Good afternoon and welcome to the Popular Fiction course. Do note, this is not the same as the Popular Literature course, which is for English Honours students. That one offers the sort of texts that the intellectual types fancy on rainy mornings, when they might be tired of Garica Marquez or Derrida, and want to read in bed. It deals with the posh within the popular – Shyam Selvadurai’s Funny Boy or Subhash and Durgesh Vyam’s Bhimayana, both included in the popular literature course, are anything but what we’re going to look at today.
This course, the Popular Fiction one, is unafraid of embracing the mass market. So, are you in the right class? Just to set the record straight, it is intended for those who feel that finally – Foucault be thanked! – a general elective course has been designed which does not need to be studied. After all, the (sometimes multiple) movie versions of all four books we’ll be reading are easily available on torrents. I shall, naturally, try my best to come between you and that blissful thought – but I might yet fail.
Serious jokes apart, though, it’s rather refreshing to see an elective class so full. In Presidency College, when we were in our BA programme, you only attended elective classes if there was someone in it from another department whom you were either romantically interested in or pathologically hated. The line between love and hate, of course, being a matter of critical theory.
But let’s cut to the chase.
This is where we introduce the C-word: Canon
Canon: Derived from Biblical use, it refers to a collection of sacred books accepted as genuine.
A decade and a half ago, a popular fiction course would not have existed at all. So for those of us who have always clamoured for its inclusion in the canon, the very fact of this course reminds me of a victory hard-won in the first place. And yet, like all victories in academia, the fruits of it were bitterly contested almost as soon as they were delivered.
For one, the radicals among us stood for the dismantling of the canon altogether. So in some places it became possible to study for an advanced English literature degree that might not have anything “English” – or British – at all. But in other places, a dynamic canon was instituted in its place, where a new set of “worthy” texts replaced the old.
If popular literature were being studied, it would be a variation of what I call the posh popular – Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love. Books that had, as the cliché goes, stood the test of time, and provided a great deal of material to analyse, even when the chief topic of discussion was entertainment and not lit crit. Frankly, my dears, we did give a damn.
In this class, however, we have broken free of the posh mafia within the popular club and come up with four books that represent, to differing extents, a certain watershed moment in the history of mainstream trade publishing in their time, thereby telling us as much about their readerships as about their contexts. (You’ve realised by now that Context is the other C-word you’ll need to drop every five seconds to survive in these parts.)
While I am only too aware – like all of you – that the popular imagination and, I daresay, outrage, is cascading around one of these four books, let us not lose sight of the fact that we will be reading all four.
In the course of this semester, using these books, we wish to establish our deeply inclusive credentials and also hope to offer you useful strategies of reading that you can then implement on your own. In the process, we hope to ruin the books for you forever, and who is to say that is not a good thing for some of the titles in this course?
A word or three about the selection
The inclusion of Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, which was first published in the UK in 1934, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling, originally published in the UK in 1997, may appear fairly safe choices. The neatness of the “cozy murder mystery” and the combination of magic + school days provide interesting entry points into two highly readable classics in their respective genres – detective and children’s fiction.
The gentle Orientalism of the first and the showy multi-culturalism of the second provide an arc to the evolution of the outsider as protagonist, even if he – and it’s still he – is white. Hercule Poirot is a Belgian in a xenophobic England, and Harry Potter is an orphaned wizard in a middle-class British neighbourhood of folks who know no magic.
A beloved childhood favourite for those of us who went to all-girls missionary schools, it is a welcome surprise for Little Women, first published in America in 1868-69, to be liberated from its assumed female readership and be included in a course meant, most robustly, for a mixed group. Louisa May Alcott, much like her fictional twin Jo March, provided the model for most of my early ideas about how writers lived.
That is to say, in poverty. Writing some stuff for money in order to fund the wracked artistic life.
But the memorable story of the four March sisters, their straitened circumstances – the father is away fighting in the Civil War and Marmee, the beloved mother, is working hard to make ends meet – and their individual coming-of-age stories both defy and reinforce stereotypes. Read nearly a hundred and fifty years later, in our India, it is likely to offer the most spirited discussions on love and friendship between men and women.
To cross-reference wildly, as you will learn to do, we must turn to When Harry Met Sally and remind ourselves of Harry’s epic philosophy: “What I’m saying is – and this is not a come-on in any way, shape or form – is that men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way.” The youthful anguish of Laurie and Jo’s friendship – and the whole she’s not that into me angle – will definitely offer us enough material to wildly disagree about in class.
And now, drumrolls and eyerolls
Thank you for bearing with me thus far. We now come to the main course of this repast, if you will excuse the paronomasia. It is the inclusion of Five Point Someone: What Not to Do at IIT by Chetan Bhagat, first published in India in 2004, that seems to have stirred the hornet’s nest in the chattering circles of the country.
And also, possibly, attracted some of you to this course.
When I was served the new syllabus in my inbox, I read it much like I would a court notice, and eventually, after an eyeroll or two, I muttered a few words of gratitude to the god of small things. At least it was not Half Girlfriend. A small digression is in order.
When Half Girlfriend was published, my alter-ego marshalled all my criticism of it in the form of a letter to the author in the voice of the book’s female protagonist, Riya Somani. The upshot of that performance was that said alter-ego’s unwitting husband, who happens to share the same surname as Bhagat’s hero, gets messages on Facebook from schoolgirls asking if his life had inspired the movie. Mr Bhagat’s popularity can hardly be contested by even his detractors.
The word “product” substitutes the word “book” in the Acknowledgements of Five Point Someone. You may be aware that to literary people, calling a book a product is calumny, almost like accusing a gau rakshak of beef-eating (or vice versa). On the other hand, ever since 1991, when India opted to liberalise its economy and throw open the doors to competition, global capital, and the creation of a “market”, everything around us has become something of a product.
Why is this important? In the course of your undergraduate studies, you will have read enough literature to determine for yourself where Bhagat’s book might stand on a literary scale. What is of significance, however, is that it is in many senses a result of the application of market forces – which involves applying strategies to gauge what people might want to read and then creating an entertainment package to serve this.
This is, as you may know, how the big film studios operate. Therefore, we will be considering this text as a crucial marker in the publishing history in India. And therein lies a tale.
The manuscript, rejected by Penguin Books, was approved for publication up by a young Kapish Mehra who had recently joined his father’s publishing house, Rupa and Company. Bolstered by Rupa’s deep distribution network and the product (yes, that word again) marketing skills Bhagat had acquired at the Indian Institute of Management and further developed during his work in investment banking, the book succeeded in racking up sales numbers that soon left behind Shobhaa De, who was till then the reigning monarch of bestsellers, and eventually outstripped the readership of Hindi thriller writer Surender Mohan Pathak.
In the process it revealed to critics and editors alike a new and vast English-reading market, outside the literary mainstream, as it were, that had suddenly opened up. It is this reader too who must be the object of our curiosity.
In the second volume of her autobiography Under My Skin, Doris Lessing writes that the first book for any woman writer is an act of self-definition. I see no quarrel with extending this example to male writers who are from outside the academy, as it were. With Five Point Someone, in a sense, then Bhagat was describing not only himself but the golden mean at which he captured the largest readership of Indians in English.
In this course we will apply ourselves critically to answering the question of what it is we learn about contemporary India from the contents of this novel, and from the indisputable fact of its extraordinary commercial success, which has led to the building of the author not just as a bestselling novelist but also a pop commentator on many aspects of politics, society and behaviour that most serious fiction writers would baulk at claiming an understanding of.
We may not luurve this novel, but we will try AF – as, I am aware, some of you might put it – to understand what makes it work.
Devapriya Roy is the author, most recently, of the Heat and Dust Project: the Broke Couple’s Guide to Bharat, written along with Saurav Jha.