, none of this would have happened. That was interesting for me why the gender means so much even to a girl who is making half a million dollars a year.

You tend to polarize people. Your readers love you but critics hate you. Is there a dichotomy to being Chetan Bhagat today?

There is a lot more love when I travel to real India. There is criticism…but there is a lot more love. And that is why I am where I am today. But there are some people who don’t like me and that is a combination of various reasons. People don’t like my writing style. Some think I’ve appropriated their cause or perhaps they don’t like my (ideas on) politics, because I write a lot on politics and the moment I’ve written something against your great leader they get upset about that. The human in me wants to be liked, but my job is not to be liked.

I think a writer’s job is to speak up and give his mind. It cannot please everyone. The idiom I’m using is the idiom that reaches out to every centre of India. Literature in India has been very elitist, and I’ve broken some of that ivory tower and democratised it so they are not happy about it. Some (resentment) is coming from there, or maybe they genuinely feel that I don’t write good books. But then someone says they’ve read all my seven books and they are all crap. But if you don’t like a writer, don’t read seven books written by them.

Is it because people feel you write on topics that you are not an authority on?

That’s what, they feel like I’ve appropriated their cause. The authority comes when the book is accepted. The books are accepted because millions of copies are selling. Why are they selling?  If people are buying it and reading it and talking about it, is because it means something to them.

But it also oscillates from books fit for Bollywood blockbusters to columns probing IPL scams…

I cannot write a column on one topic. It is not authority, it is opinion. You can ignore it if you want to. Look, there is a certain understanding of India that I have. Certain social observations I’m able to make and certain analytical skills I have. I’m not claiming to be an expert, not on Kashmir, not on feminism, but if I feel something about an issue, should I shut up about it? There are liberals who say why is Chetan Bhagat saying this. Freedom of speech is for people like us, not for people like Chetan, because he comes from the grassroots level and connects to people who come from small-town India, from cities such as Bhopal. That’s the space of entitlement they are coming from.

If this was a white guy writing this book, it would have been different. The prejudice is because of my readers, because they are simple and not as articulate as them. But that doesn’t mean they are not humans or feminists or have views on these topics. Why is there such hate? If you want to read, read it or don’t. Somewhere it has connected with you. The topic has caused a reaction within you and you cannot take that away from me. There is an elitist enlightenment on literature. Certain people who are privileged in India want to control opinion and that is not happening anymore—because now more people have access to social media so they are coming out and banging their fists on the table and saying I want to be part of the dialogue too.

Do you now write keeping in mind a Bollywood script?

See movies are not that simple. For movies, a lot of stars need to be aligned. You need the funding, the actors. But Kangana’s (actress Kangana Ranaut showed interest to play Radhika at a recent book-reading event) interest in the book just might make it happen. We also have Half Girlfriend (based on Bhagat’s last book) coming out now in May. They look at your track record, your star cast, your budget and all that. I think it will render well (if it gets made into a movie).  I write stories but they work as movies so that helps, but it’s not the first priority for me. If Bollywood was the first priority for me then frankly doing a solo female lead story is not the easiest movie to get on the floor.

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