On Friday, the new draft syllabus under the two-year old Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) in University of Delhi was announced. Based on the feedback by teachers and students, interesting new courses like Film Studies, Adaptation Studies and Performance Studies were introduced in the English literature syllabus in the University.
And among the new list of electives offered by English department to students from other disciplines was a surprising addition: Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone in the ‘Popular Fiction’ course.
I viscerally dislike Chetan Bhagat’s books, but I equally disagree with those who think Bhagat’s inclusion in the literature syllabus is an outrageous insult.
It’s not, and the reason is simple.
Bad literature (in this case, bad and popular) doesn’t mean it should be excluded from being included in a literary canon. Bhagat’s writing, however terrible it might be, shouldn’t imply that it’s not worthy of analysis or teaching.
For one, the definition of ‘bad literature’ is subjective (which is why you’re reading my opinion of Chetan Bhagat) and changes meaning over decades. (Ahem, Shakespeare).
But more importantly, seemingly ‘bad’ literature like Bhagat’s, does what no hallowed poet like Tagore or Tennyson can do – challenge established notions of what constitutes ‘literature.’
The Bawdy Bard, And Deciding What is ‘Worthy Literature’
“Shakespeare is the Canon. He sets the standard and the limits of literature,” said Harold Bloom, noted American literary critic in his book The Western Canon in 1994. And indeed, as I sat in a classroom on the first day of my English literature degree, I agreed with Bloom. “I must study Shakespeare,” I thought. “Isn’t he THE epitome of literature?”
Well, he is now.
During his lifetime, William Shakespeare's plays were considered suitable for predominantly crass, popular audiences, in direct contrast with the holier-than-thou way we sometimes view the Bard’s works. They were considered to be a departure from Greek and Classical plays, not least because he beautifully used puns, played around with the quirks of English language, and wrote plays which involved cross-dressing, murder, and even ghosts!
Even after his death, immortality wasn’t bestowed on Shakespeare and his works immediately. Samuel Pepys, a British Member of Parliament during the Restoration period in England, wrote in 1662 in his diary entry, a scathing review of Shakespeare’s celebrated comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“To the King's Theatre, where we saw Midsummer's Night's Dream [sic], which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”
As a naïve 18-year-old, I thought “good literature” was a rigid, intractable group of poets, playwrights and novelists, with Shakespeare at the centre of a privileged group symbolising ‘high culture’.
But as changing perceptions of the Bard clearly indicate, “good literature” is anything but rigid. The Canon is not defined by limits, but a tradition which should be dynamic and ever in flux. So, why can’t an admittedly popular writer like Chetan Bhagat be granted admission? Who is to say what will be “good literature” 100 years later? Who decides the aesthetics of “literary” literature and popular literature?
This is a debate which has been ongoing in University departments in India for years now, with the inclusion of James Bond novels and Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland in the University syllabus, is a small victory in stretching the limits of the canon.
Interestingly, alongside Bhagat, another popular writer makes her entry in the University of Delhi syllabus: JK Rowling with her Harry Potter series.
As mentioned above, I detest Chetan Bhagat’s books. But harbour a life-long admiration and love for Harry Potter. Both are popular books and clearly resonate strongly with a section of reading public — mirroring their anxieties, joys and sorrows.
Who am I to put my aesthetic lens on what is permissible as ‘worthy literature’ and what is not?
Why Shouldn’t ‘Bad’ Literature Be Studied?
When I tell people I dislike Bhagat’s books, most people assume it is because I am an elitist snob who can’t stand books which are ‘popular’ and written in ‘simple English’.
But that’s not true at all.
I consider Bhagat’s books to be bad literature because his plots lack coherence, his characters are woefully unidimensional, his language betrays disrespect for grammar, and he has negligible understanding of the socio-economic conditions in which his plots (ahem) are set. But despite this, I find his popularity among English-speaking, affluent, middle class professionals, fascinating.
Especially because the rise of Chetan Bhagat’s persona as an ‘author’ exemplifies a never-before-seen relationship between the market and an author’s literary merit in contemporary India.
What I wrote above is a classic literary analysis of a text, which will hopefully be mirrored in similar analyses of college students in University of Delhi when they study Bhagat’s books.
Terrible writing, doesn’t and shouldn’t preclude any text from being critically analysed, so why should Bhagat’s books be made an exception?
Studying in a film school in Mumbai, I was shown world-class cinema from around the world – Italian neorealism, film noir, cinéma-vérité, Satyajit Ray – but it was also accompanied by some cringe-inducing attempts at filmmaking.
The lesson was simple: You watch a classic to learn how to get things right. You watch a ‘bad’ film (again, very subjective) to realise you know what good cinema is. Similarly, you study a terrible piece of writing, to sharpen your skills in critical analysis, and strengthen your individual understanding of literary merit.
Chetan Bhagat’s inclusion in the University syllabus is not a death-gong for literary merit in India. It’s just an extension of a canon, certainly in a controversial direction.
But one which will compel hundreds of University students to ask a simple question which innumerable authors from time immemorial have grappled with:
What is literature?