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September 1, 2012 3:31 am
Chetan Bhagat’s apartment in Bandra, Mumbai’s most fashionable neighbourhood, is all about financial security. He bought it in 2009, he explains, having returned home from Hong Kong and decided finally to pack in a lucrative job as an investment banker to concentrate on writing full time.
Already the author of three hugely successful novels, the choice to give up work ought to have been a “no-brainer”. But this is India, where quitting a successful, sensible career in banking was, he says, seen as eccentric and risky. Thus the house: a fallback option, if the writing experiment went awry.
Three years later, however, and all seems well, as we settle down to talk in two high-backed chairs overlooking the main window in his spacious sitting room. The first-floor apartment has since been thoroughly gutted, creating a calm and uncluttered interior, with pleasing views over a tree-lined courtyard below.
Bhagat, 38, seems to be prospering, having cemented his place as India’s most widely read English-language writer, producing two more best-selling novels, carving out a sideline in motivational speaking, and seeing his debut work become the basis of3 Idiots, the most popular Bollywood movie ever made.
His stories are simple morality tales, of harried call-centre operatives, overworked students and young lovers stealing kisses while turning their backs on the conventions of their parents. Such contemporary themes, along with some clever, cut-price marketing, have helped to win over a mass audience that his more literary contemporaries have little hope of matching.
All this makes Bhagat India’s only true literary celebrity, mixing the youthful appeal of a Nick Hornby or Douglas Copeland with the sales heft of JK Rowling. And for this reason, at least, it seems appropriate that he lives in Pali Hill, the most glamorous enclave of the Bandra neighbourhood, alongside numerous Bollywood stars and celebrity cricketers.
Bhagat’s taste in interiors is much like his prose: clean, simple and uncomplicated, with little sign of the chaos one might expect from a house with twin eight-year-old boys. The few conspicuous objects, including two Chinese-themed dressers, date from his time with Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, and are credited to his wife, Anusha. “No memorabilia, no trophies,” he says. “It’s an empty space where you can be more creative.”
The successful results of this creativity have seen Bhagat become a divisive figure in his home country, however, where he is often applauded for his knack of appealing to India’s burgeoning youth but just as frequently attacked for his vernacular (some say ungrammatical) style, sentimental plots and forays into politics.
It is the latter that bring me to his door in early August, roughly a week after the launch of What Young India Wants, his first work of non-fiction. A collection of short essays and newspaper columns, the book touches on topics ranging from India’s endemic corruption and broken political system to the daily frustrations of the more than 600m Indians under the age of 25.
The early reaction seems positive – his publishers say the print run will be half a million copies, a huge figure in India’s modest book market – but Bhagat seems worried, describing the move as his biggest risk since quitting banking. “I debated for one-and-a-half years whether to release it or not,” he says, fretting that the political turn would alienate otherwise loyal readers.
These concerns are at least partially borne out midway through our interview, when the FT’s photographer asks gently if Bhagat would sign an autograph for his assistant, who has been helping with the shoot but has been too shy to ask himself.
The assistant, it turns out, is a big fan, and has read each of Bhagat’s novels, despite admitting to barely opening a book by any other author. The good news is that he picked up What Young India Wants on the day of its release. More troublingly, he says he has since read only the first few chapters, despite guzzling each of the previous works in a little over a day.
After the photographer leaves, Bhagat reflects pensively on the exchange, and the limitations his existing audience places on his more political writing. “I can’t just say, ‘I am Chetan, and I am a great intellectual, and I want this cause to change this and change that.’ What is in it for them? If there is nothing in it for them, then it is not going to connect with them. It is going to fizzle out.”
This is a description of India’s youth found elsewhere in his writing: a generation vastly more prosperous than their parents, but also more materialistic, and generally wholly disinterested in politics. “They want a better life, and they want to choose their own partner,” he says, suggesting that any movement for political change will fail unless it first reckons with these hopes.
His living room bookshelves suggest eclectic tastes, with heavyweight histories next to potboilers by Stieg Larsson and Alexander McCall Smith. There isn’t much philosophy, but in his younger days he does admit to a youthful dalliance with the literature of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of libertarian capitalism, before becoming disillusioned.
“The extreme voices, the shrill voices, attract a lot of attention, but they don’t stick,” he says, a view that carries over into his calls for an end to India’s religious and ethnic divisions.
Now he admires the writings of George Orwell, an influence that makes some sense, given Bhagat’s clear moral distinctions and uncomplicated prose style. Politically, however, he says the gap in Indian politics is “for a secular, moderate rightwing group”; one which battles corruption but promotes free enterprise and lets people live their lives broadly as they see fit.
There has been much speculation as to whether Bhagat plans to fill this gap himself. Does he have political ambitions, I ask? He chooses his words with obvious care, saying he has no plans to enter elected politics, but in a way that makes me think he would actually rather like to.
Instead, he talks about continuing to build up an ever-bigger audience through his fiction. “My reach is a very wide, but it is still not the level I want. If you have a huge mass following, they have to listen to you,” he says. “Today, maybe my support is 10m, but the day it rises to 100m, that is when you stop explaining, because you have people backing you.”
It’s just the sort of sweeping, grandiose statement Bhagat’s critics find hard to stomach, but it is said with obvious conviction. His next book, meanwhile, will be a return to more familiar material: “a proper sentimental love story”, due later this year. Young India, he hopes, will like it. Whether they will follow him any further remains to be seen.
“I’m very fond of these,” Bhagat says, gesturing towards two comfortable, high-backed grey arm chairs, standing next to the long window that runs across the far wall of his living room. “I like to sit there for a long, long time; I do all my work there too.”
The chairs provide good views of the homes of some of his more celebrated neighbours. He points to two nearby buildings: the first belongs to Aamir Khan, one of Bollywood’s most famous heartthrobs; the second to Khan’s sister.
“In Mumbai this is a very big thing,” he says, gesturing towards the open window, and the breeze that comes through it. “People know the value of this ... it’s like a little oasis.”
Bhagat seems especially proud of two ornate sculptures of cows given to him as a gift for a talk he gave in a tribal area near Raipur, the capital of the state of Chhattisgarh in eastern India.
“These are actually tribal artefacts,” he says of the gold-and-blue-painted animals. “I was told that in some tribal areas kids are given my books to teach them English, and these come from one of those areas.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
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