|Chetan Bhagat at ITC Sonar Calcutta after his session at the Calcutta Literary Meet on January 29
PICTURE BY ANINDYA SHANKAR RAY
He is always in the news, sometimes for his books that sell in lakhs even before release, but more often for his views on the Salman Rushdie row, for getting into a public spat with Aamir Khan, for commenting on Infosys and N.R. Narayana Murthy or for being the only author on the starry Love 2 Hate U show on TV.
Ahead of his talk on the power, pressures and responsibilities of being a bestseller at the Calcutta Literary Meet, t2 put the man who has sold six million books on the hot seat!
Chetan Bhagat bashing is now an industry. Can we toss some not-so-happy questions at you?
Yes yes, ab toh Salman Rushdie bhi likh rahein hain…
[On January 28, three days after the Jaipur Literature Festival got over, Salman Rushdie had tweeted Chetan Bhagat: people like me are liberal extremists & as bad as the fundos. Im being Bhaggered!! Its like being molested by Dan Brown!
Chetan Bhagats reply tweet: Someones feeling neglected as the controversy died down and the country moved on. Hence the personal attacks. Will pass. Peace.]
Bhai, kya bolein… it was unprovoked. I declared peace from the very first tweet. I replied because I have some self-respect but I did not take any names, I did not make any personal attacks. I dont know why Salman Rushdie named me in his tweet. I mean he is an author much higher in stature than me… but for someone to twist my name (Bhaggered)… its not even that funny.
I dont know why he mentioned Dan Brown. But hes done me a huge favour. Hes told the entire world — because his followers are worldwide — that Chetan is Indias Dan Brown!
He had two authors names mentioned in that tweet. And still people feel that hes great literature and hes the one protecting freedom of expression.
I am not a big fan of extreme voices. I dont think extremism solves anything. Forget this author or this issue, if people take extreme positions and dont talk things out, things wont get sorted. But some people like that, some people like to take extreme positions to keep an issue alive. If you really want to solve it, I think theres a moderate path.
I think I am a fairly liberal person. I feel, obviously, that you shouldnt ban books or prevent people [from visiting the country] but people making certain statements should be aware of local sensibilities. They should be aware of what can hurt people and what wont. Its common sense, according to me. Im not saying there should be laws against it or a ban… but at the same time, its not heroic to hurt people. I mean, why do you have to turn him into a hero? If I write an article that is derogatory to women, you guys will all slam me. But then if I say, thats my freedom of expression?
Chetan Bhagat with wife Anusha and twins Shyam and Ishaan at ITC Sonar Calcutta. (Anindya Shankar Ray)
But you did offend a lot of women with your tweet on Fathers Day [Mothers give birth, but ultimately, the coke belongs to the guy who puts the coin in the vending machine. Happy fathers day ;)]
But I apologised for it, no? It was a joke, everybody knows it was a joke. It was something I even ran by my wife and she didnt find anything wrong with it. And its, in fact, quite a common joke. But I felt later that yeah, it sounds like an IIT hostel joke and said sorry for it. And its gone.
Has it led to any reduction in female fans? No. Because sometimes its natural that when you are speaking things, you will sometimes end up saying or doing something…. But I dont think it should be an ego issue. Not every thought that comes into my mind is sensible, not every word I say is sensible. Sometimes I say stupid things. But its okay. Just apologise… have that humility about yourself. Thats my thought.
You dont have to agree with me but give me my freedom of expression… and in a country like India that has so many different voices, we have to be plural. We have no choice.
You know, every country has different standards. If there should be full freedom, then why is pornography not allowed? Why are people not allowed to walk on the road without clothes? Why? If you are ultra-liberal, you should allow that also….
Every society has a different norm and that norm is not an absolute. Even in the US, where pornography is allowed, child pornography is not allowed. Everyone has their limits. We have to understand what India is and do accordingly.
Your writing is often dubbed pop-lit and your language skills are questioned. Your response?
Its same as the language that is used in newspapers. Its same as the language used by The Telegraph. Im writing a newspaper column for two-and-a-half years now. Ive also written for the the Guardian, Ive been read by many, many international publications. I dont think the language is such a big issue. But, you know, okay, its not as superlative, its not as eloquent language as say a very literary novel. Thats the way it is.
But you are comfortable with it, right?
I am, because I want to reach people. Its like, you know, condemning a newspaper for not using eloquent language. But I submit to that, my writing is not that eloquent. At the same time, it doesnt mean that my writing doesnt have any insight. Fact is, what I have said has struck a chord, whether its in the books, the articles or sometimes the statements I make. Even in this issue [the Rushdie row] why do my statements keep coming up, again and again? Because somewhere down the line, people know that what this guy is saying is also a point of view that we must consider…. that someone might be hurt.
My language is popular idiom but thats just a classification. It should not be seen as derogatory. Someone might say my books have Bollywood-style stories. Thats fine, as long as they dont mean it derogatorily.
Why is there always a controversy around Chetan Bhagat?
(Grins) Because I speak, right?! I mean its a writers job to speak and give opinions and Im somewhat popular and unlike other popular people like cricketers and actors, who dont speak on issues. A lot of times when I speak on things, it doesnt become a controversy, but once in a while it will happen. A controversy is just a difference of opinion, which is being discussed in public. Its not really, you know, personal. Neither was it with Mr Narayana Murthy, it was a difference in view. I will never make a personal attack on anybody.
But you called Infosys a body shop…
Ya, okay, but I did apologise for it. But I made a statement about a corporate, about how I feel it is. Its not a term thats been used for the first time… body shop is a very common term. Controversies happen, and they will happen… its part of the job. But its NOT because I need publicity like that. I already have a big, loyal reader base… they will buy my next book. They are all on my social network now, so I have to announce a new book and they will buy it.
But, you know, India needs modern thought and I give it and it can sometimes get controversial. I dont intentionally do it… but its part of what I am there for — to change peoples thinking. And to change peoples thinking, every now and then there will be issues Ill rake up and everyone may not be most comfortable….
I try my best not to drag it out too much. But, you know, it takes the other side also, to respond with grace. I mean every writer gave their view on the Rushdie thing. Every writer. Somehow my views get played up a little more. Because, may be I was very different or may be the way I said it… or I was very direct about it…. So, its a job hazard.
I dont like it. I mean I dont particularly like to be in controversy. Its not needed. My work does not require me to.... You know, anybody whos quite popular does get into it, even actresses get into controversies, even actors....
See, it comes with mass following, if you say things, if you voice your opinions. Not everybody will agree with it, unless you are always saying things like, you know, avoid cancer! And its especially since I am giving political views — that is not something thats very common in this country, that people so openly give their views.
This is how Indias gonna change. Hopefully Im here to stay, I mean so far Ive survived, controversies have not hurt my image, because the intention is not to hurt anybody, it is to come up with the right answer. I am very open, in saying sorry or in changing my point of view. But, you know, Im not also scared to fight if I have to.
Some say your mass readership is more a result of good marketing, be it the pricing or the positioning in retail outlets…
There is some marketing we do for sure, but we dont give any ads… My books sell at Big Bazaar because Big Bazaar wants to keep them. The pricing also we have increased now, actually [from Rs 95 to Rs 140]. But the books are still doing great… its not affected sales.
But initially, yes, we did want to, you know, be friendly to the reader, in terms of price, in terms of distribution and yeah, may be I dont mind it so much (smiles) because I like it. Its my background a little bit… I do feel if books are not available easily then people will have a problem. But its not as much as people make it out to be. Its not like Im doing marketing all the time. I dont need to… now, I dont need to.
Its not like I did any marketing to come here. The Calcutta Literary Meet invited me, so I am here and you are interviewing me. Now some will even call this marketing!
Do you have an international readership?
Now a little bit... it is starting. But its not been a focus for me. The millions and millions in India are, I think, enough (laughs)! You know, I might just make a little bit of an effort now… Ive not been so interested, but itll be nice to have some readers outside India.
Like Ill tell you, Five Point Someone has been a bestseller in Korea. My friends from my banking days wrote to me saying, You know what, your book is a bestseller here! And you know why? Because they have a similar system. Like we have the IIT, they have the KIT… Korea Institute of Technology — same style. Intense competition, very engineering-driven society… so, they really liked FPS. Now how do I keep track of that? The book also did very well in China after 3 Idiots came out.
You featured in Arjun Rampals Love 2 Hate U on STAR World. What was it like meeting your hater?
Love 2 Hate U was a great experience! I really wanted to come face-to-face with a hater, if for nothing else then to just keep my ego down (laughs)! And it was good. I really got a chance to see who are these invisible faces on Twitter. And I found that, you know, they are normal people, they are sometimes hating me just to be cool! They may have a point but not such a strong point that they will hate me for it.
Do you love or love to hate Chetan Bhagat? Tell email@example.com