A writer and co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival, Shinie Antony is also in the unique position of being Chetan Bhagat’s editor, a role that has enabled her to shape some of India’s most read books. In an exclusive interview, Antony discussed the novels, the author, and her editorial perspective. Excerpts:
How do you make sense of the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon? On the one hand, he’s one of the best-selling authors of India, and on the other, there are people who hate him (or at least really don’t like him). In fact, I remember his appearance on this short-lived TV show Love 2 Hate U’...that was the first I saw him dealing with this on screen…
I don’t watch TV…but it happened to me that after his first book become famous...see, I have edited other best-selling writers and I stand by all my writers and all the book that have edited. I like those books, I believe in them.
So for me, okay, I had edited Chetan and suddenly he became famous and I remember a family friend meeting me, across a brunch or something, and suddenly talking to me in a high, agitated voice. Her question was, “Is that literature? Is that literature?” and that’s when I realised she’s actually hostile.
So I have met people who have hugged me as if they know me very well because I edit Chetan’s books, and I have met people who get into I would say pointless arguments with me because they dislike me for editing Chetan’s books...but neither of it matters. I mean it’s like anybody liking what I have written a lot or disliking what I have written a lot...I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. Too much praise and too much criticism kind of cancel each other out.
But why do you think people are so divided on this?
I really don’t know...ahhh, what do I say? You know, I don’t think Chetan cares. I don’t think he cares at all, because I remember once when I got a terrible review; I was very, very upset, traumatised and I spoke to him. He said, “You should feel you’ve arrived. Somebody is going to spend a lot of time just sitting there criticising you so devotedly, it’s because you matter to them. Each time someone takes time out of their busy life just to say what a lousy writer I am...I am like thank you! Thank you for your time!”
Do you think there is something about him that the critics fail to understand?
(Laughs a little) You know what, it’s a larger issue at stake – because people feel maybe that books should be written in a particular way. I know people who when they are editing are very bothered about the dialogue. Like I’ll meet other editors and they’ll say, “I had to cross out so much”, but the thing is as an editor I feel you’re just part of the upholstery, you can’t make your voice heard. It’s always the author’s voice you’re trying to showcase, okay?
So for instance in Chetan’s books I think his dialogues are very effective because he actually turns the plots with the dialogues, which not many IWE (Indian Writing in English) writers do convincingly. So that’s one plus...and that whole casual way of talking...because that’s how people actually talk. We do not talk in laborious sentences, right? So I think he’s brilliant at that. And maybe people feel that there’s not enough grammar in the dialogues...but the thing is that he’s already decided that this is how my character is going to talk. And we should never confuse characters with the author.
So at a litfest, I remember listening to the moderator really being angry with one of the writers, she said, “Your book is so sexist!” and he kept protesting, “No! It’s the character who is sexist’. So maybe the readers who criticise him so much, who are of course kind enough to allot that kind of time and attention to this, probably feel that they will not come out as exacting readers if they don’t do that.
I personally think that before him there wasn’t this kind of space for popular fiction in India. What is it about his stories, do you think, that enabled him to create it? Do you think it’s the dialogue or the English that he chooses to write in…
He owns the English he writes! I would compare him – in one particular respect – to Bernard Shaw, and that is wit. Wit is like adding sugar to your lime juice, you know? So I feel that if somebody can make me laugh then my guard is down and I’m listening very intently to what that person is saying next. I find that in person and in his writing... he’s able to make everything sound quite believable and plausible.
I recently read One Indian Girl, and it seems like an attempt to introduce feminism to people. Would you agree?
And I think often when you’re dealing with such a contentious...
No, I think it’s realistic...he was going after the realistic portrayal of it.
Right. The thing I’m saying is that when you’re dealing with such contentious subjects and you’re also trying to write a book that needs to appeal to the masses, certain nuances can be lost. Do you think that happened with One Indian Girl?
You’ll have to talk Chetan about that. At Bombay Lit Live I remember him saying that feminism is not just the – how do I put it? – the higher end of it. Even a “No cooking on Sunday” by some woman in a village somewhere is feminism, right? Feminism can start at a very very small level, deep within any woman, at any point. You don’t have to quote all the feminist texts which are very in right now to be a feminist. So I think Chetan wanted to take it back to how it would start within a woman who is not even thinking about these issues.
In this context, there are two points that the book talks about. One is equal opportunity for men and women. And the other is the idea that men can get whatever they want and however much they want, but women have to make a choice between things. Do you you think this is enough to make people understand why we need feminism?
It is the beginning of an inner monologue for some. For those who haven’t had to think about these things. When it comes to feminism, nothing is enough. Never will enough be done or said or written about it, as there is so much reversing to be done in terms of innate and inborn injustices.
Coming to Chetan’s book, this is his effort, his interpretation of how to put things a little right. He struck a balance between stating that to get everything a woman wants, she should be with a man who wants nothing, and stating its opposite. At the other end is the woman who thinks that for a man to get everything, she should make herself nothing. I feel he struck a balance between these two extremes.
Not only is this book talking about feminism through the medium of popular fiction, but it has also been written from the perspective of a woman. Was the experience of working on it different from his other books?
At the end of the day I was looking at it as a story. And I know it is written in first person, but for me it is still a character like in any of his books. Though gender plays a large part in it...for me it was more a question of looking at it as an editor, as a listener – does this story work? It could be a man telling it, or a woman, or a transgender person, but the story has to work. There should be a conflict which is real, and a resolution which is even more real. And as an editor I was satisfied with these.
You are viewing it through the lens of an editor, but by default you would also be viewing it through the lens of a woman…
I don’t think so. As an editor I don’t think you come with a particular gender. Your gender may be an unconscious part of your reading, but it was never at the forefront of my thinking. You know it could be a book written (about) an animal and you still want it to be sensitive, you still want it to be saying something new. It could be Cinderella’s shoe talking. The main thing is that it has to sound like a shoe, her shoe.
When a man attempts to write from a woman’s perspective, are there things he cannot do full justice to?
I don’t think so, because personally, I have written like an old man, I’ve written a transgender, I’ve written a young boy who has recently been raped. So I feel that as a writer that is what you do. You occupy a space where you are nobody. You become someone else.
What feedback of yours do you think was the most important?
In One Indian Girl, I think what he liked most was that… she wears a charcoal grey suit and then goes furniture-hunting and likes a charcoal grey sofa set. I said, “You know, she’s wearing charcoal grey…” And he said, “Ohhhhh…yeah yeah yeah”…(laughs a little)…”Let’s make it another grey,” and changed it to something else.
Were there points you and Chetan Bhagat found it hard to agree on?
No, I don’t think so. He’s like a dream writer for any editor. He completely understands where you’re coming from and takes anything I said very seriously. So I’m also very careful about what I say. I don’t have to impress him by over-criticising his manuscript. If he didn’t go with what I said, then he would come back with an explanation. I know of people who have criticised my editing to him and asked that they be made his editor – the same people who ask me how I can stand to edit him!
As an editor is it important to be aligned with the ideological views of the author you’re working with?
That is important, but I don’t have to be ideologically linked to the characters.
I don’t know if this is an unfair question, but which work of Chetan Bhagat’s do you like the best?
(Pauses a little)…Five Point Someone, I think.
What about it do you like the best?
I really just found it funny. I mean so is Two States. I would say that book is also very funny. I think Five Point Someone...it had that effortless wit, you know, because sometimes you know that the writer has put in a lot of effort into the punch lines. And sometimes their “funniness” is talking down to you as a reader.
But I felt in Chetan’s case it’s a very equal kind of wit. It’s like he’s taking you into confidence about it. So he’s never thinking that you won’t get it. Also, the jokes are good. Five Point Someone was the first time that I had read an Indian book in English that was so funny. Maybe after Anurag Mathur’s Inscrutable Americans. That was surprising too because we didn’t expect that, right? Also Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel.