Saturday 19 December 2015

The Many Eklavya's of Guru Chetan Bhagat

The many Eklavya’s of Guru Chetan Bhagat

For those of you not familiar with the Mahabharata, the tale of Eklavya and Guru Drona (which is a small sub-plot in an otherwise massive epic) can be summarised as below:

Guru Drona is the most revered teacher of battle-craft in the land. At his ashram, he trains the Princes of Hastinapura (all one hundred and five of them) alongside his own son, in the various aspects of fighting, though archery is the primary skill of the time. Guru Drona’s favourite pupil is Prince Arjuna.

One day, the Princes are off on a hunting expedition when they come across a tribal lad who is practising archery himself, and appears to be extraordinarily good at it. On being brought before Drona, he claims that he, too, is a student of the Guru. Shocked, Drona asks him to explain himself, and the boy, whose name is Eklavya, explains that since he knows, as a low-caste tribal, he would never have been able to learn from Drona himself, he observed the Guru with his pupils, and building himself a clay idol of Drona, practised until he learned the craft for himself.

Unable to bear the thought of a mere tribal lad surpassing his favoured pupil, Arjuna, Drona demands a payment for his services as a Guru. Eklavya readily agrees, and Drona names his price – Eklavya’s right thumb – the one appendage without which effective archery is impossible. Eklavya complies, and Arjuna’s supremacy with the bow-and-arrow is now unchallenged.

Of course, many variations exist of the story, with varying degrees of blame being apportioned among the characters, but it is not my intention to delve into that at the moment. Rather, it is to establish that it is possible for a person to directly influence another, as a teacher and a student, without having any intention to.

Which brings us to Literature. A successful author often spawns imitators, a fact that is, no doubt, inevitable. No doubt there were those who tried to imitate Shakespeare.

We definitely know that this charlatan wrote a ‘sequel’ to Don Quixote and made good money of publishing it, before Cervantes responded with his own sequel. There must, no doubt, be a lot of Victorian-era authors who tried to imitate Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Austen and their ilk. That we do not know them today is because their works did not survive the test of time, and no doubt such will be the fate of most authors alive today, present company not excepted.

But what of Chetan Bhagat? He is India’s most popular author, writing in a genre that is best described as Young Adult Romance. His first few books, partially autobiographical and focussing on slices of real-life as well as humour, became cult hits among young Indians who were just awakening to ‘reading in English’, and since then he has written a bunch more, though each one seems to be more sanctimonious and less fun than the last.

Personally, I do not grudge him his success. There are, indeed, some things he does really well, or at least, did in his earlier works. He wrote characters who were realistic and who a reader was interested in, plots that were simple and did not depend on exaggerated twists, and a narrative voice that was humorous and non-judgmental.

Unfortunately, he has spawned a horde of Eklavya’s – young men (and probably some women too), who believe that Chetan Bhagat’s success can be reduced to a ‘formula’ that can be replicated. Look over the ‘Indian fiction’ section at Amazon or a brick-and-mortar bookstore and it is inundated with romance fiction. Titles range from trite to hackneyed to incomprehensible (Durjoy Dutta for instance, uses titles that would leave most of scratching our heads).

For myself, I would normally never read them. I like a good romance novel well enough, (if you think about it, a lot of the works of the master of English prose, Sir P G Wodehouse, are romantic comedies), but being acquainted with the works of the Guru of these hopeful Eklavyas’, I think I know what to avoid. But one does not always get what one wants, and a by-product of having a bit of a reputation among one’s peer group (however well or ill-deserved), for reviewing books well, I do get stuck with copies of books and asked to review them.

I try to get out of it, for obvious and very genuine reasons – I usually have a book I am reading, at any given time, and the next 3 are planned as well. Besides that, one writes a little to pay for cutting chai (the pittance I am paid barely pays for that, even), and one writes for no pay at all, a novel that’s going nowhere. But more than anything else, one has a social life, with a family and friends.

Still, I did end up reading two such books recently. One was sent to me by the author himself, a school / college-going teenager who has been aggressively marketing his book in social media as well as, it would appear, physically.

The other was given to me for reviewing by a relative of the author, who is about twice the age of the first author, a Chartered Accountant and a high-ranking working professional.

That both the teen and the working professional were vicarious students of Chetan Bhagat, is immediately obvious.

The teenager’s book can be summed up as a so-called tragedy where the protagonist, a college-going girl, falls in love with an older man she comes across at a traffic signal, bunks classes to spend time with him as he tutors her in whatever she misses, and then randomly gets forced into a marriage by her parents.

The husband turns out to be a nice chap though, and never consummates the marriage; she adopts a daughter and continues to pine for the lost love, and in the end it turns out that he was living close by to ‘keep an eye’ on her all along.  If that doesn’t make you slap your head on your computer keyboard, the fact that he is found by the twenty-year-old daughter in a matter of weeks, when neither the girl not her husband could find him for years, definitely should.

At no stage of the book is there any character development, events are random – characters fall in love because the plot needs them to, parents are evil because they need to be, and ‘forced arranged marriage’ is a deus ex machina to make things go wrong, again, because the plot needs it to. As a reader, I did not care what happened to any of the people in it, dialogue was stilted and elements of Hindi movies were so liberally sprinkled about that I could sense a Nadeem Shravan soundtrack playing in the background.

The CA’s book was better in terms of narration. I could even excuse the flaws in narration and language, as being a result of using a ‘suburban Mumbai dialect’. Not that there is any style, but at least it’s not blatantly bad writing. It’s the plot holes, though, that would make a Bollywood sex comedy seem intelligent.

The hero, also a CA, gets a job in Chennai (cue a chapter of ‘cultural displacement jokes’), meets a strikingly beautiful Punjabi girl in an elevator, uses manipulation and artifice to get to know her better, helps her when she has a completely-random, plot-convenient health issue that is never referred to again, and then wins her over by proposing to her on the night she breaks up with her boyfriend. Attempts at Bhagat – 2 States – esque humour follow, until, again, the ‘arranged marriage’ bogey is raised, followed by a lost phone, confusion caused by Mumbai having two terminals, and then a happy ending that involves plastic surgery and a song written by the protagonist, that was never referred to until twenty pages from the end.

I’m sure there are worse books out there. In fact, I know there are, Amazon’s sample chapters are often enough to establish that. But stuff like this, I often think, would never have seen light of day if not for an unfortunate sense of ‘anyone can write’ brought about by Bhagat. In seeing only the simplicity of his language and his use of young Indian protagonists, writers like these two are missing the wood for the trees.

Not every writer who writes about elves and dwarves and an impending apocalypse is a JRR Tolkein. Not every writer who writes about serial killers and evil clowns is Stephen King. And certainly, the word ‘Magic’, repeated twice in a title, would not make the story ‘magical realism’ as Rushdie and Marquez would have it.

If aspirational, barely-literate Indians need an idol to worship, Chetan Bhagat is as good as any. But if you have aspirations to write, please, for Chetan Bhagat’s sake, if not your own, find your own voice. Write what you want to. And wait until you’re ready to publish it. Even your Guru wrote a few decent books before inflicting absolute crap on the market. Books that had something to redeem them in the eyes of the reader, something that had not been done before.

But if you are going to write the same stories, with the same twists and the same language (in varying degrees of horrible-ness), you might as well pull off an Eklavya. That poor kid got away with cutting off his thumb. To prevent yourself from writing, you’d have to cut off all your fingers.


  1. The post is quite long(fine, as the subject demands it). Agree, to what you explained or mentioned here. Idolizing and imitating shouldn't go hand in hand, even Eklavya developed his own style(even after he cut off his thumb), you may worship someone but can't be him, as you are you. Who don't understand this fact fails.

  2. Ha ha ha. I can feel your anguish Percy. I've stopped reading romance, especially by Indian authors and politely refuse to review the books offered. (I excuse myself by saying, 'I like to read books I like to pay for. Thanks for the offer.' Very well written though and very valid points. :)

  3. Ha! What Usha Sri V says above. :-)

  4. Analogy is brilliant!But I don't suppose the teacher would be modest enough to demand a remittance, nor the students humble enough to oblige.

  5. Very humorous and I agree with you regarding the Eklavya persona. Anybody can be a writer today moreover the ebook self publishing websites are making it a child's play

  6. Very apt, Percy. Imitation they say is the best form of flattery, and there have been some imitations that were better than the original. No harm in idolizing someone who has become a phenomenal success, but these lil chetans should realize that their stories and narration should have the strength and wherewithal to engage the attention of discerning readers.

  7. Lets look at this from a dispassionate supply-demand standpoint. Chetan Bhagat spawned demand for a particular genre of fiction. His first 2-3 books were exemplary, entertaining and literary enough to be pioneering works of this genre. Money was made, a business model established and a large, growing pocket of demand created. However, quality supply became an issue. Many me-too products entered the market and even the pioneer lost sheen. Resulting in the state of this genre today: cluttered, mediocre, community cess pool of writers' delusions of talent and readers left with a yearning for another 5-point-someone.

  8. There are actually publishers out here who will give an author a plot and tell them to write it. The plot is a barebones skeleton, and it is up to the author to go from point to A to B to C and so forth. That is actually happening even with the top authors here, which is why so much similar stuff is popping out. But it would be unfair to blame the authors as long as there is a market for such work. It is the market that is equally at fault.

    Another prime reason is that these books are famous among the yuppie generation who are more net-savvy and hence they are instrumental in shouting better. This leads to good books taking a backseat while all we see are cookie-cutter romances with mouthfuls of titles.

    1. Indeed, the responsibility is a collective one, on authors who know no better, on publishers who will take a chance on nothing else, and on readers who flock like lemmings to books that destroy their intellect.

  9. A very balanced piece about Chetan Bhagat with a good description of his themes. The two book examples ... I guess I will write a book soon. Thanks for showing me the light !