To read or not to read Chetan Bhagat

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past two months, it’s fair to say you would have heard about THAT new book. I don’t claim to have any insight into what a half girlfriend is, but I know books, and for Chetan Bhagat to claim that he’s writing for people for whom the English language is a challenge is a bit snobbish.

Before all you fans throw your virtual brickbats at me, let me explain.

Ever since his first book came out, one of the constant criticisms that Mr. Bhagat had to face was the fact his language wasn’t eloquent enough, that his lines lacked any literary validity. It’s a fair point, considering his sentence formation is mostly redundant, and there’s hardly an efficient use of words.

Yes, yes, arm chair critics and all that, but that’s the beauty of reading books, isn’t it? There is so much perspective to glean from sitting at one place.

But you don’t have to take the critic’s word for it. Even Chetan sir agrees that his grip on the English language is nothing to write home about. Well, not in so many words of course. That would be a travesty to Brand Chetan. The smart thing to do would be to sidestep the whole thing and turn the tables on the critics. After all, a little guilt-trip never hurt anybody, did it?

And so we hear Chetan saying that his books are not for elitist readers but rather for those people who do not find reading English easy.

Are we to assume that whoever finds English a challenge does not have in them the necessary determination and discipline to learn the language? Are said people supposed to give up now that Chetan sir has come out with books that cater to their supposed level of proficiency and forever remain there without seeking any improvement whatsoever? Isn’t that a bit contrary to all his claims to want to make the country a better place through his books? Maintaining the status quo never helped anyone, especially when it means mediocrity is championed.

This does not mean not knowing English means you’re mediocre. As much as Mr. Bhagat would like you to believe it, English is certainly not the latest class system. It just makes operational sense to have a common language. For a country that is divided by so many dialects and languages, English is a language that is accepted almost without a second thought. You tell a North Indian to let Tamil be the national language, he will oppose it vehemently. And vice versa. The simple reason is everyone is proud of their mother tongue, and that’s how it should be.

But in a corporate setting, where people from all over the country work in a single office, and whose clients are more often than not from foreign countries, English is the only way communication can smoothly flow across all departments. Mr. Bhagat’s claim that someone who knows English better gets paid better salaries may well be true (this without any statistical backing as of now), but given that 2 people are equally talented, communication skills become the differentiator.

So what good has Chetan Bhagat’s books done for this young, middle-class India he claims to represent? Has it improved their chances of having a better shot in their careers? Not really. In fact, it has reinforced in them the notion that it is not their fault if they cannot gain proficiency in a language that is central to their company’s working. Whatever efforts they may have put in to learn the language would have been for naught, because it remains half done.

“To do something well is so worthwhile that to die trying to do it better cannot be foolhardy” – Bruce McLaren.

But it would be foolish to call Chetan Bhagat a stupid man. Far from it, he’s got a brilliant mind. After all, he’s done his research; he’s drawn his pyramid, he’s found his target audience, he’s written his books with them in his mind. Not to reach out to them to make their lives better, but because that is where the untapped market is – those people who have not been able to successfully transition from haltingly understanding the language to being comfortable with it. His books are aimed at those who do not pick up an English novel for fear that they would not understand it, for those who are not willing to test their limits.

 Let us not even get into the chaos he’s created in the Indian publishing scene. Far from being a great influence, he’s led people to believe that mediocre writing will sell, and so the many half-baked, barely edited first drafts masquerading as published books from everyone who’s ever felt the urge to write.

So, let’s not kid ourselves. Chetan Bhagat has no intention of improving anything, barring Brand Chetan. His books are barely novels, the plots and characters are shallow, but his marketing is impeccable. Praise him for his business skills, but please, for the love all that is good in this world, do not call any of his works a masterpiece.


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