Every now and then someone comes up with a phrase that fills you with competing levels of envy and admiration.
I sleepily unfold the newspaper and see something I’ve never seen in India before: a full-page advertisement for a green and orange book, Chetan Bhagat’s latest. That envy and admiration flood through me as I see the title: Half-Girlfriend.
What a concept sir-ji, I think! What a way to encapsulate those might-have-beens, those ambivalent, ambiguous, hesitant relationships that are there, yet not quite there. What a fabulous phrase to communicate that love is actually a half-fairytale with a misty beginning, a messy middle and a dodgy end. Some people, somewhere, somehow, have very clear-cut relationships. The rest of us often have many degrees of different relationships.
Then I read the synopsis: A Hindi-speaking Bihari boy, an English-speaking Lutyens’ Delhi girl. He loves her, but she’s only willing to be his Half-Girlfriend.
Queasy curls of doubt begin to creep around my heart.
As part of the generation of women who had first began living on our own, away from home, in notable numbers, as women who encountered men very different from our own backgrounds in the course of our new lives and professions, do we not know that the world’s unfairness is not so neatly divided?
Enough women I know had had boyfriends who were fascinated by their angrezi wali appeal, the Uptown Girl Billy Joel had sung of in our early teen years. They had also known the violence of their suddenly moral gaze; the constantly being put-down because they did not know “real India kaisa hota hai madam”; the constantly feeling on the backfoot about their freedoms and their desire to be carefree, as if these were simply undeserved by-products of their class; and of course, frequently, the hurt and rejection when they were “punished” for being what they were by small coldnesses, ending in rejection and sometimes the choice of marriage to a more ‘suitable’ girl. In the intimacy of relationships, the equation of equality is a constantly changing one, showing us how complex identity really is. Could the story of love and power really be reduced to simple binaries of Angrezi wali and Hindi wala?
But then I thought – on the other hand there is Mr Bhagat’s declared desire to compete with Candy Crush Saga and WhatsApp. And I still feel fond of Five Point Someone. So I decided, this may well just be a marketing ploy, playing into simplistic, easy to consume divisions. A book has more word count than an advertisement, no, so it would communicate a more complicated story. So I flipkarted it as per Chetan Bhagat’s instructions on Twitter, and waited.
October 2014: The Beginning is the End
My book arrived. I was just leaving for the college town of Manipal, so I carried it with me to read on the plane.
The long weekend around Gandhi Jayanti aka Svacchata Divas had just finished and the plane was full of students heading back to college. Behind me, a young man chatted up the girl sitting next to him.
I eavesdropped with interest as he told her his dad was in the IFS. “Oh” she said, sounding impressed. He laughed. “That is to say Indian Forest Services, not Foreign Services.” He told her he was from Bihar, chatted non-stop, mentioned Urdu poets and finally, took her number. Very smooth, I thought, impressed, though it also struck me that the girl had said hardly anything in that half hour. This is the generation that we’re told idolizes Chetan Bhagat, and what’s not to admire about this guilt-free go-getting-ness? Faint heart never won fair lady, na?
I had quite forgotten about Half-Girlfriend by now. Almost as if to punish me for eavesdropping, the boy said: “Jeez, half this plane is reading the same book, Half-Girlfriend.”
Mortified, I cracked the paperback open.
On the flyleaf was a tripartite dedication:
For my mother
For rural India
For the non-English types
I don’t know about you, but when someone begins an endeavor by declaring it is for other people with that same lofty (especially in that lofty) visionary, looking-into-the-distance quality most often seen on posters of certain well-meaning TV programs, I start fearing I am in for something very boring. Isn’t it what parents always say when they want you not to have fun – “I’m doing it for you?” And the book’s dedication is not just for other people but, well, the masses. I am a child of the era in which one had to watch a lot of Films Division documentaries before the feature film in cinema halls, so I know whereof I speak.
As if to heighten my fears, the prologue of the book features Chetan Bhagat himself. And not just Chetan Bhagat, but Brand Chetan. I started getting nervous.
Bhagat is in Patna, where he meets a young man, Madhav Jha, who gives him a sheaf of yellowed papers and a generally sad vibe. Bhagat is irritated by the imposition, as celebrities are entitled to be. But when in doubt, kill. So as Madhav Jha informs him, the papers belonged to Riya Somani, the Half-Girlfriend of the title, now apparently dead. Hooked, Bhagat cancels his flight, spends the night reading the papers. The next day he summons Madhav and asks to hear his story.
At this point it would be fair to ask why I should object to Chetan Bhagat appearing in his book, where I might find Shahrukh Khan’s in-film references to his Raj/Rahul persona sometimes clever and amusing.
Well, the great difference is that Shahrukh Khan is always a little self-deprecating, a little humorous about these references. Mr Bhagat, on the other hand, has already struck an earnest note with his “speaking for the masses” dedication. The prologue is no different in tone. Up top, Madhav Jha wistfully tells Bhagat about his Half-Girlfriend Riya: “She used to like your books. We used to read them together…For me to learn English.”
It feels like this is not so much self-referencing as product placement. But I guess if you own the channel, why not run your own ad, no?
Advert over, Madhav Jha starts narrating the story of Madhav and Riya. Soon I will forget Chetan Bhagat had made an appearance.
Using all the conventions of screenplay writing, Bhagat has begun with a flashback. The book itself is divided into three acts with neat plot points. (Note to producer: pay scriptwriter less or nothing, whichever’s more.)
This is not where the resemblance to Hindi films will end. My reading too has its own plot points in three neat acts.
I. Angrezi Main Kehte Hain Ki I Love You
There are some things Chetan Bhagat does really well.
He sketches protagonists with sure brushstrokes; they are ordinary, yet somehow heroic. There is a robust directness with which they describe their situation and motivations, which makes them feel not just believable, but immensely likeable. These boys are usually wholesome, but not such goody-two-shoes as to be charmless. Indeed, they entertain lots of mean thoughts about their rivals and desperate thoughts about girls whom they love from afar, which makes them enjoyably relatable.
Madhav Jha, the Bihari protagonist of this book is no different. He is from the royal family of Dumraon, the small town he comes from. His father is dead. His mother runs a school. He cannot speak English, but he is very good at basketball, which is how he has a chance to get into St Stephen’s, the country’s premier college, via the sports quota.
The beginnings of Bhagat’s books also take you very quickly to the heart of the protagonist’s dilemma with a clear scene that sets up the conflict, in the same way as you are advised to do in the first seven minutes of a conventional screenplay. In this case it is Madhav’s lack of English conflicting with his desire to have that elite education which will unlock privilege for him. Because the dilemma is conveyed with such disarming candor by the protagonist, because the sense of being disadvantaged is presented in such clear terms, I find myself instantly rooting for him. In fact, I continue to do so till the end of the book in varying degrees, and this is no small accomplishment. By creating a strong, direct voice and a strong clear opening scene, Bhagat gives us a way of joining our own experiences (in this case the college entrance interview) to the protagonist’s journey.
The other thing Bhagat does really well is evoke the wholesome college romance with its tiny, innocent tingles. The sidelong looks, the pretence of disinterest, the telltale giveaways that make your heart skip a small, smiling beat. In Half-Girlfriend, Madhav smuggles Riya into his hostel room and the air is thick with tension just by virtue of the fact that they are alone together, with hardly anything happening.
But we have all been here, and we all know this. These romances are experienced with the delicious and painful intensity of first love, but they also have a sweet prelapsarian quality to them, a pre-liberalization quality even, I’d say, wherein the class divide doesn’t feel so stark. There is a generalized Indian middle-class experience that Madhav Jha has, which I, a middle-class English wali, can still identify as being familiar.
It makes me laugh nostalgically in the same way a cartoon I saw on Facebook the other day did. The cartoon said: I don’t know much about love, but what I definitely know is it has ruined the Class XII results of many people. It is so desi and familiar and I like that. It might (only might, ok!) also be the reason that I did not go to St Stephen’s but made it a little lower down the ladder into Miranda House on the second list.
Madhav’s relationship with Riya proceeds with a sweet, hopeful simplicity but never seems to go beyond a certain barrier – remaining at half-girlfriend level. Riya seems enigmatic and we, the readers, are so identified with Madhav that we too struggle to understand this enigma of her evasion; try and interpret her every sign (“she took my fork did it mean anything?!”) and puzzle over her refusal to commit, much as we have done in every ambiguous relationship of our own.
No matter what class background we may be from, the experience of uncertain love is universal and that is the charming thing about the story so far. Just as we may have wondered if our beloved can’t commit because we are not beautiful enough, cool enough or smart enough, so Madhav worries he is not angrezi enough and certainly not rich enough for Riya.
What is most entertaining though, is that he is not abject in this. There is a muscular desire to slay the dragons in his way, even if he lacks the tools. His running mental commentary was my favorite part of the book and I found myself laughing out loud in airports and restaurants while reading it.
For instance, at a fancy party Madhav is dying of jealousy when Riya calls her rich friend Rohan ‘Ro’. Madhav thinks “She even has a petname for him, Ro! In Hindi Ro means to cry. I wanted to make Ro ro!”
“Rohan danced with Riya’s friends [by the swimming pool]…I wondered if I could pretend to dance and kick Ro into the water.”
When Riya counts him among her best buddies – “I hated that word buddies. Buddies felt like a pair of stuffed toys placed next to each other.”
“Girls are really good at such stuff. Even in sleep they can contort themselves to maintain the boundaries of appropriate physical contact.”
Madhav also has a set of four friends-cum-relationship advisors whose advice makes us cringe and laugh with affection. Youth’s scowling inexperience and its brash need for certitude are etched with tenderness here.
In other words, I am quite enjoying myself in this book. Every now and then I like a phrase and every now and then I also wince at some terrible cliché, but frankly, I just want to know what’s going to happen between Riya and Madhav, so I don’t dwell on all this too much.
And yet, a strange feeling is growing in me. It’s as if, like the half-girlfriend, the book too is in a half-relationship with me. It beckons to me, with smiles and phrases. And then, just as I begin to get involved, it does something to push me away. I wonder why this is happening and flip back through the pages. That’s when I realize what it is.
There is only one thing stopping me from wholeheartedly liking Chetan Bhagat’s book.
And that is Chetan Bhagat.
Why and how is this happening? I realize that Chetan Bhagat won’t let me form my own relationship with the characters. Here’s what I mean.
At the beginning of the book, Madhav does a couple of really cool things.
The first is at his college interview. Here, Madhav is confronted by a panel of heavy Stephen’s types emanating brown sahib, Lutyens Delhi privilege. They intimidate him with their English, their clothes and their power as interviewers. I identified deeply with this scene. I never did well in such interviews. They filled me with the dread that while I tried to prove my suitability, the interviewers had the X-ray vision needed to lay bare my unsuitability. I felt a variation of what Madhav thinks elsewhere in the book - “I need more time…I need a new accent!” I failed many such interviews, including for colleges, precisely because the smarmy superiority and bullying of interview panels made me feel so loserish that I said stupid things, became craven.
So as Madhav struggles to answer, I suffer with him. But unlike me, Madhav does something heroic. He stands up to the interviewers. He insists on answering well in the language in which he thinks: Hindi. When they point out the medium of instruction here is English, he challengingly asks them – don’t you know Hindi?
The scene neatly dissects the power dynamics inherent in these rituals of belonging. Why should we already know the things we are going to college to know? What are these gates and who are these gatekeepers?
The second cool thing happens afterwards at the basketball trials. Madhav sees Riya for the first time and is smitten. She’s beautiful, out of his league. Yet, he talks to her and discovers a commonality – she too, despite being an angrezi wali, is competing in the sports quota. He boldly asks her to watch him play, because he knows he is awesome and he wants her to see beyond his exterior. She does and a friendship begins.
This is admirable chutzpah. As the boy sitting behind me on the airplane had demonstrated, faint heart never won fair lady.
When Madhav looks situations in the eye like this, I wanted to stand up and clap, but the pilot on my flight had turned on the fasten seatbelt sign and in a way, so had Chetan Bhagat.
Bhagat, like so many of us Indians, is very influenced by the form and the sensibility of the commercial Hindi film. But in a Hindi film, even the crappiest one, such moments of triumph would get a song – at the very least a music montage. An emotional fulsomeness would celebrate the character’s demonstration of heroism.
Yet Bhagat gives us the scene, but no paragraphs of affirmation, no whoosh of victory to underline what his hero has done, which is, overcome his hurdles with his own strengths.
Instead, throughout the early chapters, Bhagat is much more interested in reiterating and underlining the villainy of the “English speaking monsters” than the fact that Madhav has defanged those monsters; he is also at pains to provide constant reminders of the hero’s victim status, sometimes falsely.
For instance, “All four of us came from Bihar or Jharkhand and none of us were the classy types you see in Stephen’s. For instance nobody in Stephen’s would say they watched Bhojpuri movies. We loved Hindi film music, from Mohammed Rafi in the sixties to Pritam in the here and now.”
Since the book makes claims to social reality, it’s fair to ask here: why should people who don’t speak Bhojpuri watch Bhojpuri films? Do Madhav and his friends watch Tamil films? Probably not. Does that make them North Indian chauvinists? Do people who listen to Western pop or jazz not listen to Hindi film music? They would beg to differ. These are false schisms, from the 1980s, and it is perplexing that Mr Bhagat should be so anachronistic in this description.
At Riya’s party, a Bihari waiter gets into a conversation with Madhav, and when Riya asks Madhav what they were discussing he just shakes his head because “There are things some people can never understand. There is no point telling them.”
This seems absurdly sanctimonious, considering Riya is his best friend and they have spent much time exchanging confidences. At one point, in fact, when Madhav says, “I hope I can fit in. I don’t feel I belong here,” Riya answers “Trust me, nobody does.”
Instead of building on the commonality, Mr Bhagat seems to constantly drive home the difference. There is a whininess in this that feels similar to Mr Bhagat’s public persona, say, in mainstream and social media, in which anyone who critiques him is classified as a hater. It’s as if Chetan Bhagat’s double is forcibly and forcefully inserting himself into the story somehow.
But I like Madhav’s romance with Riya, his push to get closer, to kiss her, to be her boyfriend. I am dismayed by his mis-steps which lead to painful consequences – and I can also remember being at the receiving end of such mis-steps. I feel if I just follow this thread it will take me some place truthful, surely. When, at the end of Act One, Riya declares she is dropping out of college to marry Rohan, under pressure from their rich Marawari parents, I just want to know what will happen next.
So I quiet my disquiet, and move on.
II. Chetan Bhagat explains things to me
In Act Two of the book, Madhav, heartbroken at losing Riya, has gone through college in a haze. Now, selected for a Rs 6 lakh-a-year job at HSBC, he decides to chuck it all and go back home to help his mother with her school.
I feel happy that the hero is still being decisive, not choosing the mainstream but taking us down alternative paths. My apprehensions that Brand Chetan might come back at the start of Act Two for another Hitchcock-meets-Subhash Ghai self-appearance have also not come true.
But Double Chetan is around a lot more, like a tu jahan-jahan chalega mera saya saath hoga background song. Which is to say, story events seem to be equaled with a commentary of sorts on the History and State of the Nation.
For instance on returning to the village (which for some reason Madhav seems to not have ever visited even in the Diwali holidays, unlike most Indians) and being shocked at seeing it has no roads, we are told: “Dumraon is in Buxar district around sixteen kilometers from Buxar town on the banks of the Ganges. If you were not sleeping in history class you would have heard of the Great Battle of Buxar in 1764. Frankly it should be renamed the Embarrassing Battle of Buxar.”
The Battle of Buxar was fought between the East India company and three Indian rulers. The Company won a decisive victory, laying the foundations for colonial rule because, Chetan-Madhav tells us, there was so much in-fighting. And this is our national shame. But we brought it on ourselves and continue to do so, it seems. We have been so busy fighting each other always, that we have been defeated by foreigners. We are still doing this, and that’s why we are so backward.
“If the Battle of Buxar had not happened, there would have been none of that English high class, rest low class thing bullshit that happens in India. There would not even be St Stephen’s college. Just imagine, if only the jokers in Buxar had done things differently maybe the white man would have been speaking Hindi and Bhojpuri would be the new cool.”
I feel perplexed by Act Two beginning this way.
Here is our hero, returning to his village a la Shahrukh Khan in Swades. We’re hoping he will do something interesting here. He will celebrate his origins in a way that will make us teary-eyed and senti.
Instead he is mulling a several hundred-year-old “national humiliation”. Why, at every juncture when the hero does something decisively in favor of his own identity, does Mr Bhagat bring up shame?
Is he trying to undermine his hero? Tchah! how can that be?
Also, Madhav-Chetan may have been awake in one history class, but they seem to have bunked others that might have told them that there was no national entity called India before the British colonized it as such. So, yes, it’s true, there would not have been any St Stephen’s, but equally, there may have been no nation called India and Indians who are supposed to be united in order to achieve world domination wherein the white man speaks Hindi and raps Bhojpuri.
The rise of this whining tone is making me lose sympathy for this hero. Madhav comes from the royal family of Dumraon. Meaning, his ancestors were rajas. Meaning normally, where there are rajas there is like, you know, feudalism. And before the East India Company did its number on us, there was also this thing called the caste system, which hey, is a part of our Indianness we managed to hold on to just fine with a little help from the self-same East India Company. So perhaps Madhav-Chetan is right. There would have been no Angrezi-Hindi oonch neech. But what makes them suggest there would have been no other kind? Double Chetan provides us a simplistic history lesson, a half-history that does not fully frame our complicated present.
As Madhav goes about trying to help his Smita Jaykar-type mom (note to casting director) who is quite funny on occasion when she keeps calling the local MLA “useless fellow”, his funk is interspersed with a sort of commentary on how corruption, political nexus and other such predictable, but unexamined bogeys are keeping the nation back. Then, he becomes concerned with girl-children and my heart sinks. I am beginning to feel I am watching an episode of Satyameva Jayate. Basically the village girls aren’t coming to school. Madhav confronts the sarpanch. Sarpanch says they have to walk two kilometers to get water. If water connection comes, girls will study.
The book is beginning to feel less like a paperback novel and more like propaganda. Or as the Hindi film song goes, dhanda hai par propaganda hai yeh. Overtly the book may be like a Hindi film, but inside beats the heart of a government sponsored documentary (not a really juicy independent one). You can understand, na, why I am feeling trapped?
I find myself wanting to shout, Goddamit Chetan! Why won’t you just let me enjoy the story? What happened to the story? Why do I have to keep getting this social gloss? Is it because You. Don’t. Want. Me. To. Enjoy. Myself??? No, that can’t be, can it?
But there is the suspicious disappearance of the half-girlfriend. Why does a book that begins as a love story abandon the love story?
I mean, think of a film like, say, Manish Sharma’s Band Baaja Baaraat. It’s a not dissimilar love story. A Delhi girl who wants to have a life, but knows she has a limited window because her family will want her to marry, meets a Jat boy who wants to escape the provincialism of his roots. They are attracted to each other, but put it on hold to pursue a joint wedding planning business. She fears both love and ambition – because she knows they will be thwarted by convention. He wants love and ambition because he feels that’s the only way convention can be thwarted – through success. What should be complementary turns into a conflict when the two sleep together. Their awkwardness, the difference in their expectations implodes and they become rivals.
Both are miserable without the other and it is only in the resolving of their differences, in changing a little for the other, that they arrive at a new future both personally and professionally. Love, tested by difference, finds a way to become a stronger, enabling factor in changing people’s lives and in this way, bit by bit, the world. That’s how great love stories work. They tell us a story about the world, through the story of two people.
But by now, Half-Girlfriend is completely not interested in the character after which it is named, or the relationship between these two characters and the worlds they both belong to and want to leave. It has abandoned the story of love for the story of power.
But even the story of power is somewhat half-hearted. When Madhav begins making efforts in the direction of educating girl children, talking about larger systemic inequities, I wonder where the book will go. How will Madhav use his inherent qualities of decisiveness and persistence to tackle this situation? Now, instead of us seeing him as a victim who cannot speak English in the country’s capital, will he see how he is in a position of strength vis-à-vis low caste and rural poor and find a way to redress it, having understood inequality’s difficulty first hand?
Madhav finds a solution alright. It is called the Bill Gates Foundation. The government won’t help him. So he will ask a foreign donor. Cool. The only hitch is, to get this he will have to win a cricket match, sorry, I mean, give a speech in English.
You know how there is that moment in many a Hindi film when you have been enjoying its local color, its quirky characters and funny dialogue – and you suddenly realize it is copied from a foreign film and feel bad?
This is around when this happened to me in Half-Girlfriend. I thought, oh no, it is copied from an English film. That film called The King’s Speech.
And at this interval point in my reading, right on cue, tall Riya appeared. That too, in Patna. Madhav encounters her of course, because apparently Patna is such a small town. And then it’s easy, right, because Riya can help him improve his English, so he can deliver his money-getting speech.
This is when I realized I’d been had. Chetan Bhagat, who writes that “When we don't allow our women to come up, or create stress for them if they do, we are not allowing half of India to come up” had betrayed me.
The Half-Girlfriend was not a woman character for me to identify with and try to understand. She was a half-girlfriend because that’s as much woman as most stories told by men in India seem able to contain. The half-woman who exists only to make the hero’s journey easier.
In Act One, she helped him have a sense of belonging to St Stephen’s and Delhi. In Act Two, she helps him improve his English so he can win the prize of Bill Gates’ donation. Educate a woman, educate a family, right?
Did I already say this? The only thing that’s stopping me from liking Chetan Bhagat’s book is Chetan Bhagat? I realize he does not want me to like his book but be ‘transformed’ by it.
But I still want to try.
After her divorce with Rohan and estrangement from her own family, all of which as per usual she avoids discussing, Riya has got a job in Patna. She makes a ten-point program to improve Madhav’s English. The most important point on this list, which includes “think in English”, “Calling Call Centres [One Night] and choosing the English option,” and so on, is “Read Chetan Bhagat’s books.”
Okay, no need to kvetch. It’s been a while since any product placement happened. After all a guy has got to do the due.
Meanwhile Riya exclaims at how quaint the village is. But you know what? She’s not the only one. I think, maybe so does Chetan Bhagat. He has created a little toy Bihar in which people are always eating litti. It’s like if people always only ate dhokla in Gujarat or daily dal makhanis in Punjab.
Many of you may not know what litti is. Which is a pity. Litti-chokha is a Bihari dish normally made in the winter. It is a deep-fried wheat ball stuffed with sattu – roasted gram flour. It is brought hot to your plate, split open, and a little pure ghee is poured over, which seeps into the filling. Bite into it and a dozen flavors sing through your senses – a zing of mustard oil, a zip of garlic, a shock of green chilli, a mischief of cumin, a suggestion of saunf. You eat it with chokha, which is roasted brinjal mashed with onions, coriander and green chilli and a similar relish made with tomatoes. It is so delicious that no one can eat just one. At least, I can’t.
But it’s also as if in Bihar people do not also eat dal puri, that extra-crispy alu bhujiya, the thekua which is like balushahi without the chashni, those plump Bihari malpuhas, dahi-chuda and of course sattu (though sattu is mentioned once, along with meethi litti) aside from the normal dal-sabzi which makes up most Indian meals.
No such detail is provided. The village exists with a Ramu kaka type public that waits for its Raj Kumar Madhav to save it from its singular qualities of backwardness and litti.
The problems of rural India, painted in broad predictable strokes, are not presented unempathetically. But they seem intractable and also quite separate from Madhav’s story. Electricity, water, corruption, poverty, difficulty. Madhav feels bad about it, but it’s not as if he’s going to address it in anyway.
The parallel narrative of Madhav improving the school and teaching more kids English I suppose is implicitly some kind of solution. It is always, again, presented as a contrast to the decadent people eating sushi in Delhi – in terms of moral superiority. The structures around the protagonist, which generate inequality, end up feeling like local color.
The bulk of Act Two is dedicated to a Madhav Svacchhata Abhiyan. With Riya’s help, Madhav works to remove every trace of what Personality Development classes call MTI –Mother Tongue Influence – from his English. With his helpmeet, the tall, mysterious Riya who comes close but never becomes so a-svacch as to have sex with him, he remakes himself into a svachh global Indian who finally gives a Prince’s Speech and gets the 50,000 dollar grant – not to get water for the village, but to get furniture for the school and fix the building.
Gee whiz. How’s that for social change? Why change the system when you can whitewash the school? Or put another way, why write a novel, a story, which might actually make you think about feelings and ideas, when you can just construct a piece of propaganda, based on simplistic reality?
As if to distract the reader from these muttering thoughts, Riya starts coughing. And I start feeling like, kya? Heroine ko TB hai kya?
Milli, sorry Riya, has not got TB, but its updated global India version, lung carcinoma. So at the moment of Madhav’s victory, she disappears, conveniently leaving behind a bunch of diaries and a letter saying she has three months, so don’t look for me, forget me. Ja jeele apni zindagi Madhav.
By now Madhav – heroic, plucky, funny Madhav – has long since died. He has become Svaccha Boy, the superhero with no real powers and a dull heart. This is why he does not do what you and I would have immediately done, even if only to torture ourselves more. He does not read the diaries.
He just feels sorry for himself. Which is exactly what I am feeling.
Even in these troubled times of the novel, one grace always remains. There is a great little scene when Madhav and Riya kiss on the roof of his house, after much persistence. Kiss for a long time. When he wants to discuss it she says, “You said one kiss. Not one kiss followed by in-depth discussion on the quality of the kiss or what it meant.” Madhav, incredulous, thinks, “How can you brush aside the most incredible kiss in the state, possibly the world, without a basic review?”
There may be no fidelity to storytelling, but Chetan Bhagat is a natural at this feeling of very easy equality between his male and female protagonists. A collegial friendly intimacy that always makes you happy.
In the impassioned discussion that follows, Madhav speaks at length. And his English is perfect. In such a moment, the story of love and transformation come close and are presented with a human-scale lightness. But these moments are few indeed in the book. Far too soon we are again drawn into the overstated contest of Hindi vs. English.
Note to producer: while writing the proposal for the film, you can say it is The King’s Speech meets Milli the way East meets West. I do want to say that when Riya was being evasive with Madhav about her life I was getting this bad feeling that it might be The King’s Speech meets Highway, because now we know that when a girl is spry and feisty but enigmatic and moody, there could be a little Alia Bhatt referencing and sexual abuse is a sure-fire success-guaranteed packaging element nowadays. Anyway, the heroine after whom the book is named has died. At least narratively, we can’t complain that we are not wondering: what will our hero do next?
III. The brand strikes back
On a recent TV appearance along with Samit Basu, a writer of fiction in English, Mr Bhagat, in his best plaintive voice, sang his now familiar victim blues about how English-speaking elites, by looking down on him, look down on his readers.
Refusing to be drawn in, Mr Basu asked the question I was thinking: Why when Chetan Bhagat is rich, ahead of every writer, in a place of such influence, is he still playing the victim card?
Almost endearingly, Chetan Bhagat was confused. He struggled to answer, for once losing his self-righteous man-of-the-people tone.
It was hard for him to answer, because how could he say that his brand is inextricably linked to victimhood, hence he must necessarily always play the victim card, just as he does recurringly in his new book?
In Act Three, the flashback being over, Brand Chetan returns. It is the time in the story to show what Brands achieve.
There is a Latin term – deus ex machina – which means an unlikely event, or Act of God, which saves the plot from a dead end. In One Night at the Call Centre the deus ex machina was actually, well, Deus, or God. In this book, it is the natural progression. Chetan Bhagat.
Unlike Madhav, Chetan Bhagat has read the diaries. That’s when I wonder why Madhav sought Brand Chetan Bhagat out to read them instead of asking a friend, if he couldn’t bear to! So Brand Chetan reveals that Riya is not actually dead, but has gone away. Why? Because, a la “Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki”, she does not want her ‘past’ to taint Madhav.
Why? Because Alia Bhatt. And because Highway. No, really.
The diaries reveal that Riya has been a victim of incestuous sexual abuse by Daddy. On top of that, Rohan, like that chap in Subhash Ghai’s Pardes, sleeps around, bashes Riya up and tell her to shut up and put up with it because he’s ten times richer than her father.
Oh Chetan Bhagat.
How could you reduce women to such a half-package yaar? Can a woman not be feminist and fun and loveable without a deep secret? A deep secret in which she is a victim, but at the same time so self-sacrificing that she stands by her man and then leaves, rather than let the shadow of her past make his path a-svacchh so he has to have a shuddi-karan (aka Dharma Productions product placement)? Eventually Riya exists only to prove that rich, English speaking people are bad, and to help Madhav get his English game on.
It would be disingenuous to say that English is not important – that people should forego English and be poster children of native tongues, while English speakers progress. As one character in the book rightly says, “English is no longer a foreign language. It is a global language” So, all people should access it if they need. But the question is – is this all they need, as the book suggests? In an interview, Mr Bhagat has said that English and Hindi are the new caste system. Sociologist Sanjay Srivastava whose recent work looks at the creation of new Indian personalities through English speaking institutes and Personality Development courses, said to me, “As an idea it’s not something I’d dismiss. Knowing English seems to create a certain kind of mobility, so there is a kind of caste system in knowing it or not. In the sense that a Dalit kid educated in English will have better chances than one who isn’t.”
But what Mr Bhagat perhaps won’t acknowledge is that there is also a caste system within English. “Just knowing English, won’t of course open all doors,” Srivastava agrees. He tells me the story of a boy he met who had been through the personality development and skills training that is so popular nowadays. “Despite all these courses and learning English, the truth was, people weren’t actually willing to hire him. He happened to see the comments against his name on the interview sheet. It said “good, but Gujjar.” The implication was that while his recently acquired English was good, he did not have the cultural capital that takes years to acquire. English is a beginning and it’s better to have it than not, but without the fundamental structures changing, you end up creating a class or caste of English speaking people who will never really be able to progress beyond a very limited level.”
So, perhaps another caste system, hidden under the illusion of a technology of sameness.
This is a truth the book does not touch on. Equality is not a garment one can put on. Even if one learns English, it does not take away all the other inequities of class, location, caste and cultural capital. In fact, by hiding them with the false promise of sameness, it deepens the inequality. Language contains entire cultures, which words can never fully express.
Perhaps if Mr Bhagat stuck with writing a storybook these nuanced truths would have a chance to breathe. But Brands sell something. And the book becomes a perpetuation of that brand. English is a brand in this book, it is not just a tool.
It is also a particular brand of English, belonging to a monolingual world. In practice Indians are often multi-lingual, cheerfully inventing the language as they wiggle through the nooks and crannies of the system, so they can taste change now, not eventually, when it trickles down. There is a confidence in the way people invent a mixed language, a local creativity, a non-denominational pragmatism. This is not what Mr Bhagat is recommending. Like the language of his book, he suggests an English, simple but antiseptic, unmixed and uncorrupted by the genes of other languages. A svaccha English.
This is why a book that began with a hero insisting on speaking Hindi to clear his interview ends with the hero helping a Mexican immigrant in New York practice her English while attending a basketball game. And gorgeous, sensuous, luxurious descriptions of Greek food (drained Greek yoghurt with fresh cherries, thyme scented Greek honey and walnuts), something the litti was not worthy of. Although Madhav does point out while eating moussaka that it is just like litti.
It is ironic indeed that Chetna Bhagat speaks of a united India, but in fact his book is divisive in the extreme. It divides English speaking and Hindi speaking people falsely. It does not give Indians the confidence to be themselves while also pragmatically learning English, but insists we become something else to fit into the so-called global dream.
By presenting English as a counter to an essentially inferior version of Indianness, Mr Bhagat positions himself – the carrier of English for the non-English wala – sort of like a fairness cream. From the time these advertisements were little comics in women’s magazines to the contemporary pinkly well-produced TVCs, the story of the fairness cream brand is always the same. Can’t get married/get a job as a flight attendant/in the multinational corporation? Use the fairness cream, get that glow and get the man/job.
The power equation will never change. You can simply keep trying to alter your darkness, accent, language. The value of those things will not be altered and deep inside, you will always have those things. Constantly anxious about this hidden inferiority, you will seek constant proximity to the brand for reassurance.
In keeping with this, Hindi never really makes an appearance in this book. The only time it appears is when Madhav says something shockingly crass to Riya. In doing this, he reveals what he “really” is within. Hindi is equal not to an imposed inferiority, but to an essential inferiority and backwardness which Mr. Bhagat suggests can be bleached out by English – in this case Chetan Brand book-products and the attatchment to the BrandMan himself on social media where you can become part of the CB Family, as the back of the book recommends.
What is the equality Mr Bhagat believes in? As he said in an interview to Srinath Perur in Caravan magazine, in May 2010, “I now know my writing is powerful enough to create bestsellers. But is it powerful enough to alter behavior and thinking? Can I create a revolution?”
What is this revolution about? “I just want a country which is developed, which has money and an affluent standard of living. A fair society where talent matters, not connections. I see these restaurants in UB City with smart waiters who speak perfect English, and they are serving bread. They are not getting better because the system is not lifting talent, not creating opportunities. Big city, big pedigree, good English—people like you and me can find a job. They’re going to be waiters, work in a fucking call center, sell insurance on the streets.”
The waiter and the call center employee should have the aspiration to be something else – musician, CEO or banker – and the possibility of trying. But as long as we look down on certain jobs per se as inferior, a deep inequality and shame will persist – it is just another version of the caste system. All the English in the world will not make us equal if our minds believe in these hierarchies, which Mr Bhagat seems to. Only on the day that we respect the serving of bread as much as the selling of brands can we conceive of a healthier society, better salaries and have something that feels like equality.
The narrative of the Brand hollows out the story of this book, flattens out the meaning of story itself in the same way political propaganda does. The story never fully told is of two young people who don’t exactly fit in finding each other, falling in love across their differences, and through this love, finding a way to celebrate their differences; in fact, most importantly, via their relationship, to see their differences as worthy of love, instead of the source of shame. The story of this love is inexorably supplanted by the story of what English can get you. By reiterating the importance of English as a simple, magical panacea, the book chooses the controlling nature of power, over the enabling nature of love as the symbol it chooses to uphold.
Even within the love story, Riya becomes Madhav’s Full-Girlfriend only after the moment when he helps the Mexican lady practice her English in the USA. To the victor belong the spoils.
Meanwhile, because Mr Bhagat has said in his columns that he believes women are full people with a right to dream, Riya does fulfill her dream – of singing jazz in a New York bar. She must do this all on her own, without the helping hand she gave Madhav. Their love does not build a world of mutuality and give and take in a very equal way after all. For whatever reason, Madhav’s dream is superior. Because, like Chetan Bhagat he speaks for the less advantaged. Women, alas, have taken a back seat to these sorts of political moralities for years, so we should not be too surprised. The world of power that this story builds has room only for half women and messianic men.
This is perhaps in keeping with the extension of Brand Chetan into the Karva Chauth market. His notion of equality here too requires men to fast with women on Karva Chauth, as per a campaign he has done with shaadi.com. It does not question the implicit hierarchy of a woman fasting for her husband’s long life, so she can remain sada suhagan – always married, never widowed, dying before he does.
It says something about the power of love that even while I had completely lost my relationship with the book in general, my heart still thrilled when Madhav and Riya re-united. But of course this too ended with them at the school, where Brand Chetan visited them and Madhav proudly said: all the equipment here is from the US. As if that is what makes everything better, rather than an indigenous solution that might also have been cool. The equipment, like the English he recommends, must be international, not local, pre-fabricated, not customised. One size fits all. And those who it doesn’t fit, must remain uncovered.
Just like the power equation that does not change, there is something very wearyingly old about the kind of savior that Madhav, Brand Chetan and Double Chetan represent. Their elite status is dependent on having some non-elites that they speak for, just like the old Nehruvian elites Mr Bhagat is so scornful of. Saviors need you to be needing them all the time, not becoming self-reliant.
To be a savior is not only to be a Brand. It is to be the Only brand. One Savior, One Writer, One Leader, One God, One English. All else are false gods, counterfeit goods, a-svaccha temptations. It is to re-draw the boundaries of the market in a way that only you can be the leader. This kind of capitalism is very much like one kind of colonization.
I refuse to believe that Mr Bhagat cannot write a good storybook. I think he won’t do it, because once we feel the pleasure of those stories, we will desire more stories. More stories than can come from one person. Stories that are open to interpretation rather than tightly schematic. We will want the giddy heterogeneity of variety and rasa and feeling that stories give. One writer, one brand will not be enough for us – our dil will mangofy more.
Mr Bhagat makes a lot of the fact that his readers enter the world of books through his work. But, it is not books he wants to offer, only the magic key of English.
Books – pulp, literary, poetic, breezy – are also a kind of key to the world. For they show you what masala equality and inequality are made of, by giving you an inner life; they give you the ability to recognize nuance, be reflective, feel pleasure and pain and give you an ability to find your own key instead of Mr. Bhagat’s Kunji.
If Mr Bhagat were to read this, he would quickly make the jump he always does to present this discussion in binary terms. Oh these angrezi wala elites always look down on pulp and the popular.
Quite apart from the fact that Mr Bhagat is more elite than many folks I know, having gone to elite educational institutions and living in a posh part of town, this is simply not another binary of pulp and literature. Good pulp is just another way, another rasa, of talking about life, while bad pulp is just bad. All pulp is not alike any more than all spoken English is the same.
Surender Mohan Pathak, a beloved Hindi pulp writer who has written over 270 books and sold over 2.5 crore copies complained about his readers in an interview with Nisha Susan, in Tehelka, because they read nothing else but his books when in fact he wished they would revel in the world of reading in general. “People who don’t read are the same as people who can’t read.”
But those are the words of a person whose investment is in writing and reading, not in numbers. Of someone who is thinking of love with all its unpredictable outcomes, its niche preferences, its unquantifiable encouragements. I speak not of romantic love alone, but the love of books and stories and how it shapes our view of the world and creates a comradeship of humanity on the road of life.
This carnival of heterogeneous possibility is not of course what Mr Bhagat is offering, for all his declarations about social change. As the titles of his books with their unambiguous numbers indicate, his world, like many developed cities he admires, is placed upon a grid. It helps us to stay neat and clean in our little boxes.
Paromita Vohra is a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work focuses on gender, desire, urban life and popular culture. She is currently working on a non-fiction book about love in contemporary India. More at www.parodevi.com and less @parodevi.