The author of a successful campus novel gets the plot of his second bestseller off a beautiful woman, whom he meets in a conveniently empty train compartment. The story she tells him is about six friends who work at a call-centre, and a night in their lives that changes everything. The resolution is provided by God via a key phone call. This, slightly summarised, is the synopsis of Chetan Bhagat's second runaway bestseller, One Night at The Call Centre.
I emailed the uncut synopsis from Bhagat's website to a publishing insider I know. He was told nothing about the author's first book, the bestselling Five Point Someone, or about Bhagat's considerable brand equity.
The publishing veteran responded with deep scepticism: "The characters are fine, call centres are a decent, in-the-news setting. But the writer meeting a beautiful muse—give me a break. And God on the phone? That would get tossed from any Creative Writing 101 class. Tell him to rewrite and stick with the voices, or he doesn't have a prayer."
One Night at the Call Centre sold 70,000 copies in the first week of its launch, and still heads bestseller lists. There are two ways to read the moral of this story: one is to say that the critics, including my publisher pal, know nothing, and the other is to look at the story that Indian bestsellers have to tell.
It's almost too easy to set up an opposition between literary writing and Bhagat's attempts. The 31-year-old IIT and IIM graduate does it himself, stressing ad nauseum that he's the champion of the common man, out to write popular books for the "non-reader", not "boring", literary novels.
From the critic's perspective, his two novels read like promising first drafts, untouched by any editor's hand. I'll believe it's God calling at the end of ON@CC, because no one else but the Supreme Deity could have got through so easily to a call centre helpline. More than Five Point Someone, ON@CC is messy: the humour is clunky, the plotting shaky and more happens in 24 hours than is plausible. The critics who see a lack of lasting literary merit in Bhagat's works are perfectly correct.
But there's good reason for readers to love Bhagat's work. His books retail at the right price point for "timepass", the characters are immediately identifiable and the writing is fast-paced, smooth and undemanding. He writes for a generation that sees very few reflections of its aims, heartbreaks and language in contemporary literature.
Go back to a few of the milestones in IWE history, and you'll see another pattern. Rushdie's Midnight's Children lives in the minds of the larger reading public not because of its literary qualities, but because Rushdie scored a significant success on the global stage. Arundhati Roy's Booker win consolidated writing as a respectable, potentially middle-class occupation—though given Roy's iconoclasm, I'm pretty sure she wasn't looking to be a role-model for the bourgeoisie! Pankaj Mishra has a telling anecdote in Butter Chicken from Ludhiana where his admission that he is a writer is evaluated—and judged to be respectable--not by the content of what he writes, but by the potential advances and royalties he might receive.
The great home-grown Indian bestsellers have all spoken to a section of the Indian reading public that's used to being left out of the literary discussion. Anurag Mathur's The Inscrutable Americans, one of the longest-running bestsellers in the local Indian market, spoke for those homesick in the Land of Hope and Supermarkets in a way that more sophisticated travelogues could not. Shobha De's novels are incorrectly seen as "socialite" accounts. They're actually written for an audience who stands at the window of the socialite world, tempted and fascinated by what they see, but resigned to the fact that they're on the outside. And for all the surface glitz, De's novels champion classic values: conventional marriages, happy families.
What Chetan Bhagat did, in both his novels, is to address the great Indian middle class with tremendous ease. I'd argue that Sudeep Chakravarti did it better in Tin Fish, a work of fiction set in the boys' boarding school world of a few decades ago, or that Jaideep Varma captured the grind and heartbreak of an office more realistically in Local, to name just two contemporary writers who seem to be both adequately literary and adequately popular.
But Bhagat's more simplistic formula has been rather better marketed. He gets away with sloppy work because of the lack of competition in the popular fiction market. If you're looking to raise the standards there, you need more writers like Bhagat, not fewer. Oh, and better editors. Please.
(Carried in Speaking Volumes, Business Standard, on November 22, 2005)