I have to confess that I became familiar with Chetan Bhagat only after seeing the movie Three Idiots in 2009, although his first novel Five Point Someone had been published in 2004. After watching the movie, I proceeded to read many of his books on my trips to India because many family members read his books regularly.
Though Chetan Bhagat was present at the 2018 Jaipur Literary Festival which I attended, I could not meet him there. When I came to know that he was coming to Atlanta, Georgia, I packed my bags and drove for five hours to hear him speak there. To my delight, I heard him twice, once in Alpharetta, at an event organized by the non-profit organization Pratham, and in the evening again at the Infinite Energy Center in Duluth at a Heart Notes concert featuring the legendary singer Pandit Jasraj, where he delivered the keynote address.
Chetan has an engaging conversational style. He grew up in Dhaula Kuan, Delhi and studied at the Army Public School there.
Chetan told me that he graduated at the top of his class at IIM Ahmedabad. When I asked him if his management training had helped him launch the successful phenomenon that has since transformed the sale of English books within India. “Phenomenon, what phenomenon?” he asked innocently. “The phenomenon that is Chetan Bhagat, indeed,” I replied with a smile. “No,” he said with deep conviction, “I always had a natural ability to market myself, not all management graduates like marketing.” “So the innate branding ability is in your genes?” I quizzed with a smile. He nodded. He claimed to have not spent a single rupee of his own on marketing his books. And yet, he has almost single-handedly transformed the sale of English language novels penned by Indian authors from a few thousands to several million books in sales every year. That’s quite an achievement!
Chetan drew from his IIT Delhi Engineering background when he illustrated his presentation to the large audience with graphs and Venn diagrams. He held the audience enthralled with anecdotes about his many avatarts – journalist, blogger, motivational speaker and sought after author. His popular novels like Half Girlfriend, One Indian Girl and What Young India Wants, appeal to working millennials in India, who carry his books in their backpacks. That Indians read like they used to read before the invasion of screens is truly a wonderful sight! His popularity is endorsed by his devoted followers online – he has over 12 million followers on Twitter and over 6 million on Facebook. His tweets are read and quoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his columns in Dainik Bhaskar are followed by rickshaw-pullers. All of this clearly demonstrates the ways in which he has captured the country’s imagination across levels of social strata.
“Mr. Bhagat, you write on diverse topics but tell me did you read a lot as a kid?” I asked him with curiosity. “I did read but I did not think that I would become an author one day. Had I known that, I would have read more as a child,” he quipped. With memories of childhood reading pursuits, his face lit up. That expression of joy immediately won me over, and I could see that this accidental author and more of an authorpreneur as he likes to call himself is indeed a kid at heart, with a great love for words who is actively engaged in his craft, delighting in being in touch with the pulse of his readers.
In his own way, he encourages all Indians to be engaged in their lives and to shun the inertia which has defined us for too long. “Let’s not shrug our shoulders and hide behind the apathetic “chalta hai” attitude or take refuge in hurling blame at others,” he said. “India needs change in terms of meaningful education, real secular beliefs, unification of diverse identities, women’s rights at home and in the workplace.” He feels that there is an urgent need to promote a healthy attitude towards sex. Dating and sex should not be swept under the carpet as taboo subjects within the home, if we want to make the country safe for women of all ages he feels – a theme he addressed in his book – One Indian Girl.
Not becoming complacent or settling for anything at any age is his mantra and he poses this challenge of being willing to adapt to change to his readers. “To settle is to be like the sediment at the bottom of a still lake. If you want to stay alive, be engaged and adapt to change, that comes your way.” As an example to illustrate the importance of being adaptive, he mentioned how obnoxious cockroaches achieved a survival advantage over extinct dinosaurs because of their resilience.
“As a successful novelist, how do you decide which idea is suitable to eventually become a book?” I asked. He liked that line of questioning and responded that if an idea kept coming back to him and if he felt that it could be explored in depth, he eventually worked on fashioning a novel.
I asked him about his favorite leisure activity. Without batting an eyelid he said, “Sleeping.” I liked him – here was an author with an honest, straightforward style of speaking. He did not feign a literary style akin to great English authors like Dickens or Hemingway. I might not read his books over and over again but his books are indeed easy to read and his subject matter is always very relevant to current events.
“Can you speak in Punjabi?” I asked hoping I could share a joke or two in my mother tongue. “No,” he said, “my mother is from Lahore but I grew up in Delhi, I can understand the language, but I can’t speak Punjabi.” “Well I am a Punjabi, born in Chandigarh – I grew up in Bombay but ran away from home after marriage,” I said softly under my breath. He immediately perked up. “What happened?” the curious story teller in him wanted more details. “Oh, that’s a story for another day,” I said thanking him for the interview and placing a copy of my My Light Reflections in his palm.
Monita Soni is a pathologist and diagnoses cancer. Her writing style weaves eastern and western cultures. You can hear her commentaries on WLRH-Sundial Writers corner and on “All Things Considered.”