Bhagat’s rising popularity

Randeep Ramesh


At 35, Bhagat’s chronicling of the trials and tribulations of the country’s middle-class youth has made him a publishing phenomenon in India. His first two novels have sold more than a million copies, dwarfing those of writers in English labelled best-selling.

His latest novel, a bittersweet small town comedy set amid a trio of Indian obsessions — cricket, religion and business — sells a copy every 17 seconds. His work will reach parts of India others can only dream with the Bollywood film Hello, adapted from his book One Night @ the Call Centre.

Bhagat covets mass appeal. His books are priced at INRs 95 (£1.20) — the same as a cinema ticket. The author says his work is a mass market product in a country with no tradition of English-language pulp fiction.

His last book was launched in supermarkets. “We don’t have bookshops in every town. We have supermarkets. I want my books next to jeans and bread. I want my country to read me,” he said.

Bhagat’s formula is simple: write in the quirky, quick-fire campus English that young Indians use and focus on the absurdities of how to get ahead in contemporary India. “What is the purpose of literature? It is to raise a mirror to society. What is the point of writers who call themselves Indian authors but who have no Indian readers?” he said.

Such brash populism has drawn barbs from the literary world. Many critics say his books have no lasting value. He is condemned for not using “proper” English and writing novels fit only for “toilet reading”.

But Bhagat is unperturbed. “It’s just the old establishment in India that controls too much of the media. They do not ask what my sales say about a generation of young people in India.”

With a booming Indian economy and loosening social mores, Bhagat’s first novel, Five Point Someone, was published in 2004 at an opportune moment. Young people had begun to have far more options than their parents but their choices remain circumscribed by a traditional education system and overbearingly high expectations.

Five Point Someone is a story of the exam-overloaded lives of students who get into the country’s top university, the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, only to rebel against the stultifying atmosphere of academic competition. It features drinking games, soft drug use and an affair between a student and his professor’s daughter.

Bhagat, himself a graduate of the university, says the book’s breezy manner should not undermine its message: that India’s overachiever ethic smothers creativity in the pursuit of passing exams. “(In India) people are just mugging up and puking out whatever they study. It’s not a proper education.”

One Night @ the Call Centre, his second novel, is a romantic comedy set in an office where bored young Indians sit behind terminals helping to resolve inane queries from technologically challenged Americans.

Bhagat said he got most of the best lines from friends and relatives working in call centre.

“In the book a trainer says that the brain and IQ of a 35-year-old American is the same as the brain of a 10-year-old Indian. That happened to a friend of mine.” Bhagat’s own story is a reflection of the hunger that drives this young India. By his mid-20’s he had become the embodiment of the Indian dream: an investment banker in Hong Kong. Disillusionment set in after his firm went bust in the 1998 Asian financial crisis just as his parents divorced and Bhagat’s father refused to accept his son’s decision to marry a woman from a different part of India. “I have not really spoken to (my father) since.”

For Bhagat the generational divide is the one India desperately needs to bridge. He said the older generation grew up in a time of scarcity and prized a suffocating social conformity where everyone lived separate but equal lives. The young are almost a race apart with a liberal attitude that is inimical to the Indian hierarchies of caste and creed.

Bhagat’s model society is China, not because of its economic success but because of its social upheaval. “India needs a cultural revolution to change mind sets. In China it was bloody, but India needs to learn the old ways are not always the best ways.”

Bhagat still works for an investment bank. He said he could not give up the day job because his lifestyle required three incomes: his own, his wife’s and that from his writing. “I have twin boys. My six-figure dollar cheque from Bollywood is not enough to pay a year’s rent on my (Mumbai) penthouse.”