Chetan Bhagat, you're not Amitav Ghosh. Let 'writers' be

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriOct 16, 2015 | 15:41

Chetan Bhagat, you're not Amitav Ghosh. Let 'writers' be

Chetan Bhagat has had an active week on Twitter. After the Dadri lynching and Kalburgi murder prompted a number of writers to return their Sahitya Akademi awards, Bhagat took to the social media site to vent his frustrations.

It started with a tweet on October 7, in which Bhagat first brought up the return of the awards.


One gentleman responded to Bhagat's tweet with this:

To which Bhagat replied:

On October 11, Bhagat tweeted:

And on October 12:

So far, it had seemed that Bhagat was simply taking on those who could not digest his "no award to return" remark. But October 12, onwards, he got more and more belligerent when speaking of award returnees, questioning their politics and much besides:


Rajesh Joshi, one of the writers who returned the award, took on Bhagat personally. As quoted by Times Of India, Joshi, said: "Woh ek pulp writer hain aur isse jyada unki aukat nahi hai. Woh sirf aisa hee bayan de sakte hain. (He is a pulp writer and can do little more than make such statements.) Bhagat is an ordinary English writer. He is not Vikram Seth and he is also not Salman Rushdie."

Joshi's statements are indeed in poor taste and I suspect even writers who disagree with Bhagat would not use the language that Joshi has employed. But none of this takes away from the larger truth of Joshi's statement. If Bhagat had hoped to draw attention to the writers returning the Akademi award, he should have expected to be judged as a writer himself.

Bhagat is the writer of highly successful books that sell like hot cakes all over the country. In novels like Five Point Someone, 2 States and Half-Girlfriend, he has presented stories that resonate with the youth. In his writing, he balances those two perpetually opposing camps in India - tradition and modernity - and the readability of his books has drawn readers even in the hinterland. All of this is undoubtedly a success.


But can Bhagat be called a writer? If you make a living out of putting words together, you are, of course, on one level, a writer. But the profession of writing demands something more. A writer does not write in a vacuum. He plumbs the cultural, historical and social tensions of his surroundings to make a commentary. This commentary could be explicit as in a work of journalism, or subtle, as in fiction. Furthermore, this torturous interaction with his reality and his past is only one part of the writer's trade. The writer must also strive for an ideal in which his language does more than merely convey. It must sing.

On the first metric, Bhagat has mostly presented narratives that closely resemble his life. He studied at IIT, a setting he plumbed in Five Point Someone. He married someone from a different background to his, which was the basis of 2 States. In his other works, he has captured Indians' fascination with cricket and the English language. None of these is a small achievement, but none of them deal with larger issues of identity in a framework that most Indians would recognise. In spite of targeting the youth in Patna and Patiala, Bhagat's books are essentially middle class fairy tales that skim the surface, refusing to go deeper, refusing to tell us truths that we cannot glean from, say, an overnight train journey.

On the second metric, Bhagat would himself acknowledge that he is not a literary writer. He writes books that are not meant to be savoured. There is a story with a neat beginning, middle and end. Bhagat's celebrity then stems not from his writing per se, but from a particular moment in our country's progress where everything, including words, can be churned, packaged and sold attractively. To that extent, Bhagat is the first among equals for a new generation of "writers".

For him to then question real writers - people who have spent their lives protesting the received wisdom of their times, the excesses of the state or the sheer ordinariness of suffering - is decidedly inappropriate. To face battle on Twitter over who gets to return a Sahitya Akademi award can be looked upon as a puerile game indulged in for kicks, but the truth is undeniable: there is an order of difference between Bhagat's narrative imagination and that of the returnees whom he has painted as grumpy old persons with little to offer the community.

This is not to suggest that there cannot be criticism of the returnees' stance. Amitav Ghosh, in an interview to Indian Express, said: "I received my Sahitya Akademi award 25 years ago, in 1990. At that time, the institution was held in general respect by writers. I feel that to return the award now would be more than an expression of outrage at the Sahitya Akademi's current leadership: it would amount to a repudiation of the institution's history."

Ghosh's statement, unlike Bhagat's, comes across as deserved and well-earned because he belongs to a community of writers who may differ on several issues, but are part of a literary continuum. Bhagat, in the popular mythology of him, is an IIT-IIM grad who left a lucrative career in investment banking to become a writer. This would make for great copy if only Bhagat had lived up to writerly expectations. That he is instead celebrated for his financial success makes the divide between him and the rest starker.

It is possible that Bhagat's pique stems not from recent incidents, but the way the literary set has treated him. He has no doubt faced snobbery over the choice of his books' subject matter and the quality of his writing. But if he had hoped to get back with a tirade against the returnees and to establish himself as a voice worth heeding, he has done more harm than good with his serial Twitter outbursts. The cause to attain a larger voice is a strenuous slope that does not reward academic pedigree or financial muscle.

It's a long-winding path that requires adherents to burn the page with the power of the pen.

Last updated: October 16, 2015 | 17:17
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy