Is Chetan Bhagat grooming himself to become middle class India's love and relationship guru?
I think so. Ever since Cyrus Broacha and Malaika Arora Khan - and let's face it, they weren't really talking to middle class India - gave up their jobs on MTV advising India's youth on whether it was okay to have a crush on your cousin or flirt with the tuition teacher, India's floundering youngsters haven't had an agony aunt they can relate to.
In the last decade a lot has changed. With India's middle class becoming wealthy, youngsters have access to high street international brands, actually attend MTV Grind-style parties, and have sleepovers at each other's homes. The one thing, however, that hasn't happened is the acceptance by parents that kids' lives have drastically changed. So while everything around them has, their parents continue to foster a mindset reminiscent of the 1980s. Remember, we're talking small town India. Who then are they supposed to look up to, when it comes to differentiating right from wrong, sex from love, ambition from burnout?
Enter Chetan Bhagat.
Eleven years ago, when his first book Five-Point Someone released, popular culture hadn't taken cognisance of the fact that India was evolving. Women were becoming more forthright, assertive and making huge strides in every sphere. So when his protagonist Neha asked Hari, "Aren't you going to ask me out or what?", Bhagat may just have hit the jackpot. From then on, he continued to exploit and explore the changes young Indians were feeling, but were unable to articulate, town-by-small-town. He based his books in Ahmedabad, Gurgaon, Kota, with protagonists hailing from Bihar, Gujarat and so on and encapsulated their hopes, dreams and desires. Sure, "Young India" had pre-marital sex, but didn't elope to marry (like Ananya and Krish in 2 States who waited for parental approval), they had ambitions but were still guided by a thin veil of ethics, they loved but gave friendship priority (a la Revolution 2020), and they now worked in jobs their parents would never have dreamt of, such as call centres (One Night @ The Call Center), that turned the biological and emotional clock upside down.
Each book helped the author catch on to this reader base (his canvass is the masses, he says), and if you go by numbers alone, India's middle class is estimated to be about 267 million today. The motivational talks at colleges only helped cement his understanding of this audience and position himself as their guide, mentor and moral compass. His job, he says, is to educate his target about issues - women's rights, gay rights and minority issues. He sees himself as not just a writer but an opinion leader, and has realised quickly enough - and with IIT and IIM degrees behind him number crunching comes easy - that while Indians have come to possess money, the cultural development that needs to go hand in hand with it in any growing economy is missing. Someone needs to tell this vast base that no one else seems interested in what to make of all the political and cultural developments sweeping the country. And so it may as well be Bhagat.
The master stroke was his appearance on the Ekta Kapoor-produced dance reality show Nach Baliye as a judge. Here, he was brought in to assess the relationships - thank god not the dancing skills, since he doesn't have any - and went on to lecture the contestants on why eloping is a bad idea, how he could look through those who were just a couple for the cameras, and how he would judge whether old love (read marriage) could endure in the face of new love. It led him to receiving some hilarious and some downright nasty comments. One critic, he told me, said he was like the old neighbourhood uncle who told girls not to wear tank tops.
It also got him to do what no other book has been able to. Think about physical appearances and how the body image equation is shaping the way millions of girls in India think, feel and dress each day. Under constant scrutiny of the camera and with comments and carps about how he was looking on the show, the author has now shed some weight, lost the specs, grown a salt and pepper beard, and told me, "Gosh, it's just too much. I now know what it feels like to be a girl."