The dichotomy between what is considered ‘high’ literature and ‘low’ literature has existed since time immemorial. As a student of Literature one is severely scrutinized and judged by the books they read and scorned for the books they choose to not read. Therefore, reading Popular Literature is like a self-pleasuring act that one indulges in, in the darkness of the night but never admits to doing so.
For us, Literature students getting caught with a Chetan Bhagat novel is as mortifying as turning up for our Graduation ceremony without pants. Chetan Bhagat has as many detractors as George Bush if not more. There has been extensive criticism of Bhagat’s works especially by those who have never read his books but claim that it disturbs their literary sensibilities. While some call him the Stephanie Meyer of English Literature in India, some believe that after violating all possible rules of grammar it is unlikely that he is able to sleep peacefully at night.
It is safe to say that the Literary purists would not classify the work of Bhagat and the battalion of IIM and IIT graduates who took to writing like winners of beauty pageants take to Bollywood as Literature. In that case, what explains Bhagat’s presence at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival is hard to say.
Surprising as it may be The New York Times named Bhagat as ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history’ and the Time magazine listed him as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the world”.
Bhagat’s target audience is the populace of our country, he writes to please and entertain them. His writing is unpretentious and most of it stems from personal experience. He ridicules and plays with local stereotypes and has an insight into the Indian psyche.
Dialogues like “marble flooring is to North Indians what a foreign degree is to south Indians” invoke a chuckle once one gets over the blatant stereotyping.
The protagonist of his books is often an average Joe who struggles against the brutalities of life and always triumphs in the end; his victory is validated by his union with his lady love no matter how unattainable she may have seemed at the beginning of the text. The reassurance and comfort provided by his books keeps his loyal readership hooked.
His best-selling books have been adapted into quintessential Bollywood masala movies, 3 idiots which was based on his first book ‘five point someone’ went on to collect 375 crores at the box office and was termed a ‘cult classic’ by several film critics. His stories provide Bollywood a chance to forgo their obsession of remaking Hollywood movies and give directors the rare opportunity of working on an original script.
The unpublished author inside each one of us may lead us to despise Chetan Bhagat for his instant and immense success, we may loathe him for the lack of sentence structure, gripping storyline in his books but we must reluctantly admit that he has made books an integral part of the Indian travel itinerary. Spotting a girl reading a Bhagat novel in a metro is easier and more common than spotting stars in the polluted Delhi sky.
We may accuse him of propagating bad literature but we cannot over look his contribution in making reading a more approachable and leisurely activity for the masses. His books may not please the Literati but as a story teller if he can create a parallel world for his audience, a safe haven that they can turn to escape their mundane lives then therein lies the secret of his success and popularity.
It is said that the first and only duty of a story teller is to tell a story, and bhagat manages to don the garb of a story teller as easily as he shed the investment banker’s skin. He has his finger on the pulse on his target audience and serves them exactly what they need in a lingo they understand best.
Bhagat’s success marks democratization in the world of Literature and should be looked at positively. Everyone has a story, we live in them, we create them and we dream them. If you have a story to share then you should pen it down, who knows you could be the next paperback king/queen of Indian Literature? If Chetan Bhagat can do it then so can you.