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By CHETAN BHAGAT ON RANCHO VS RYAN, HARI VS KRISH AND MORE... Samhita Is Chetan Bhagat the smartest Indian writer in English? Tell" Jhinuk Mazumdar Pictures: Pradip Sanyal
  • Published 28.03.11
Chetan Bhagat at Saturday Club on Saturday evening. Picture by Pradip Sanyal

Author, columnist, motivational speaker and “house-husband” Chetan Bhagat was in town on Saturday. On the sidelines of a talk on Making Your Passion Your Profession at the Saturday Club, hosted by the Bengal Institute of Business Studies and t2, the man whose name sells close to 700 books a week in India spoke about words and what they are worth.

Why did you become a writer?

I didn’t know I would be a writer. I was a banker and I thought Five Point Someone would be this book that I would write and show it to people when they came home for dinner. The book took off only a year after it came out. Then I wrote a second book [One Night @ The Call Center] to see if the success of Five Point Someone was just a fluke. It is only after the third book [The 3 Mistakes Of My Life] that I gave up my job at the bank and became a full-time writer.

Five Point Someone: Hari, Alok, Ryan — who is your favourite?

Ryan, of course. Ryan became Rancho in the movie [3 Idiots]. It’s a character people can never forget. Ryan has become a fictional role model for an entire generation. Role models can be real people or sometimes they can be fictional as well. Ryan embodies creativity, knowledge, helpfulness, fairness, friendship — which all of us want.

Do you think Ryan is somewhat more believable than Rancho?

Yeah, of course. Because you know, when you turn Bollywood, you have to tweak a lot. Ryan is more believable because he is really a five-point someone. He doesn’t have it all. Whereas in the movie, Rancho [Aamir Khan] comes first in class and he has a girlfriend also…. Movies tend to over-simplify but a book allows you to put layers, put various aspects to people’s characters. In the book Ryan has a strained relationship with his parents… which may not make it to the movie because a movie is very simple and goes on a singular track.

So, when you are writing for a movie, you have to keep all this in mind…

I didn’t write the screenplay for 3 Idiots but yes, whenever I’m writing a movie, I know there will be a lot less depth. But a lot more action, fast movement. That’s the nature of the screenplay. A screenplay is roughly one-fourth the size of a book.

Now that all your books are being turned into films, when you write, do you already have the visuals in mind?

No, I don’t. Of course, 2 States — The Story of My Marriage was a very film-friendly book but let’s say Call Center… it was not film-friendly. It’s a one-night story in an office. Even 3 Mistakes was about Godhra and all that.... Luckily today audiences have matured enough so that as long as it’s a different story, it’s okay. Almost any good story can be converted to Bollywood if it has a human interest angle and universal appeal. I’m a lot more choosy about my books being adapted now. I see if the team is completely A-list.

How does it feel when your book is made into a film?

I don’t get so hassled by someone else handling my story. Because I am lucky I am so widely read, the original work is already there with my readers. So I don’t have to go around explaining what I really meant. I mean people know Five Point Someone and people know 3 Idiots. A book is like your daughter and a film is after she gets married. So, as long as it’s a good marriage, even if her life is different from what it was before, it’s okay. And it is going to be different. But if it’s a bad marriage, then you have a problem.

Can you share any mistakes from your life?

I wish I had done more sports. I’m not good at any sport. I love watching cricket but I really wish I had taken up some sport and felt the thrill of being on the field. But I shied away from sport and that is something I feel bad about.

In 2 States, Krish says he wants to become “someone who tells stories that are fun but bring about change too…” How much of Krish is you?

Big part, big part. I think Hari [of Five Point Someone] is what I was 15 years back and Krish is closer to what I am now. Krish is sensitive but very driven and wants to be a writer who brings about change. That bit is very important… to me, now. Just fun is no longer enough. I will be fun but I’ll make sure it’s for a reason.

There is enough evidence to show that Krish [2 States] and Hari [Five Point Someone] are the same person. Why did you change the name?

Yes, you are right. But I didn’t keep the same name because 2 States is not a sequel. The two stories are linked and hardcore fans will make the connection but I wanted 2 States to hold as a standalone book. Also, after Five Point Someone, so many people asked me what happened to Neha [Hari’s girlfriend]. So, if I did 2 States as a continuation of Five Point Someone, what happened to Neha would remain unanswered.

So, what did happen to Neha?

It did not work out. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But may be why it doesn’t work out you’ll read one day, in another book. Do you think people will be interested in that?

Well, yes, because the biggest challenge young people face today is handling a long-distance relationship and the pressures of managing two careers and a marriage. Any plans of writing a book on these topics?

Let’s see, let’s see. I don’t want to do another story on my life right now. I want to write about some other young people I’ve seen.

What is your next book?

I’m writing a love story but this one is not just a sweet romance. Because love also has shades of darkness, there’s jealousy, betrayal... I hope to bring out the book — set in small-town India — by Diwali.

You write for young India, you write on behalf of young India. How do you put your finger on the pulse of young India?

By constantly being with them. I get a lot of fan mail… I study that. Then there’s Twitter, Facebook. I travel for talks, where I meet a lot of young people. I visited some 50 cities in India last year. I get a first-hand experience about our youth from my visits, from the questions they ask me. Still, it’s a challenge because I’m getting older. But I enjoy it.

Can we assume that you feel a special fondness for Shyam of One Night @ the Call Center and Ishaan of 3 Mistakes of My Life? After all, you named your twins Shyam and Ishaan…

(Laughs) My boys came first. So, it’s the other way round, actually. If you’ve noticed, the four main characters in the four books have Krishna’s name — Hari, Shyam, Govind, Krish. Shyam worked very well for One Night… because Shyam means night. But then I felt my other son, Ishaan, might feel neglected. So, in the next book, I put in Ishaan. Also, Ananya is my niece and my brother has named his son Ryan. So, all the kids in the family must be happy!

There’s a number in all your book titles. Is it numerology?

That’s not numerology, that’s just my trademark. I like it and it keeps people guessing, what’ll be the number in the next book…

Your books have spurred a Chetan Bhagat genre of writing. How does it feel?

Is there a Chetan Bhagat genre (chuckles)? I think publishers are trying to recreate the formula. And authors are, I guess, getting inspired, which is a good thing. But ultimately, the book has to be good. Any genre can work if the book is good. Or else, who would have thought a book on punctuation, Eats Shoots and Leaves, would become a superhit!

How much does marketing and publicity matter for a book’s success?

It is important. Luckily I don’t have to do it now, much. Initially it was quite hard. To get a book noticed is quite difficult.

And what advice do you have for aspiring and fledgling writers?

You have to do your best. But ultimately it is about the book. You can have the biggest launch ever but if the content is not good, it won’t work. That’s the nature of books.

Time magazine has named you among the 100 most influential people in the world! Your reaction?

Well, Graphiti of The Telegraph put me on the cover too! That’s also pretty cool, I think. But yes the Time thing was a very big thing. It’s a validation of the work I’ve set out to do. I’ve never written with a view to win literary prizes but I’ve written with a view to change. To be named one of the most influential people in the world was a defining moment for me because I am here to influence, to touch millions of people. It was one of my most proud moments.

Does it bring with it certain responsibilities?

A little bit. I try not to take it so seriously. And it’s great for the marketing, by the way (laughs)!

Your wife is from Calcutta. What is your impression of the city?

I think the girls are very beautiful (laughs). The sweets are very nice. I have a special connection with the city because I got married here. In 2 States, I have shown the action as taking place in Chennai, but all that happened here, at Birla Mandapam.

The Phoenix Room of The Saturday Club came alive on Saturday evening to the sound of words well-spoken with Chetan Bhagat in conversation with Vidur Kapoor, chairman of the Bengal Institute of Business Studies (BIBS), and then responding to questions from the audience. The author of Five Point Someone spoke about making a passion the profession, and more. Only t2 was there.

• We’re sitting on a Saturday at Saturday Club! Saturday Club was where my in-laws had promised to hold our reception but it didn’t happen. I think ekbar ladka book ho gaya toh they didn’t go into all that trouble...”

• I don’t have a salary. I am dependent on my readers and my readers are young people, who can be fickle! They move from Myspace to Facebook to Twitter. Abhishek Bachchan was hot one day, but today, for some reason, he’s not! They might do the same with Chetan Bhagat. But I know that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be content.

• Our jobs keep us so busy that the mind can’t think. If you are constantly on the phone, your mind is reacting, but it is not creating. That’s why we get so many ideas while having a bath... at least I do.

• So, as a first step, if you are too busy, become less busy. In Google, they give their employees 20 per cent free time to just think.

• Once you have identified your passion, you have to think whether it’s a commercially viable passion or not. I mean, you may love to collect butterflies but it’s very difficult to earn money doing that. I’m not here to romanticise entrepreneurship. Doing a job is great too. It gives you the money to follow your passion. So, if a job is your thing, do that. But don’t use the money to show off, use it to follow your passion... that could be eating good food, travelling, anything...

• My wife works in a bank and I work from home. I like being a house-husband, to have the house to myself. None of my IIM batchmates are house-husbands. But I feel if it’s a man’s world, he should be the master of the house!

Once the floor was opened...

SWATI GAUTAM (entrepreneur and t2 columnist): What is the downside to entrepreneurship?

Chetan Bhagat: The uncertainty. The spouse has to be made a certain way... supportive and willing to live with uncertainty. I say spouse and not wife because a woman might want to become an entrepreneur as well.

Entrepreneurship can become your obsession because it is your baby — I never stop thinking about my writing. There is no concept of the office being closed. The office is in my head.

Then you have no boss, so no one to blame all your life’s problems on. In college, I would blame the professors; at work, my boss. But now it’s only me — who do I blame if I don’t complete my book on time? Of course I can blame hundreds of people but at the end, it’s me. So either you become obsessive or lazy.

A job gives you a regular income. And money to indulge your passion. So why downplay a job?

MALINI BHAGAT (school principal): Which book is closest to you?

Chetan Bhagat: They are all close. They are like mother and child.… But I would say the first book is closest because that’s what made me. It is the big brother of the other three. If everything else is taken away from me, Five Point Someone would define who I am. (Pauses) But it’s also my new book that’s closest to me.... I am pregnant with it now.

RAVI BAGRI (retail banker): You were a banker. Was it frustration that made you write Five Point Someone? Also, what was more difficult: meeting revenue targets of investment banking or being creative?

Chetan Bhagat: I had a creative instinct that was not being satisfied. I was in a boring job. Writing is not very conscious. By tomorrow morning I can’t give the idea of a new story but I can make a financial sheet.


ANIL KUMAR SHARMA (mathematics teacher): You are an IITian and an IIM graduate and you write one book in two years. Isn’t that a waste of your technical and business skills?

Chetan Bhagat: Five Point Someone wouldn’t have happened had I not lived the IIT life. And a lot of business skills are required to sell books. Also, my education gives me credibility. Today, I use my writing to try and change things, like questioning the sorry state of primary education in the country. Do you think a little village kid saying ‘please improve my school’ will bring about any change? A person with an IIT-IIM tag might be heard.

Also, I wonder how selling cigarettes after passing out of an IIT or IIM does anybody any good! May be you think I should’ve worked in SAIL or something, but I got this chance and I want to make the most of it.

[Psst: The questioner added a parting shot, only for t2’s ears. “In my opinion he is writing books to get famous. We are culturally sound, but technologically, India is not that sound. So, we need more engineers than authors.]

Overheard during dinner:

“I am a house-husband but my wife is not a banker!”

Saurav Jha, young author

“Chetan Bhagat said that to be creative you need your mind to be blank. That’s what I call being “vague”. Sometimes you need to be vague, especially women who go around with to-do lists in their heads!”

Devapriya Roy, author of The Vague Woman’s Handbook (and wife of the happy house-husband above).