I spent several months in 2000 going back and forth along the lines of an argument the novelist Vikram Chandra was having with the critic Meenakshi Mukherjee. She had charged that he used high-sounding Sanskrit titles for the chapters of Love and Longing in Bombay only to signal Indianness to the West and he felt this criticism was unfair.
I too thought he had been wronged by the critic, not because of his argument, but because I had already begun to think of myself as a writer and I felt that writers should not be told what they “should” write. Any fiction that came out of a “should” would only be, could only be, flat and powerless.
But I also saw some merit in Mukherjee’s point, although I thought it was made gracelessly. Had Chandra worked hard enough to earn those Sanskrit titles? I wasn’t sure. Not well informed enough to resolve this problem in one direction or the other, I tired of it and, instead, began to write my first novel.
Labouring hard on this project for four years, I finally finished it in 2004 and had just settled down to the process of sending query letters to agents and planning my answers to interview questions when I got a call from one of my friends from the hostel I had lived in when I was an undergraduate at IIT Delhi in the early nineties. Without preamble, he asked: “Have you finished writing your book?”
My friends from IIT had a vague idea that I was writing a novel but this “hobby” of mine had rarely excited their interest in the past. Before I could ask why this question had come up, he said: “Chattu ne book likhi hai.”
I still remember the sinking feeling I got because I had known Chetan Bhagat well – he was a member of the cohort that had joined the hostel the year before me, and that my own batch had nurtured a bit of a rivalry with for the years we had overlapped and beyond. Without being told, I had a rough idea of what his themes might be, and that they would run parallel to the book I had just finished. But when I loaded Bhagat’s website and read an excerpt, I heaved a sigh of relief. The setting was the same but his work was nothing like mine, I thought.
I was writing literary fiction, polishing each sentence, whereas he seemed to be pitching a more direct language, shorn of refinement, to a mass audience. We’re not even in the same game, I thought. It has taken me almost a decade and a half to realise that I did what most human beings do when confronted with something they don’t fully understand: I resorted to categories.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history. His book came out and changed the rules of the English publishing game in India, drawing sharp and completely impotent criticism from the high priests of Indian English culture. By the time I finally published my own novel in early 2007, Bhagat was a celebrity, and everyone, including some of my friends from IIT, immediately assumed that I was trying to ride the bandwagon.
There I had been, intent on opening a dialogue with the Vikram Seths and Arundhati Roys of the world, on explaining how I was charting a new course in Indian English fiction, and here I was being skewered in ungrammatical terms for being a Me-Too novelist. I was indignant, but, since I had not made the successful transition to being a public figure that Bhagat had, my indignation only found outlet in gatherings of friends from IIT Delhi who delighted in my irritation and made it a point to stoke it at least once every time we met.
As the years accumulated I wrote two more novels, with themes that were very different from the topical ones that Bhagat chose for his subsequent works, and although I did not choose the themes just to be different, once the books were written and close to publication I did nurse the secret hope that their publication would convince people that I was, had always been, a very different kind of writer from Chetan Bhagat.
Of course, by the time these books came out the world had moved on from my small little frustration and so little satisfaction came my way from the world of critics and bloggers.
The one population that did remember that I had written a novel set in IIT earlier was the one that had found great amusement in the fact that I felt ticked off at being compared with Bhagat – my friends from IIT. And, for these people, a book was a book and a writer was a writer, and Bhagat was posting selfies with prime ministers and hanging out with film stars while all I seemed to be doing was accumulating white hair while stuck in a respectable but boring job as a professor in a public university. There was much merriment to be had from such a situation. I would have probably found it amusing myself if I hadn’t been in my place.
Fast forward to 2018 when another book I have written is about to come out. I am waiting impatiently for publication day, distracting myself with the respectable but sometimes boring responsibilities that my job brings, when the phone rings. “Bagchi, crack maar diya teri nayi book ne!” It’s a friend of mine from the hostel, a batchmate. I am reasonably happy with the new book and hoping for a favourable reception from the literary world, but certainly not expecting a “Bagchi, crack maar diya” kind of response from my hostel buddies. What has brought this on?
It turns out that one of the authors published by my publishers happens to be a famous film personality-turned-writer. She must have heard about the book from my publishers and so when she received a proof copy she took a photo of it and tweeted it out. A screenshot of this tweet is doing the rounds on the hostel Whatsapp group. “Finally, you’ve made it, yaar.” Finally!
Despite myself his excitement unlocks something within me. I let my body loose and sink into the soft cushion of his elation. I remember the line I read long ago in Muhammad Ali’s biography about how the reception he got in his small racist hometown of Louisville felt much better than the larger receptions he received in the capitals of the world because “when you’ve been planted like a tree in one town, and suddenly become recognised and acclaimed by the other trees, it is unlike any other experience you are likely to have.”
And perhaps because the lock within my heart has opened I begin to see that despite my sympathy for Vikram Chandra, I too had felt that there was a wall separating Indian English books from their subjects.
I saw that my genteel attempts to climb that wall – and I too had hated that wall although I had been too polite to say so – had become irrelevant by the time they came because Chetan Bhagat, with his explicit anti-elitism and populism, had dynamited it.
Could he have carved his new road with more grace and greater attention to language? Probably. Having heard him in full flow in the West Delhi Hindi that was our dialect of choice in the hostel, I know he was certainly capable of it. Would he have been able to win over a mass audience if he had laboured over a more refined English? Probably not. Would the West Delhi dialect have brought greater richness to his writings if he had chosen to write in it rather than in English? Definitely. Would he have been invited to the high table if he had decided to write in Hindi and not in English? Probably not. If he had tried to transmute that dialect into English while maintaining its power and cadence, could he have pulled it off? I think so. Did he love the English language enough to want to attempt such a complex task? Probably not. And, finally, if he wanted to write in English, should he have loved the English language enough to have struggled to enrich it? Definitely not, because nothing that comes from “should” or “would” could ever be anything but flat and powerless.
But these ruminations are to come later. Sitting there blushing and mumbling while he relates who had said what on having seen the now famous tweet I wake up to a new challenge looming ahead when this batchmate of mine subliminally reignites the old rivalry between cohorts by saying: “Bas ab tu woh prize jeet le – kya kehte hain use? – haan, Booker.” There’s really no pleasing some people.