The Importance of being Chetan
India has its share of divisive figures. We either passionately hate or madly adore our Prime Minister, we either vigorously defend or deride the late M.F. Hussein, and we haven’t even spared the long-dead figures of the freedom struggle in the quest for drawing room, Facebook and Twitter-based arguments.
The presence of Chetan Bhagat in that list of divisive figures feels like something of an aberration. His writing is not controversial, steering discreetly clear of anything that is not an existing stereotype. He has shown a tendency to make sweeping generalisations, but then that’s what, to make another, we Indians do.
The schism regarding Mr. Bhagat, then, probably has something to do with the perceived distance between his commercial success and his literary merit. According to an article I read, (which I sincerely hope was not accurate), his books outsell the next four hundred top selling books written by other authors in English. At the same time, his writing is not memorable, his plot constructions can be clumsy, and his characters tend to be cardboard cut-outs.
He’s been reviled, not without vitriol, on social media for years now. I have little to add to that discussion. As someone whose own literary achievements are currently about as far from my literary aspirations as my wealth is from that of Mukesh Ambani, I have no standing to dismiss Mr. Bhagat in the sort of derogatory terms that other commentators have used. Suffice to say that I do not think he is India’s worst author – there are many who have been published and quite rightly, unread, who deserve that title more.
But as a reader, well, I am entitled to review what I’ve read, and I did pick up a copy of Half-Girlfriend (to be known as ½ hereafter) recently, so I suppose I could give that a shot.
Theme / Message
Having read three other books by Mr. Bhagat (Five Point Someone, Revolution 2020 and Two States), I can fairly say that in ½, he has dropped the ball rather too openly.
While FPS and TS had a certain humourous quality to them, the first 2/3 of Revolution 2020 was genuinely insightful. In ½, the desire to emphasise a point drags down the tone and plot of the book. If anything, it ends up becoming neither entertaining nor particularly educational, and therein lies the tragedy, for the lesson Mr Bhagat is trying to get across is a valid one – India’s “Great Language Divide”. He is on record as thinking that the importance given to English in India is an insidious plot by the established elite, the ‘have’s’ to disinherit the teeming masses, the ‘have-nots’ from the rich spoils of India’s progress. In hindsight, this is perhaps exactly the sort of thinking that creates further divides in society and allows the lumpen to revel in a self-righteous frenzy of hatred. But politics may best be kept aside.
I have referred earlier to the writer’s tendency to deal only in very broad generalisations, and this book ends up being no different. In dealing only with English vs non-English, in making every urban-dweller a caricature of what people think an ‘elitist asshole’ is like, and then in dragging in wealth-divides and social service, the book ends up like a target on which a poorly-talented marksman has sprayed bullets willy-nilly.
For in ½ Girlfriend, though the language divide is referred to often, and always in a ham-handed manner, it is never explored in a meaningful way. We are given little reason to care, or to buy into the argument the author is trying to make. In fact, so lazy is this effort, that in a book that is specifically supposed to explore the difficulties faced by a Bihari boy with English-as-a-second-language, Mr. Bhagat absolves himself of the responsibility of being phonetically accurate by having the narrator say, right at the beginning something on the lines of, “I am writing this now, when my English is good, but when I said it then, it was when my English was bad, so you have to imagine as if I was speaking like I did then.” I realise that writing dialects is difficult, but on the whole, when the book’s salient point is to drive home the language divide, having the tone of every character to be predictably similar is a mistake.
I try to avoid spoilers, so I’ll refrain from delving too deeply into the plot, such as it is. Whatever I have revealed below can be understood by anyone who has seen the cover and read the sample chapter available on Mr. Bhagat’s website.
½ starts with an author self-insert and moves on to tell what is supposed to be a touching love-story spanning, I think, five years and three locations. The book is divided into three sections, helpfully named “Delhi”, “Bihar”, and “New York”.
The protagonists are Madhav Jha, a Bihari basketball player from a Princely family, who wants to run his mother’s “private non-profit school” and Riya Somani, a Marwari heiress and basketball player from Lutyen’s Delhi who wants to be a bar singer in New York (Yes, really).
Both enter Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College through the sports quota and after Madhav leches at Riya during sports trials, they become good friends. (Yes, this is pretty much what happens).
Over a period of a year they get closer and closer, until Madhav’s intent to get into Riya’s tight-fitting jeans / green churidar / shorts (her clothes are always described. Nothing else is) becomes impossible to restrain. Unfortunately for our protagonist, Riya has an aversion to physical intimacy that (as we find out later) stems from certain issues with her father that are only darkly hinted at, never mentioned.
Then, Riya tells him she is quitting college to marry a rich NRI friend of hers in an arranged marriage. Which struck this reviewer, at least, as lazy writing, A manufactured twist that suits a neophyte writer of two-penny trash, but not someone who sits at the apex of Indian writing in English.
There are a few twists and turns, there are times when one thinks the plot might have been tolerable in the hands of a better wordsmith, but the sad truth is that the end, when it comes, is a relief.
In-between we get snippets of life in Bihar, the relation between erstwhile Royalty and democratically-elected leaders, a cameo by Bill Gates (Yes, really) and English lessons that are perhaps meant to be a substitute for foreplay. Finally we have a Shah-Rukh-chasing-the-running-train climax..
It is not just that the writing has issues or that the editing is distinctly sub-par, at least in the edition I read, a fresh-off-the-press Kindle version. (PS: Whoever handles this at Rupa, just because you’ve got a manuscript from Mr. Bhagat does not mean that you take the week off).The fact is, ½ fails on virtually every level. As a social commentary, it falls well short of conviction. As a romance, it is clunky and suffers from poor dialogues and juvenile plotting.
And while I could rail at length about what can be read and what should be, it would be a rather meaningless exercise. Nearly as meaningless as Half-Girlfriend, the book.
Verdict: Rather a waste of time.
Too Long; Didn’t Read: ½ Girlfriend is The King’s Speech if it was directed by Farah Khan and starred Salman Khan.
Buy it: You know you want to - here