I do other things besides pick restaurants. Like make a ton of money for a girl my age. Heck, I make a lot of money for anyone any age. I also got a top rating in my reviews. Can you at least praise me a little for it?
One: A poetic summation
Sometimes it is criminal to look any further than Wendy Cope to decode matters that are confoundingly complex and simple at once in the lives of women – whether men, relationships and new resolutions, or vague longings, striking failures and the exact point of oranges. And so, it is to Wendy Cope that we turn, retrospectively, to obtain the pithiest, most appropriate poetic summation of Chetan Bhagat’s new novel One Indian Girl, which, incidentally, had caused a great deal of flurry among his fans – and detractors – following the pre-publication announcement that, unlike any of his previous novels, One Indian Girl is entirely told in a female voice.
The novel opens at a cliff-hanger in the present, in a destination wedding in Goa – paid for, do note, by the bride herself. She is beside herself with anxiety, though. The complicated karmas of the past that are being reaped now are retold through flashbacks. The following 12 lines by Ms Cope will convey the essence of the central conflict in the book that unfolds over the course of the next 270 pages:
Bloody men are like bloody buses –
You wait for about a year
And as soon as one approaches your stop
Two or three others appear.
You look at them flashing their indicators,— "Bloody Men"
Offering you a ride.
You're trying to read the destination,
You haven't much time to decide.
If you make a mistake, there is no turning back.
Jump off, and you'll stand there and gaze
While the cars and the taxis and lorries go by
And the minutes, the hours, the days.
Two: The bride – and the buses
Radhika Mehta is a late bloomer. She was a nerd through school and college, but in her late twenties, she is a greater “success” than her more popular peers could ever be. Hell, she is a greater success than even most unpopular nerds. Headhunted into Goldman Sachs from IIM-A, much like her creator, Radhika shines bright in her career in the high-value, low-emotions Distressed Debt section of the global bank, in their glamorous New York office.
While Radhika’s rooted, conservative, middle-class West Delhi parents badger her about settling down with a suitable boy, Radhika embarks on her own journey, encounters love, sex and dhokha (not necessarily in that order), challenges many of the stereotypes associated with her particular class and culture background – while affirming other stereotypes – and, much to the chagrin of her mother (which groom can match her bonuses?), begins to quickly earn an annual compensation of half a million dollars and counting:
“A hundred and fifty thousand dollars. So one-and-a-half-lakh dollars,” I said on the phone to my mother.
“Tell me in rupees,” she said.
“It is forty-five to the dollar now. So, around 70 lakhs.”
“That’s your bonus?” I heard a vessel drop.
“What kind of work do you do anyway?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“I have never heard anyone earn that much.”
“I told you, I am in distressed debt. So we work with companies in trouble.”
“How can you make money if those companies are in trouble?”
I laughed, “We do. Is dad around?”
The chief buses that trundle by are three in number: the fish-eating Bengali Debashish Sen urf Debu, an advertising professional in New York City, whose feminist and communist leanings both bear out to be rather cosmetic in nature; Neel Gupta, a young Rajat Gupta-ish type who’s made partner at Goldman Sachs early on, and is married with kids; and the rather unfortunately named Brijesh Gulati, the groom at the destination wedding, an IT engineer with Facebook who dresses like Sundar Pichai and also belongs, before Menlo Park, San Francisco, to Radhika’s neighbourhood, Naraina Vihar, in West Delhi.
None of the above lives or works in India. All of the above were educated – at least partially – in India. The clean and almost epic aspirational arc of the book is its primary hook. And that is how we get to globalisation…
Three: Globalisation and other malcontents
The first time I read Chetan Bhagat was for an MA course in JNU that was called, cleverly, “Globalisation: Literature, Culture and Society” and taught by Makarand Paranjape. I remember we were discussing One Night at the Call Centre in class, and I stayed up several hours the night before to complete the book. I was familiar with the success of Five Point Someone, and had gifted it to younger cousins, but I hadn’t read it yet. I enjoyed One Night, especially in the context of the various popular fiction tropes employed in its canvas, even as we read a whole bunch of economics in class to re-examine the mainstream rhetoric of globalisation.
In my opinion, it is important to see One Indian Girl in that framework. Since popular fiction is often not massively self-aware, there is, of course, a consistent glorification and celebration of the global financial ecosystem that has given Radhika her extraordinary material wealth. Not even the slenderest of critiques appear. This is gently underlined through the difference between her investment banking job, for instance, and her father’s at the State Bank of India – he had retired as manager – and only once is there an argument between Radhika and Debu over the outcome of a casual telephone conversation between Radhika and her colleagues that will result in the retrenchment of two hundred workers in a factory in China (by closing the factory and selling it as real estate) to give Goldman Sachs a clean profit of twenty million. Otherwise, there are no uncomfortable questions asked.
But what makes this compelling is the neat role reversal. Many of my former literature classmates, girls mostly, activists and humanitarian souls, married rich if dull bankers and thereby maintained the fiscal and moral balance within the family through a neat division. But since it is Radhika who earns much more than many of her beaus – and enjoys her success and wealth without intellectualising it one bit, which is just as well – there are a great deal of ripples within the relationships that follow. This is a deeply interesting issue to examine. From Abhimaan to Ki and Ka, we have been interrogating the effects of “success” on gender roles for a while now, and Chetan Bhagat has put this aspect of relationships front and centre in One Indian Girl.
Four: shallow beautiful people
So we can say that this is a story of successful shallow Indians, not exactly at home in the world but trying desperately to be, looking for love and meaning in their lives while Whatsapping and Facebooking relentlessly. Their lives are a fry cry from those of their parents; so much so that, suddenly, generational chasms have widened beyond all measure.
While the mothers and aunts are meant to provide both comic relief and a commentary on the traditional roles that the Radhikas of our generation have joyfully stepped out of, it is their predictable patter that introduces a strongly Indian (and rather likeable) chorus, in the middle of all the political correctness. Of course, mistake me not…
Five: Let’s talk about cunnilingus
The political correctness is not a bad thing. I mean, I was not wild about Half Girlfriend, primarily because I’d found its politics problematic, but it seems Bhagat set out to ask some of the right questions in One Indian Girl – from career choice to ladkiwalen versus ladkewalen hierarchies – questions that, to many of his readers, will seem novel and urgent. If Pink was meant to educate the young Indian male about consent, One Indian Girl runs the gauntlet from the definition of feminism to the shattering of glass ceilings and the power of cunnilingus – in educating the youth of India.
There are things serious feminists will disagree with (his views on waxing, for instance) and there are things that post-feminists will disagree with (his prescriptive approach at times). But there is no doubt that they’ll all keep reading till the very end to find out exactly what happened, in the final analysis, at the bus stop.
One Indian Girl, Chetan Bhagat, Rupa Publications.
Devapriya Roy is the author of two novels, a PhD dissertation on the Natyashastra and most recently, of The Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple's Guide to Bharat, co-written with husband Saurav Jha.