Bhagat vs Bhakts

Is Chetan Bhagat attacking bhakts to protect sales of his books?

How to explain the bestselling author’s diatribe against the very people who could be his primary readers?

Never underestimate the intent of Chetan Bhagat’s pronouncements or dismiss them as mindless. The man who has shown India how to write to a market and be outrageously successful knows his customers better than most people do.

Whatever the mega-bestselling author of the number series of novels (Five Point Someone, One Night…, Two States…, etc.) writes in his columns, therefore, can be assumed to have an objective. They are not just expessions of hubris from a successful public figure with, possibly, political aspirations in the future.

On the contrary, there is always method in what appears to be the madness. But what, in this case, could his objectives possibly be? On the face of it, is he not taking the sword of contempt to the very audience that laps up his books?

Abusing his audience?

After all, “an inferiority complex ridden Indian male who is sexually frustrated, ashamed of his background and has poor ability in English” seems to almost perfectly describe the primary male hero in each of his novels, except that his portraits are sympathetic rather than derisive. And his millions of readers identify so strongly with these characters that they breathlessly read the stories of their eventual triumph, represented in the form of that pair of trophies identified pithily by Bhagat himself earlier: naukri and chhokri.

So, why would Bhagat risk alienating potential readers? We don’t know, but we can guess. Whether through market research or native intuition, Bhagat has a remarkable insight into the personalities and emotional needs of a large swathe of young Indians, which he channels with broad strokes into his novels. If he is turning against the bhakts – or FACIMs, as he calls them, using an unattractive acronym for Frustrated And Complex-ridden Indian Males – it is because he deliberately wants to distance himself from them.

And the reason could be simple: he is ensuring he remains on the side of the growing segment of young India that does not identify itself with the abusive intolerance spouted by these self-proclaimed nationalists and champions of the Hindu faith. As in any other country passing through economic liberalisation, social and personal change have lagged behind financial change, but it is catching up now.

As a result, the upwardly mobile – in aspirations more than accomplishments, in dreams more than reality – young men and women whom Bhagat targets may well wonder whether their favourite writer is sympathetic with the right-wing mob, given his own clearly stated preference for the right-wing brand of politics. Now, this aggressive attack – typical of the writer’s style, really – will assuage their fears.

Mollifying the women's constituency

It’s not just the men. Bhagat is probably being particularly careful in protecting his constituency of women readers, for the objects of his attacks have painted themselves in a starkly misogynistic light on social media. And the writer in Bhagat knows only too well that he cannot afford to make an enemy of women. At least, of those of them who swear by his books.

Don’t forget, the women characters in Bhagat’s novels are superficially quite unlike the bhakts: they come from privileged backgrounds, are fluent (stretching a point) in English, and very clear about their sexual choices. Sure, peel off the skin and you will find the same orthodoxy and acknowledgement to patriarchy, but then Bhagat, like Indian TV soaps, is a purveyor of wish-fulfilment drama, not a change agent. Nor, importantly, are his readers.

What does all this tell us about his next novel, then? Continuing with the speculation, the forces represented by uncouth voices could appear in the plot as something that the hero must encounter and overcome. Bhagat has written about riot mobs before, and not in a positive vein. If he senses a growing antipathy to the tribe of people he has attacked, he may well want to capitalise on it in his fiction. Don’t forget, Bhagat rubs shoulders with Bill and Melinda Gates, not with those who label people as haramzaadas.

This is not to rule out a political motive behind Bhagat’s statements. But be sure that he will never say or write anything that will jeopardise his relationship with his current and potential readers. Because, like it or not, Chetan Bhagat has cultivated a way of trendspotting that many writers should be envious of. Just that the trends in question are often more regressive than progressive.

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