“India loves the caste system, even literature has one”
Exclusive interview with famed author Chetan Bhagat by Sujata Rajpal
No other English author has been the object of so much ridicule as Chetan Bhagat. Readers of his books are often mocked for their poor English and poor intellect. At elite parties in the subways, it is not uncommon to hear condescending remarks about the famous author’s literary abilities or lack thereof. Ironically, Chetan Bhagat is the first author to have India read. He is credited with converting non-readers into readers and he inspired thousands of people to become writers.
Well, the proof of the pudding is by eating, whether his English is bad or good, is irrelevant. What matters is that he sells and sells like hotcakes. His books have sold a million copies and every one of his books has been adapted into a film – Chetan Bhagat is living every author’s dream. The famous author, columnist and motivational speaker was in Mysuru to give a motivational speech at KSOU Convocation Hall, an event organized by Event Mitra. On behalf of Star of Mysore, Mysuru-based author Sujata Rajpal caught up with him in a free-wheeling conversation ahead of his June 4, 2022 session. Now read on…
Star of Mysore (SOM): From 2004 — when, after many rejections, your first novel “Five Point Someone” was published by Rupa Publications — until today, how has your journey been?
Chetan Bhagat: It was a fantastic trip. I’m lucky to have the love of so many readers. So many people buy my books and come to listen to me, which is humbling. What more could an author ask for?
SOM: What inspires you to write?
Chetan Bhagat: At first, I was writing for fame. I wanted to make my mark as a writer. I’ve written ten bestsellers, so if I do two more, that’s okay. It’s still nice to have best-sellers but it doesn’t really affect me. I have reached a stage where I would like to use my time to motivate young people. It’s so hard to get them off their phones, off social media, so hard to get their attention and get them to read. I want to motivate our young people to start thinking about themselves and the country.
So that’s my goal now. For this, I launched my YouTube motivation channel. The advice I give them is not unique. It’s the same advice their parents give but no one listens to them. My children don’t listen to me, but if the same thing is said by a stranger, they will listen. As a result, many students have given up their phones, are reading more and doing better in their studies. I have the ability to influence young people, which is also a good way to grow old.
SOM: What does it take to be Chetan Bhagat?
Chetan Bhagat: Hard work, of course. Other than that, I have a beginner’s attitude. I want to learn something new every day. I didn’t know anything about YouTube but I learned it and it makes me feel good, so every moment I learn. My advice: don’t bask in your past successes, try to be a better person every day.
SOM: Would you like to be a simple readable, no-frills author or an award-winning, internationally acclaimed author whose work few people can understand?
Chetan Bhagat: In fact, you can be both. You can’t get a reward for complication, but you can get one for communication. If you’re a complicated author, no one would invite you to mass events, but you might be called to elite events to discuss books instead of wine. Being a popular person is more important to me than getting an award.
SOM: How do you deal with trolls?
Chetan Bhagat: You can’t make everyone happy. If you voice your opinion, someone or the other would have a problem. In fact, some people would have a problem even if you make a general statement like the sky is blue. They could say that at night the sky is not blue. Interestingly, those who criticize me don’t even read my columns or my books.
SOM: People criticize your books, call you a writer whose books only non-intellectuals read, many don’t want to admit in public that they read your books. Some time ago, a journalist asked you to stop writing. What is your reaction to these?
Chetan Bhagat: How is the career of this journalist going? (laughs). It is wrong to say that only non-intellectuals read my books. Shashi Tharoor reads my books. The late Leela Seth, former Chief Justice of India, told me she was a fan of my books. Gulzar sahib reads my books. In fact, nobody does better than me criticizes me, it’s only the authors who don’t do as well as me who have a problem with my books and my English. My brand is well done, so such comments no longer affect me.
Unfortunately, those who criticize me are fighting over which English writer is good and which writer writes crap, but they don’t see which author has brought our young people to books. I have. If people only read Chetan Bhagat because it’s easy to read and they come across an article saying that Chetan Bhagat writes shit, they stop reading and go back to watching Instagram reels. Because of the snobbery of some people, we lost a reader for life.
With the internet invading our limited space, our pie is already shrinking. We have to find a way to bring young people back to books. India loves the caste system, even in literature there is a caste system, there must be one caste on top and the rest on the bottom.
Good English is considered synonymous with writing difficult words and complex sentences. Good writing is good thinking. We only encouraged a certain class of writers, but what about readers who don’t understand difficult words. It is no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the room. There is still an opportunity, there are so many genres like horror, children, where there are not many books yet. Young people are fed up with videos. They want books, easy books that they can understand without too much effort. There is a certain pleasure in reading that a video or a film would not give.
SOM: What advice would you give to authors who would like to be in your shoes?
Chetan Bhagat: Why would anyone want to be in my place? Be yourself. I didn’t want to be another Arundhati Roy or Salman Rushdie. Tomorrow’s authors would be different, it wouldn’t just be about writing books. This would be videos, blogs and much more.
SOM: Are you an actor, columnist, motivational speaker, writer and even a reality TV judge? What role do you like the most?
Chetan Bhagat: I love them all. I liked acting (I played in ‘Decoupled’). It was fun but no one is hiring me now. It’s great to experience many things in life.
SOM: Do you have time to read?
Chetan Bhagat: I force myself to read at least one book a month. Currently I’m reading a neuroscience book called “The Molecular Mode” which talks about the brain circuitry, how it works, why some people are motivated and others aren’t. Reading is important for writers. It is a profession that they must constantly refine. Reading keeps you in that zone. On the other hand, there is no creativity in watching reels. It rusts your brain.
SOM: Do you think it’s easier for designers in metros to make it big compared to those in small towns like Mysuru?
Chetan Bhagat: In the age of social media, location doesn’t matter. The author must himself bear the burden of publicity. Even the big publishers wouldn’t promote the book for you. When I wrote my first book, its review was published in ‘India Today’, which was huge, but these days it doesn’t matter so much. It’s more important if a social media influencer has your back. You can be in Mysuru or anywhere else and you can still be successful. Mentalities must change, every company must have an online strategy. Every writer should have an online presence. Learning the ropes on social media is a different skill, but you have no choice but to do it.
SOM: What is a typical day in the life of Chetan Bhagat?
Chetan Bhagat: I love my two hours of morning coffee where I think a lot about how I can improve. It doesn’t have to be anything big, just small but important things, followed by writing, any paperwork, paying taxes, kids and family time. Family support is important, but in the end, you are on your own. Your journey belongs to you, that is why in the Vedas it is called detachment. Don’t rely on anyone’s support.
SOM: You are surrounded by controversy. Do they come alone or do you invite them?
Chetan Bhagat: Not always. Previously, I used to comment on politics, but I cut that too. Politics is bad, you should never talk about politics or even religion. People are sensitive to these two subjects.
SOM: Would you join politics?
Chetan Bhagat: Once upon a time politics interested me and I wanted to be part of it but not now. Change attracts me and doing politics is a way to change your country but it’s too much work. Politicians in India work 24/7, have no privacy and no family life. Shashi Tharoor once told me that he attended eight weddings in one day. Even if he would only go for five minutes, he has to show his face. Apart from that, there is the work of the constituency and the parliament.
SOM: Where do you get the ideas for your novels and how easy is it to be a published author these days?
Chetan Bhagat: Through my travels. In addition, I post motivational videos and read comments on failures, favorites which gives me a base and good material for my stories. These are tough times for authors, it’s hard to get published in the traditional way these days, but e-books, self-publishing, blogging, insta-posting open up a lot of opportunities for authors to get get published. So why limit yourself to books?
SOM: Are you a pant or a plotter?
Chetan Bhagat: I’m a plotter, especially for thrillers and crime novels, you have to have the whole plot ready even if it looks organic. Sometimes the story changes over time.
SOM: Who is your favorite author?
Chetan Bhagat: I love RK Narayan’s books. I would surely pass by his museum and take pictures. I have an apartment in Mumbai that can even be turned into a museum.
SOM: Who is the real Chetan Bhagat?
Chetan Bhagat: I like to constantly work on my internal growth. I have a lot of friends who are super rich but they are not necessarily happy. People have external growth like accumulating wealth, gaining titles but they fail to work on their internal wealth which is very important for happiness.