The world of Indian education may be full of teachers, policy makers, and even a few conmen seeking to influence the life of students hungry with ambition, desperate to raise their social and economic status. But it takes an author like Chetan Bhagat to not only write (albeit a spicy and romanticised account) about this world, but also stir up enough controversy—through columns in Indian national dailies, tweets and blog posts—so the world takes notice of what he wishes to say and sell. After launching his book Revolution 2020 on October 7, 2011, in Mumbai, the bestselling author of books like Five Point Someone andOne Night @ the Call Centre, arrived in the United States for a weeklong vacation on October 12th. “I wanted to take a break as it had been very hectic after the launch and I wanted to step back and relax. The work on my next book will not start for another six months,” he said at the beginning of his interview. Here’s more from that conversation, with an unabashed and always controversial Bhagat taking on his critics smartly—a quality that some brand pomposity and others call self-confidence.
A lot has been said and written about the education system in India over past few years—both in fiction and non-fiction genres. How do you feel your book Revolution 2020 (R2020) adds to the discussion?
I think it’s a different story of course, because it talks of the non-elite colleges. What I did on the IITs was nice… it made an impact, started a discussion on our education system. But the bulk of students (in India) get into non-elite colleges. I think I wanted to cast light on these colleges and Revolution 2020 has tried to do that.
Do you feel it is contradictory that while you have always supported the IIT education system on one hand, you have used corruption in education system (specifically in the engineering segment) as a background to R2020?
If you care about something, you have to point out its reality. As a writer, I am telling a story. It is not like I am writing a brochure. I show my caring in a way that presents both the positive and the negative side, and it hopefully leads to something better.
Every book of your so far has been made into a movie. It must be a proud feeling. Tell us how that came about. Do you have a favorite among them?
Somehow the books caught the imagination of many people in the country. That includes many filmmakers. There are many filmmakers who are my fans. Even for R2020 we are getting many queries.
Yes I do enjoy the fact that my books have been considered for movie adaptations. People in India like movies and I want to reach as many Indians as possible. In that sense, it is very positive that it is happening. I cannot really say which one has been the most favourite. But I think [the adaptation of] 2 States: The Story of My Marriage [being directed by Vishal Bharadwaj] is going to be fantastic.
How did 3 Idiots happen?
I was first approached for the movie rights to Five Point Someone (later made into 3 Idiots) back in 2005. I think at that time I was introduced to the producer by some mutual friends. Back then, they were not expecting it to be such a major film.
Are you considering any of the offers you have got for Revolution 2020 so far?
No. it is very early. People have to read the book first.
You have always maintained that you want to change the way India thinks, as this book also says, quite inspiringly. With four books already on bestsellers list, and a fifth on the stands, what changes do you think you have brought in so far?
None. I have just started to have that objective. But I haven’t brought about any change yet. Right now the only thing I may have done is making people interested in books again. (Also) there may be some more focus on the issues I represent… on the anti-corruption movement … and bringing education issues to the forefront.
You have written about India and Indians, and your books are based in Indian cities, which is to be expected. But you also spent 11 years in Hong Kong. Any experiences you would want to highlight from that part of the world?
I have thought about it, but haven’t worked on it yet. I will do it someday.
There is so much of debate over the kind of English Indians should speak or write in— since English is not their mother tongue. Would you say that Indians should aim to write in their mother tongue, first and foremost—as mastery over one’s mother tongue is a pre-requisite before attempting a grasp of other languages?
I think people should write in whatever language they are comfortable in. The language doesn’t matter. What matters is a good story.
What answer do you have for critics who reproach you for your poor grammar?
Nothing. They are reacting to me. I am not reacting to them. If they don’t like it, then I accept the point. But then they should stop reading also. However, somehow they end up reading all my books. As long as people are reading my books, it doesn’t really matter.
In R2020, you are dealing with a love triangle and corruption in education system. Tell us some of your experiences when it comes to these two areas.
Yes … I mean, I have been in situations where I was interested in a girl and she was not interested in me. That has happened. This was long back—before my marriage of course. It’s all too personal, frankly.
As for corruption in the education system, yes, I have had many friends who run colleges and they have privately confessed to me that they actually do a lot of corruption. All in all, Revolution 2020 is inspired by real incidents.
Why is Varanasi the setting for this book? What is unique about that setting?
Corruption is kind of everywhere, but I found the city very interesting. I wanted to [base the plot on] a small town. The book is a love story, a romance—Varanasi is a good setting for that, with the river there. I have been there 4-5 times for talks. It has a lot of character.
When I was writing about a small town, I did not want to write about a boring place.
What progress do you feel you have made as a writer in last 7 years?
I think I have progressed. As a person I have grown, becoming more aware of what I want rather than what other people want out of me. Today, if I feel my book is good, I am happy. Even if people criticize it, or if I get too much praise, it doesn’t matter too much now.
What challenges do you face in your profession?
Now it’s more about getting ideas. Because the expectations are massive. It’s like, every time people expect a wow book, to blow them away. It satisfies my own motivation too—I have done it five times and I have to do more of these. The challenge is that I have too many options, unfortunately. If I want to write, I can write any story I want. It’s hard to choose.That apart, balancing my life—my family, health and work—is a big challenge for me.
How did co-writing the screenplay with Abhishek Kapoor (of Rock On fame) for The 3 Mistakes of My Life’s film adaptation happen for you?
He wanted me. It depends on the filmmaker actually. If the filmmaker wants me to help, I help.
You must be aware of David Dhawan’s latest film, Rascals, starring Sanjay Dutt and Ajay Devgn in lead roles with their first names being Chetan and Bhagat respectively. Did you ever feel that it was some sort of a dig at you?
(Laughs) Well, I think it is, of course. It’s ok. I like it. It shows the level of popularity [I have]. He is a friend. I’ve known him (since) he was present on the sets of Hello (based on One Night @ the Call Centre) when I was making that film with Salman Khan’s family. He’s very close to Salman. I like him. He’s a fun guy.
What advice would you have for other writers who wish to emulate your success? And what advice would you have for writers who are critically panned? Is there something to be learnt from that feedback or should one just write from the heart.
I think they have to believe in themselves and be good at their work. And not worry so much about what the world thinks. You should take feedback. But if you agree with it, believe in it. If you don’t, ignore it.
Suchi Sargam is a journalist in India.