12 October 2009

2 States by Chetan Bhagat

Stephen Covey and Jeffrey Archer rolled into one
I found the first 50 or so pages of this book slow and not very engrossing. That could be because they described a campus romance, something I’m too far removed from to really relate to. I’d begun to think that maybe Chetan Bhagat was losing his touch (instead of, to use the kind of expression that sometimes appears randomly in his books, sustaining his readability growth curve) when I suddenly realised that time had passed, I had nearly finished the book and, ignoring yells from family members to join them for dinner, was shrieking with loud inelegant laughter as Chetan Bhagat did the very best “going to Kashi” ever.
Many south Indian wedding ceremonies incorporate the going-to-Kashi ritual in which the groom tucks his umbrella and a copy of the Gita under his arm and leaves the pandal. The bride’s father is supposed to trot anxiously after him, begging him to come back and marry his daughter instead. So Chetan (who with his IIT-IIM background would naturally have an especially brilliant way of doing things) strolled outside and hopped into an auto and let it drive along for a few seconds and only stopped when his sober, intellectual father-in-law-to-be was racing behind them in all his wedding finery screaming, “Hey! Come back!” or something like that.
2 States
is a fun story about a Punjabi “boy” and a Tamilian “girl” who meet at IIM A and all that they do before they finally get married. What I liked most about it was that it brings out the pain and confusion inherent in a close encounter between people of different cultures very clearly, and that it uses humour and candour to do so. There’s a lot that one can learn here, and not just that marble flooring is to a Punjabi what a foreign degree is to a Tamilian.

Chetan Bhagat apparently had a tough time finding a publisher for his first book Five Point Someone, a story about life at IIT. It appeared in May 2004 and met with instant success, as did One Night @ the Call Centre the following year. In 2008 the 3 mistakes of my life apparently topped the sales figures of the previous two books. One Night is a well-researched story of the call centre life and a lovely tale that tries to make people understand their own priorities and motivations. 3 mistakes is based on his most ambitious theme to date, the Hindu-Muslim riots in Ahmedabad.
I wasn’t able to get through Five Point Someone, but I did enjoy the next two. Technically, I’m supposed to sneer at Chetan Bhagat’s books because they don’t have a literary quality, which they don’t.
The language is casual, which would have been fine by me if the editing and proofreading weren’t unforgivably sloppy. I like it that there's no forced Yo! cheeriness, and no purposely-stuffed-in Indian words as some writers do to show how cool they are. But why keep using the F word as if it's some kind of growth vitamin? Don't they teach you at IIT (or IIM) that using sexual expletives to express anger or frustration is bound to eventually ruin your sex life? And why would his editor allow the book to say that someone was "hitting upon" someone else, as if they were an idea, instead of just "hitting on" them which is all they were actually doing?
Then the main character, even when it’s not Chetan himself (as in the first and the fourth books) tends to be a clone of him, with predictable thoughts and responses. Many ideas - and even clothes, the heroine in more than one has an exquisite turquoise blue sari - are repeated.
Still, if you can read a book from one end to the other without stopping, lose yourself in the author’s world for a few hours and come out of it slightly different than you were before – Yeah Baby, and who am I to argue?

I also found that the books were unpretentious and with a strong social-activist flavour, which I admired though at times I found it rather half-baked. He writes about young people, and tries to introduce what he sees as forward ways of thinking, encouraging them to cast off the shackles of restrictive and sometimes primitive traditional ideas. Traditional middle-class Indians might find him a little too generous in the matter of premarital sex – two weeks after the first brush of hands, they’ve invariably gone ahead and Done It.
I guess that’s ok because it helps young people who are going ahead and Doing It in spite of all the restrictions they’ve been reared with to temper their guilt – but to my prissy sensibilities, there’s not enough talk in band-leader Bhagat’s books about condoms. If people start following these new rules in a country where abortions are as easy to come by as Aspirin (and dread of swine flu is apparently more consuming than reservations about HIV), there’s a lot of biological trauma on the way.
Then he goes and buys in to the primitive western concept that a man must go down on his knees to propose marriage to a woman, who has no say in the matter whatever, and has been waiting anxiously all the while for him to do so which I think is a terrible, terrible pity considering how much power he has to shape some decent values.

Chetan Bhagat's books have been wildly popular, and not only because they are all priced lower than Rs. 100. People are reading and enjoying them. After the second one, newspapers began to carry interviews of people across India who claimed that they had never read a book in their lives before but absolutely loved Chetan Bhagat and had sworn to read everything he ever wrote. You can read fan comments from some of these people on the official Chetan Bhagat website here. Even my husband Ajay, who in his spare time organizes volunteers to conduct road-safety campaigns in Pune, tells me that when he asks a hall full of undergrads whether they’ve heard of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, someone will almost always raise their hand and call out proudly, “Chetan Bhagat!” In short, here is an amazing never-seen-before national phenomenon.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2009, I saw Chetan Bhagat with the media and fans flocking around him. I saw him hanging out with his wife and twin infants (and their "maid"). I even saw him pleading, rather endearingly, with the cranky genius Vikram Seth for his autograph. And I felt sorry that the extraordinary sale of his books had been unable to protect his self esteem from the barbs of pompous reviewers. He came across in all these situations as defensive and a bit cocky, and the impression was perpetuated in other ways as well. This book opens with: “This may be the first time in the history of books, but here goes: Dedicated to my in-laws*
*which does not mean I am henpecked, under her thumb or not man enough.

The previous one was dedicated to his twin sons and the woman who produced them “with just a little help from me”. I found this invitation to the world at large to acknowledge his private moments with his wife distasteful and a little, excuse me, "Yawn".

Still, I have to say that, like Chetan Bhagat's hundreds of thousands of fans, I look forward to his next book and wonder what it will be about, which number will appear in its title, and what he'll be trying to convert us to or from as he keeps us engrossed and amused.

No comments:

Post a Comment