fiction or fact

An open letter from Riya Somani to Chetan Bhagat

In which the heroine of 'Half Girlfriend' tells the author what she really thinks of the way he told her story in his latest novel.

Dear Mr Bhagat,

(And no, though in the book my character addresses you simperingly as Chetan Sir, in real life I’d never ever do that. I’m a Modern School prototype who then went to St Stephen’s. You must have me confused for an IIT type).

I am not going to lie. I was pretty flattered to be in a novel, especially a novel whose first print-run would apparently rival, in weight, 200 Asian elephants. I also know that it will be made into a film, so I even had my character picked out in my head. (Sonam Kapoor, if you want to know. She’s tall like I am. And has good practice of romancing filmi royals. In fact, Fawad Khan might be good as Madhav – or maybe, who knows, your clout might even make a Madhav Jha out of Ranbir Kapoor? But I’m getting sidetracked here.)

I pre-ordered the book. I read it in one go. And by the time, I finished, to tell you the truth, instead of the happy feel-good bubbles that should have been "exploding like cupcakes" in my stomach – the chief reason I read pop fic – I was white hot with rage.

But before I go on, let me remind you of the secret caveat between writers and their characters. It is a curious thing. (You would know. You have used yourself and your wife as characters too in what is arguably your best book.) Though characters and writers are as real and as fictional as each other (the reality and fiction blurring cleverly), when they meet in a parallel timezone to work stuff out, they strike a deal: the character promises truth, the writer promises to channel the essential truth of the character’s truth as truthfully as he or she can. The writer is free to change all the details around the kernel of truth. No problem. But the character should, in a good book at least, be free to live her own life, just as a "real character" might.

My problem

The process, you can see from my intense warbling, is exceedingly esoteric and complex. It depends a lot on the writer channeling right. And that is where, Mr Bhagat, I have a huge problem with what you’ve done to me. It seems as though you have been listening only half-heartedly, even quarter-heartedly, so powerful is the shadow of your own voice. After all, you’ve said it yourself – a tad pompously, I must add – in the preface: you write for "change". And therefore, like every other writer who presumed to put "change" in the manifesto of their fiction, there is the ideologue’s shadow lurking between the pages of this novel, like a giant "I" casting its net around my life – and Madhav’s – and making us thrash on the shores like beached whales.

I may have dropped out of the literature programme at Stephen’s, but during the long lonely years you left me in New York, I joined a library and read everything I could get my hands on.

I do understand it is your book. So I cannot really quarrel with you about the fine print of "point of view" – much as I’d like to. I am filtered only through your narrative of Madhav’s – a double remove – except for those annoying journal entries that apparently offer the big key to everything, to my inscrutable behaviour over the years, my thoughtless self-centredness.

I know it’s a fictional device – but really – six journal entries to offer me a backdoor entry to regaining some vestige of agency that you denied me for 250-odd pages? You know, I might have even forgiven you that, if you did not make me fake my death in the book. It is the lamest thing anyone has ever envisioned for me – and growing up in a conservative Marwari household I have had a large number of lame destinies worked out for me. Anyway.

I understand that there are certain things we don’t touch with a barge pole in commercial fiction – the happy ending, for example. And that’s fine. I mean, if you wrote pages and pages on Madhav’s school in Dumraon, the sheer drudgery of every single day, the terrible frustrations of bureaucracy that withholds what is due with smug glee, it would become something else, literary fiction perhaps. I’m not for a second suggesting that.

But the deux ex machina that you employ to save the school in poor backward Bihar – the Gates Foundation, for crying out loud!– completely upset my understanding of things. After building up that extremely relevant point about the role of English in modern India and the access that automatically comes with English (not that I agree entirely with every one of your positions; for instance, I think English too is now domesticated as an Indian language rather than a foreign or a global one) – and after expressing the angst of Madhav and his other non- English type friends so well, you basically go on to suggest in the rest of the book, with a great deal of emphasis, that Biharis need to learn English so they can beg for American charity.

What I saw in New York

You make Madhav, my proud unrelenting Madhav, tell Bill Gates that he is lucky because he is born in America? Well, I have news for you, Mr Bhagat. In the years I lived in recession-hit New York (where, surprisingly, your investment banker friend is still, it seems, rocking Wall Street) as a freelance singer, I saw the underbelly of America, I participated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement in Zucotti Park and I saw bankers and advertising guys and real estate moguls lose their big jobs, big homes and sleep on the streets. So I would request you, Mr Bhagat, do what you will, but don’t dangle a false American dream of philanthropy to the non-English- and English-type young Indians any longer. We ought not to aspire to turn India into America.

Finally, Mr Bhagat, I would like to tell the readers exactly what happened in Madhav’s room in Rudra North on that day which has, thanks to your national fame, been discussed widely, and will no doubt, soon be seen enacted in detail onscreen. Naturally, the script will be yours but in the interest of my own peace, I wish to set the record straight here:

‘Deti hai to de,’ Madhav said in Bhojpuri-accented Hindi, ‘Varna kat le.’

It was afternoon. The light entered from the skylight and drew patterns on the floor. Something had rushed through my veins. I had reached up and bitten his neck.

Yours in amusement,

Riya Somani

Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels: The Vague Woman's Handbook and The Weight Loss Club 

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