Love him or hate him, but it’s difficult to corner Chetan Bhagat. This has been the case since the time he authored his first novel, Five Point Someone, in 2004.
The so-called literati class called him names, questioned his literary credentials, but if there is one writer who truly took English novels to all corners of the country, who made it fashionable for millennials to fashionably hold a book in their hands, and who inspired confidence among the students of the Hindi heartland that they too can read English novels, it was Chetan Bhagat.
He is the big elephant in the literary room which our self-proclaimed liberals often wished away, but he only grew stronger. “I threaten their elitist existence and ecosystem,” he says.
And as Chetan Bhagat comes up with his new novel, 400 Days, he talks to Firstpost about his journey so far.
Please tell us about 400 Days and how did the idea to write this book come to you?
400 Days is about a missing child in the backdrop of a love story. The overarching idea of the book is whether our children are safe in the age of the Internet when everyone has a phone; literally, anyone in the world can reach our kids through the Internet. This was the basic seed of the story. Then, there are my usual elements of love, friendship, romance, and now I do mystery as well.
You seem to have come a long way from writing romantic novels to now murder mysteries. How difficult was the switch?
It has been a long journey. It also means that I am old now (smiles). My first book came when I was 29 and now I am 47. So, it’s a very different Chetan Bhagat in that way. And I think it’s good to evolve. I was clear from the very beginning that I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder writer. And for that a writer must be willing to take risks. I write love stories but then I realised that we live in a generation where it’s a challenge to make a potential reader pick a book especially at a time when data is cheap.
The year 2021 is very different from 2004 when my first book came. Frankly speaking, it’s much harder now. So, I decided to add more layers to my stories. And this explains the element of mystery in my otherwise romantic tale. My book is not a pure mystery. It’s not Agatha Christie. It’s a love story; it’s a tale of friendship. It’s just that I have added more layers into the story through mystery. It’s my tenth book, and still I am sought after. It’s quite satisfying. Very few authors have such lasting powers, that too in popular fiction. It’s because I have reinvented myself. Because I have done new things each time.
Didn’t you ever feel that you are taking a big gamble by moving away from the genre which gave you instant and lasting stardom?
Oh, yes, it was a huge gamble. People who read mystery and thrillers, they have read a lot of such stuff. They know everything. They would guess everything at the first given clue. In that genre, if it doesn’t work, it’s over for you as a writer. You have to be bang on.
In a love story, you can still drag a bit and people will forgive you. But you just can’t afford to be wrong in mystery books. So, I was quite worried about when I wrote my previous book, The Girl in Room 105, my first mystery book.
But, then, I was equally worried about not changing. I never wanted to rest on my laurels. It never works. Very few artists, writers, filmmakers remain relevant after 10-15 years. And those who have are the ones who have reinvented themselves. Not taking risks is the biggest risk, especially in the creative field. But at the same time, I always knew that I would never be able to compete with the likes of Agatha Christie, and I should not. 400 Days is quintessentially a Chetan Bhagat book, with elements of mystery in the backdrop of romance and friendship.
People see you as master of romance and now mysteries. But underlying these genres, you always picked up issues of students, women, etc. What’s the larger issue your latest book is trying to address?
I am glad you said this. If my books were pure pulp fiction, I am sure they would have been forgotten by now. Ask people about 3 States or Five Point Someone, they still remember these books even after a decade. Longevity comes when your work has some relevance and it connects with people.
It’s got nothing to do with language, which should be kept simple in a country like India. I deliberately keep it simple. Sometimes people mistake simple language with simplicity of thought. It doesn’t work like that. 400 Days comes with a message that in today’s Internet era, no child is safe and we are not paying enough attention to that.
You have always been vocal about anything and everything under the sun. On the flip side, you have been subject to massive trolling on social media. How do you deal with it?
I just don’t care anymore. I have proved myself and have been around long enough to believe that my opinions aren’t completely invalid. I am not saying that I am all correct, but the fact that people still take my tweets seriously and Delhi University professors deliberate whether to keep my books in syllabus or not, then there must be something that is tickling the pulse of the nation.
The so-called liberals are one of your most vocal critics. They are always asking you what business you have to be commenting on national affairs. They never forget to remind you that you are just a pulp novelist… How do you see that? Also, what do you think is wrong with the approach of Indian liberals?
First, we have to decide who these liberals are, who they are representing. Are they representing the Indian public? Are they representing a certain class of elite people? Most often they come from a place of privilege and have what I call “luxury beliefs”. Just like luxury goods, there are certain beliefs that make you seem upper class today, and these are what I call luxury beliefs. But you can have these beliefs only when you are very privileged. Such beliefs are often distant and disengaged with what the rest of India thinks.
One of the key aspects of the elite status of the self-proclaimed liberals was that they read English books. These people of privilege have problems when the masses start doing what the former thought was their exclusive preserve: Reading English books. So, when the masses read Chetan Bhagat, these people of privilege make themselves believe that there must be something wrong with Chetan Bhagat’s writing. They don’t want their exclusive club to be expanded. I threaten their elitist existence and ecosystem.
There is no doubt that by using easy language, you have taken English novels to all corners of the country. Was that a conscious decision? And now that you are a celebrity author, do you ever get the temptation to ‘upscale’ your writings, as some of your critics want you to do?
What’s upscale? If you are talking about a scale that you are reaching every corner of the country, then I am very high on that. Because I don’t know how many people in the heartlands of India are picking up other English authors. The usage of difficult English vocabulary doesn’t mean higher intellect and thought process. It is not that simple to be simple. It is actually very hard.
400 Days is a multi-layered story. It was a challenge for me to mix so many plots and subplots and make it so simple that even a primary level English reader in India can understand the book. If it were so easy to write in easy language, who has stopped my critics to try doing the same and become a bestseller?
Your question, however, is quite valid. Such beliefs exist. Forget about novels and novelists, even in the media, a lot of news portals shut down in recent years, or are on the verge of closing down. I had told many of them to learn from me on how to reach the masses of India. But they didn’t want to be Chetan Bhagat. They wanted to be cooler, upscale. They wanted to ape the Western model. Well, most of them are dead now. Those who remain are those who have adapted themselves. Interestingly, most of these portals looked down upon my books. They didn’t realise that when they judged me, they were also judging my readers. I am nothing without my readers.
Last year, you were also the target of Hindu Right for your comments on love jihad and how these fringe elements are hampering India’s growth story. At that time, you also accused the government of not doing enough to rein them in. Do you still subscribe to that idea?
Well, the government can’t go beyond a point because these people are its most ardent supporters; they are a free and easy vote-bank of the government. This is the limitation of a democracy. Any party fighting elections will have to play a balancing act, especially when it has some blind supporters with crazy, imagined ideas regarding nation and nationhood. The government line is clear: It doesn’t support them, but does not go against them either! However, such elements have over the years been blunted a bit.
Since the success of 3 Idiots, almost all your books have been converted to movies. Is there any celluloid plan for this book too?
Yeah, but first COVID-19 has to go and theatres have to open. A web series is definitely an option right now. But things have definitely slowed down due to the pandemic.
Any immediate plan for the future
I have started a YouTube channel on motivation that is doing well. I may write a couple of web series or movies; it’s always nice to take a break from books. I also plan to relax a bit. I don’t have to work all the time (smiles)!