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Those of you who furrow your brows around the highfalutin books often reviewed in these pages, kindly relax and please know that there are at least two types of books that readers enjoy. High-brow or low-brow, it would seem that as far as novel writing goes, there is more than one way to do it.
Chetan Bhagat’s 2 States: The Story of My Marriage (aka, 2S:TSoMM ) is a sentimental novel with populist appeal that the youth of India have been raving about for many years. Originally published in 2009, the book’s film adaptation was released on the silver screen in 2014 under the truncated filmy-friendly title 2 States. Perhaps in Bhagat’s case, “golden screen” would be more apropos, since he possesses a Midas touch in writing novels that inevitably find their way into the hearts of audiences and the coffers of film producers seeking super-hits: Five Point Someone adapted to 3 Idiots; One Night @ the Call Center to Hello; The 3 Mistakes of My Life to Kai Po Che!; and Revolution 2020 to a not yet released film.
2S:TSoMM is transmutational, in the way an alchemist transmutates lead into gold. While those inclined to call it “low brow” might smirk at this faux jewelry of fiction, it is a jewel nonetheless. It just lacks the Tiffany-esque imprimatur of prizes and prominent placement in the New York Times Book Review. But 2S:TSoMM has what every author dreams of: a reading public. Stroll on most any sidewalk in urban India or step onto almost any Indian railway platform, and you’ll have ready access to this book; indeed, if my recent experience in Bangalore with Sharif, a roadside vendor of books, is an accurate indicator, you’re likely to have available Bhagat’s entire corpus. To be sure, Sharif and his colleagues peddle pirated copies for a fraction of the published price, but perhaps the author is smiling all the way to the bank since his books may serve as a publicity vehicle for the film adaptations, which bring home crores of rupees to “Bhagat Inc.” (or is that ink?).
But this is neither a review of films, nor a discussion of jugaad (frugal, street corner, improvised, hacked) publishing economics. As a recent article in Scientific American asked (and answered), “What of the fabled transmutation of lead to gold? It is indeed possible—all you need is a particle accelerator, a vast supply of energy and an extremely low expectation of how much gold you will end up with.” Bhagat and 2S:TSoMM meet the criteria established by Scientific American: both author and book are particle accelerators with a vast supply of energy of sorts (having published a book every year or two, Bhagat takes a small idea and moves it from concept to completion with tremendous energy, and his novel’s pace and plotting reflect that same relentless movement). And while 2S:TSoMM has a moment or two of literary sunshine, its author seems to have little interest in abstract metaphors that might raise the expectations of readers seeking to enjoy a sunny story. 2S:TSoMM is a feel-good novel about an MBA student from North India who marries a fellow IIM student from the South. The tag line on the book’s back cover pretty much covers the narrative:
“Love marriages around the world are simple: Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. They get married. In India, there are a few more steps: Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Girl’s family has to love boy. Boy’s family has to love girl. Girl’s family has to love boy’s family. Boy’s family has to love girl’s family. Girl and boy still love each other. They get married.”
That is the essence of this novel; and it is the foundation of so many Bollywood romantic comedies. This is a formula that never goes stale; and with attractive, fresh-faced stars, a little bit of direction and choreography, and a lot of catchy music, it becomes a formula for a super-hit.
While there is more to Bhagat’s magic than outlined above, hopefully this review compensates for years of neglect by this self-identified high-brow reviewer. And perhaps it may encourage a reader or two (million) to pick up Chetan Bhagat’s recently published Half Girlfriend. Of course, this reviewer vastly overestimates his own impact on the reading public. For example, though I have reviewed the Nobelist V. S. Naipaul numerous times in these pages, when I asked Sharif, the Bangalore bookseller, for a dusty copy of Naipaul’s Half a Life, he said, “Paul who?” Clearly, Sharif had very few customers requesting highfalutin fare. I shuddered in the muddy Indian rain and raced over to the august Oxford Bookstore, housed next to the regal Leela Palace hotel, and found plenty of copies of Naipaul’s prize-winning books.
In appreciation of Balkrishna Oza, who let a much younger RCO ride on his shoulders and taught him that all kinds of writing (ranging from aerogram letters to prize winners to Sunday comics to cereal boxes) has value, as do all kinds of people.