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Chetan Bhagat : His Literary Style and Criticism

Chetan Bhagat’s (CB) recent column created a furore, chiefly because of his audacity to speak for Muslim community and what many people conflate with his support for Narendra Modi’s Prime Ministerial ambitions.  

But what interested me most - and what this post would focus on - is questioning of his literary merit (or lack of it). Many journalists ridicule CB’s style of writing and his oversimplistic portrayals of characters sans nuance or sophistication. But I suspect this has more to do with the fact that his readers alone far outnumber the combined readers of many journalists - a point that many don’t appear capable of digesting.

No takers for layman’s language!

When Tulsidas rewrote Ramayana in Avadhi (a local contemporary dialect then), many conservative sections of society came down heavily upon him for defiling the sanctity of a much revered epic (originally written in Sanskrit). When Quran was first translated in Urdu (by Shah Abdul Qadir in 1798), it faced intense opposition by purists.

Any language is continuously in the process of being flattened to improve usability and a language the refuses to evolve is set on the path of extinction. That part of Hindu wisdom that still survives in mainstream mindset owes its existence to repeated reinterpretations by accomplished people into layman’s language, failing which they would have long been buried into the sands of time.

Of course, this is no justification for poorly written works or grammatically incorrect usage. Grammar streamlines the wilderness of abstract ideas into understandable framework and helps communicate unambiguously. But literary merit, at the least, is very subjective.

Writing for critics or masses?

CB writes for masses - he has explicitly stated this many times - and it’s for the masses to decide if his works are worth their time and money. If critics do not find them even review-worthy, it’s their prerogative to not buy his works in future. I find CB’s works overtly shallow, but mildly amusing too and mostly worth the 4-5 hours that I spend reading. But his standard is falling fast (personal opinion), Five Point Someone was gratifying, One Night @ the Call Center was strictly ok, and The 3 Mistakes of My Life was plain boring in many parts. (I haven’t read 2 States: The Story of My Marriage so far). I might not read his future books on my own, though I might continue reading his columns.

In this age of mass education and specialization, those writing on general matters are required to water down the jargon and write in a more generic manner. This process, although it appears easy, needs greater intellectual exertion as it involves seasoning of specialized subject matter for public consumption.

Contemporaneity is what [mostly, luck being more decisive] determines the success of artist. Many writers spent their lifetime in poverty, not necessarily because of poverty of their ideas, but because the collective mentality of public isn’t enriched enough. It’s nobody’s argument that value and popularity are two different things. Of course, most of the times, they are mutually exclusive.

Consequently, longevity is what defines the success of the work. Nietzsche remained anonymous throughout his life, and his works were discovered and received critical acclaim only after his death. Yet, his insightful observations cut through human psychology with surgical precision and laid the foundation for greater research later.

The Writer’s Dilemma

Every writer is faced with this peculiar problem of balancing between expressing and communicating. A writer usually writes because he feels his thoughts are unique or different and worth communicating. But to communicate, he needs to express his thoughts in a format that people understand. Excessive focus on communication alone is detrimental too, for one’s thoughts are straitjacketed to please others.

CB, it can be argued, since he comes elite institutions is probably more intelligent and sophisticated than his critics and may have consciously adopted a more free-going style to reach masses. The topics he chooses are invariably the ones that a typical Indian middle-class youth would associate with. Yes, with his kind of reach, one may find it tempting to advise him to write on exactly such topics albeit with due regard to the complexities involved. But again, considering his sheer success, such advices should rather flow the other way round.  J

The revolutionary Telugu poet once said : "Aggi pulla,sabbu billa, kukka pilla kadedi kavithaki anarham." (A matchstick, a piece of soup, a puppy, none is ineligible for poetic treatment.) Hindi novelist Premchand became popular because of his departure from abstract ideas and ornamental language to focus on realistic & contemporary societal issues.

What critics refer to as dilution is more often "humanization". 

Which reminds me of this most popular book on philosophy “The Story Of Philosophy”, in which the author Will Durant calls for humanization of knowledge - meaning, the pleasures of philosophy should be made accessible to common public by shredding them of jargon and simplifying them for layman’s understanding.

I quote Durant at length here, before closing this post.
“The common man found himself forced to choose between a scientific priesthood mumbling unintelligible pessimism, and a theological priesthood mumbling incredible hopes.
In this situation the function of the professional teacher was clear. It should have been to mediate between the specialist and the nation; to learn the specialist's language, as the specialist had learned nature's, in order to break down the barriers, between knowledge and need, and find for new truths old terms that all literate people might understand.

For if knowledge became too great for communication, it would degenerate into scholasticism, and the weak acceptance of authority; mankind would slip into a new age of faith, worshiping at a respectful distance its new priests; and civilization, which had hoped to raise itself upon education disseminated far and wide, would be left precariously based upon a technical erudition that had become the monopoly of an esoteric class monastically isolated from the world by the high birth rate of terminology.” 

Update : Chetan Bhagat himself retweeted the link to this blogpost. Thanks to my friend, Srikanth, for bringing it to his attention.


  1. Madhav...well written, but I thought the post was about questioning of CB's literary merit (or lack of it as you eloquently put it), but I think instead of questioning, you have answered or justified his literary merit here. Made interesting reading though...

    1. Thanks De1. Yes, I probably ended up justifying instead of sticking to critique :)


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