One Predictable Book

Chetan Bhagat, or to be precise his reputation, and I go back a long way. Way back in eighth grade, I’d come across a newspaper article that reiterated a reputed magazine’s declaration of Bhagat as the biggest selling English language author in India. I was surprised, primarily because I had believed that my distractingly colourful general knowledge textbooks were exhaustive as well. While mugging up the mandatory twenty odd current affairs questions turned the final examinations into a race (wherein the only reward was a snobbish grin at the rest of one’s class), it had failed me here. Nevertheless, my mother soon obliged and I was the curious, if not proud, owner of ‘2 States’ and ‘3 Mistakes of My Life.’ Yes, the penchant for messing up the chronological order had already taken root.

I liked them. Went ahead and procured the other two. Liked them too. Well, I had my doubts about the sketchiness of ‘One Night’, but who cared when he was fuelling the fantasies of the ‘youth’ with that intricately detailed scene in every book. Or perhaps, it was his road to glory (IIT + IIM) which had blinded us all and me, in particular. I believe that I was inspired to pursue Mechanical Engineering  because of him. Thank God for puberty and the supposed sense that it entailed.

By the time Revolution 2020 came out, I’d had a change of cities, a change of heart (in many interesting ways) and a change of opinion about Bhagat. His short stint as my role model was over and I’d even written a four page poem detailing his flaws. The book was a disappointment, the plot familiar minus the ending and the characters not particularly memorable. The less said about his next, Half Girlfriend the better. Factual inaccuracies abounded, the research was shoddy, the plot farcical. Bhagat’s characters used Whatsapp in 2008. The app was launched in 2009. And of course, it gave us that legendary line which guaranteed Bhagat a place amongst the greats of Indian literature- “Deti hai toh de, warna kat le.” Ever the reader serving author, Bhagat’s dutifully translated that, lest you’re interested.

Enough backstory. Three days ago, I decided to read Bhagat’s latest, ‘One Indian Girl’ chiefly because I was tired of Arjun Kapoor’s emotionless face staring at me across all social media platforms. Also, because I needed to truly appreciate the brilliance of Murakami’s ‘Kafka on the Shore’. Four hours thence, I was satiated.

A genuinely truthful description to start off with.

I work(ed) at Goldman Sachs, an investment bank. Thank you for reading my story. However, let me warn you.

You may not like me too much. One, I make a lot of money. Two, I have an opinion on everything.

That’s the protagonist introducing herself, not Bhagat. Wouldn’t blame you if he had you fooled as well. Oh, yes, this book is from a woman’s perspective.

The plot, oh, the paper thin plot which make Baahubali 2 seem like the epic it was meant to be! To the uninitiated, Radhika Mehta, Punjabi, wheatish, VP at Goldman Sachs (in that order) is getting married at Goa. Chaos ensues when her ex(es) drop by uninvited, with proposals of their own. If the premise seems similar, it is because it is. Especially if you’ve watched Bang Baaja Baaraat, the web series. Or have read A Suitable Boy (how it pains me to mention it here.) Everything from the exes to the choreographed sangeet reeks of them. Bhagat being the pioneer he is, could have just oversaw the first conglomeration of a book adapted from a web series and a deconstruction of a book(s?).

Coming to the writing, or rather the lack of it. It takes some audaciousness to pass off a Bollywood movie script as a book, time and again. He’s probably already cast Arjun Kapoor to play the titular character already. But then again, the guy calls the sections of his books “Acts”, a la Shakespeare. He’s even coined an “Et tu Brute?” rivalling phrase in “Keep control”. You know you’ve created something truly special, when the best quotes from your book are the lines of a song by Passenger. While we’re at songs, their increasing mentions and irrelevance to the plot in Bhagat’s novels only point to two things:

  1. He’s written a full blown movie scene. Some copyright issues. But nothing that can’t be handled.
  2. He misses Nach Baliye. Badly.

I’m all for characters being inspired from one’s personal life, but Bhagat takes it to another level altogether. The protagonist in all his books has been an underdog who combated family pressure and overcame the odds (much like himself, if his claims are to be believed.) And in most cases, made it to IIM- A. Radhika takes it a step further and follows Bhagat’s footsteps to Goldman Sachs, which is naturally the best company in the world. The trend continues as she’s soon anointed the rising star of the company, gets transfers whenever and wherever she wants and is deemed a “valuable asset” for the company (Brownie points for incorporating the pun into the plot. And for the improvement in subtle crassness.) GS’s confidentiality clauses go to the dogs as the protagonist dutifully converts her ever booming salary in USD to INR. For the perusal of her family and his readers. Because well, why trouble his non-serious readership with the tedium of mathematics.

A crash course in Hong Kong history appears as Bhagat and his protagonist think of something to do. The Japanese accent is unnecessarily derided to establish the ephemeral morality of an ex. The number of brands that appear over the course of the book probably outnumber the number of times either the protagonist or the author make sense. An extremely elaborate shaadi.com product placement weaves its way into the plot as Radhika scans through potential bridegrooms and Bhagat through potential sponsors. A couple of waxing scenes are thrown in, just to show how essential the process of waxing is to women. And to probably underscore the fact that Bhagat got his legs waxed to put himself in the shoes of a woman. Even got a pedicure after an interview. The ending is convoluted and the obsession with weddings disconcerting. But all of the above is still okay.

What is not is the utterly unmemorable protagonist that Bhagat has managed to create, despite his switch of genders. Perhaps it’s just the Punjabi in Bhagat, who refused to co-operate in his efforts to concoct a woman not voluptuous enough for him or his brethren. Or white enough for Indians. These are his (or Radhika’s) views, lest you were wondering. Radhika, the purported victim of society’s and her mother’s angst against a successful but unmarried working woman, rejects grooms because they’re ugly or earn less than her. She takes pride in the fact that she’s paying for her own wedding and yet seeks validation from the men in her life. That and her constant tendency to fish for praise makes it hard to relate to her pain as her then boyfriend questions her ability to be a good mother. Probably, he’s a Bhagat fan as well, because if there’s any villain in Bhagat’s happy go lucky stories, it’s Punjabi mothers.

Bhagat had set out to depict the injustices and prejudices that working women have to battle against in our society. What he ended up with is a movie script, two songs and a character which says, “When a lady says no, she means maybe.” Take that Pink! Interestingly, he’s dumped the prologue-epilogue trend for a more Imtiaz Ali-esque flashback strewn story but that could have more to do with the fact that it might not have been his story in the first place. An author from Bengaluru claims that the narrative has been stolen drawn from her own short story. I hope, for her own sake, that she’s wrong.

In other news, Five Point Someone has been included in the Delhi University Syllabus for Literature. To quote Bhagat’s ending lines:

Then we laughed, and then we laughed some more.

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