Chetan Bhagat can be accused of many things, but not of modesty. It is true that he has less to be modest about than most people. It isn’t just that he’s India’s best-selling novelist; it is that he is now streets ahead of the competition. “My only rivals,” he explained gently to CNN-IBN, “are movies, and Candy Crush”. Candy Crush, of course, is the dangerously addictive game that large numbers of people play on their mobile phones. Unlike Candy Crush, however, Mr Bhagat has a larger agenda than just taking your money. Like many novelists, he wants to reflect society. In fact, he wants to change it. All while taking your money.
Pause for a moment to consider exactly how much Mr Bhagat now dominates pop culture in India. A movie he helped write, Kick, has just become the highest-grossing Indian film in history – the first to rake in more than Rs 200 crore at the box office. The movie it beat to become number one, 3 Idiots, had held the position for several years – and was based on a book written by Mr Bhagat, Five Point Someone. Just a few weeks ago, the film 2 States – based on another of Mr Bhagat’s books – crossed the Rs 100-crore mark. Meanwhile, Kai Po Che – based on The 3 Mistakes of My Life – was a comparative “failure”, with revenue of “only” Rs 60 crore-odd. However, it made up for that by being made so cheaply it delivered a return on its investment of 36 per cent. Amazingly, even Mr Bhagat’s books have the rollout normally associated with big-budget movies. Last week, he announced – through full-page, jacket ads in newspapers – that his next book, Half Girlfriend, was ready. The book even had a video “trailer” on YouTube, viewed 800,000 times in a few days. When a sample chapter was put online, the demand caused his website to collapse. Twitter and Facebook, meanwhile, exploded with jokes about Mr Bhagat’s propensity for numbers in his book titles – Five Point Someone, 3 Mistakes, 2 States, One Night @ The Call Centre, and now Half Girlfriend. Given that Mr Bhagat has so far missed out on the numbers four and six, people asked with some justification what he has against boundaries.
The trailer for Half Girlfriend, meanwhile, was instructive. It talked about a boy “from Bihar” named Madhav who fell in love with a girl named Riya, who wasn’t interested in him because she spoke English better than he did. (It was not considered relevant to reveal where Riya was from – unintentionally emphasising how knowing English means you transcend your origins.) Mr Bhagat has said that, through this romance, he intends to explore questions of class in India, and how that’s bound up with the English language and with the state of the rural education system. Oddly, perhaps, for a book supposedly about class, it is to be set in St Stephen’s College in Delhi, not known for providing an opportunity for various classes to mix. Indeed, if anything, St Stephen’s is the most proudly elitist institution in India. Still, given Mr Bhagat’s fondness for placing his characters in “aspirational” locations – including, so far, the Indian Institutes of Technology, the Indian Institutes of Management, and Citibank, all locations that Mr Bhagat himself has graced with his presence – St Stephen’s should be honoured that it continues to be considered aspirational even in the Chetan Bhagat era.
Mr Bhagat’s ambition is not small. Through his book, he says he intends to dismantle the elitism that surrounds English. Given the rioting aspirants to the civil service, this is a topical subject indeed. Not that Mr Bhagat is anti-English per se. Writing in the Times of India, he makes the nuanced point: “Let there be English. But let there be no class system about it.” Perhaps Half Girlfriend might actually succeed in making both points, where others have failed. Certainly its author will expect no less of himself. As he says, with characteristic modesty, in his column: “I must say I have had a part to play in dismantling this [elitist, English-speaking] club.” Anyone who has read his books will agree.