One can never be a true elitist, unless one he mocks the tastes of the hoi polloi whether it is Salman Khan, Kapil Sharma or their counterpart in the literary world – Chetan Bhagat. No author who writes in English since the Bard himself has been the subject of so much ridicule as C-Bag, and perhaps no author in India has had as much impact.
Born on 22nd April 1974, Bhagat is unarguably the most read Indian author in English. Even before he was an author, C-Bag ticked many of the boxes that make middle-class mothers-in-law go weak in the knees.
IIT. IIM. A fancy job at Goldman Sachs. He gave it all up to become an author in a country where people barely read English books.
The truth is that despite being ruled by the British for the better part of two centuries, the quality of English education in India remains abysmal. The ability to write and read proper English in India is an unsaid class barrier in India, almost as powerful as the innumerable ones that already exist.
Even the PM of this nation, democratically chosen by millions, elicits smirks because he doesn’t roll his tongue and mind his Ps and Qs.
For a long time, reading English remained the preserve of the elite. Even today, in 2020, knowing passable English is a good enough reason to draw a comfortable salary, despite not possessing any tangible skills. This is why our TVs are replete with people who are articulate in English but pretend to be experts in everything from crude oil prices to infectious diseases.
This gap between the have lots and have nots began to diminish post liberalisation and the generation after discovered Chetan Bhagat and Five Point Someone in 2004. With Five Point Someone, Bhagat managed to touch two of middle-class India’s biggest nerves – speaking English and getting into IIT.
Unless one has experienced it personally, no one can truly understand the pressure that the middle-class put on their children to get into IIT. Elevated to a hallowed level, one almost believes the imagery that getting into IIT is the sole raison d’etere.
Five Point Someone was a breezy story about three friends, a coming-of-age tale which in another time and place could’ve been hailed like JD Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye. It had everything – drugs, friendship and girls, and became a hit movie starring Aamir Khan.
But what was truly remarkable was the way it was written, in simple concise English that was accessible to everyone, from the auto driver in Patna to the grandmother in Patiala who hadn’t read the language since Class V.
It was the true class equaliser, more than Marx could dream of. Understandably, it angered the cognoscenti who shoved crude epithets to describe it, like ‘fast food literature’ or ‘Bollywood on paper’.
However, much like the audience that throngs to watch Salman Khan, the hoi polloi didn’t give a fig’s leaf about the reviewers.
Bhagat might not ever appeal to those who swear by Naipaul, Rushdie, Roy and Ghosh, but he opened up reading for millions who didn’t consider it before.
Bhagat shot to fame that was almost unthought of for authors in this country. He was everywhere, judging dance shows and giving his gyan on every topic. He even made the 2010 TIME list of 100 Most Influential People, where the description was written by maestro AR Rahman: “I’ve seen the effect Chetan has on his readers. He often writes about following your dreams and not bowing to others' expectations. That isn't easy in India, where family opinion matters and some professions are regarded as more serious than others. I run a music school, and people have quit their jobs to study music. It's great to see brave young people giving their dreams a chance. Chetan's writing inspires that kind of bravery.”
Dissing Bhagat might give you some literary cred on the festival circuit, but all of them would happily have him because he makes the counters tick. And his book also served as a gateway to more literature, a stepping stone to read other authors in English, particularly for those who were scared away by the dense words.
Since then, Bhagat has morphed into a political commentator of sorts. While the commentariat has labelled him a ‘bhakt’, Bhagat in fact has shown an ability to read the pulse of the middle-class, criticising the government over decision that they know will irk the non-rabid middle class like CAA-NRC or the lockdown.
While purists will continue to frown, much like they do on the IPL, the author has helped create a grammar for millions.
Lest we forget, in his time, Shakespeare was considered vulgar and pedestrian and yet today, he is a master playwright. There are many who blaze a path which are then followed by lesser mortals. Chetan Bhagat certainly did that for Indian publishing.