Interview By : Arvind Passey 08 August 2019
I saw him from a distance and waved. He smiled and waved back. No airs. No snooty looks thrown at anyone. Chetan Bhagat loves to retain his easy and communicative personality… and I guess this is exactly how he has shaped his writing through the years. As we walked around the poolside area in Hyatt Regency in Delhi, I could sense that I was with a writer of tales who not only read a lot but had chosen to also write on burning issues.
The day we met was one that was over-flowing with news about the abrogation of Article 370 and on such a day even ripples in the pool wonder how much and how well will different minds perceive and accept this bold political initiative. This was also the day that TOI carried his article in the edit section and I obviously began by asking: Your article in today’s TOI is all about the anti-vocation courses mindset. Your article is about changing mindsets vs doing away with sub-standard education. Which do you think is easier?
Chetan Bhagat smiled and answered, “I would actually be promoting this article a lot today but I guess today’s historic day of news about the abrogation of Article 370 is what everyone will talk about. So far as education and changing mindsets is concerned, I must say that degrees which do not focus on skills, and they could be about learning to be an electrician, a plumber, or even a computer operator, do not increase employability at all.” I nodded and told him that his article carried the example of an electrician in Bandra earning far more than would a graduate from a college that is run-of-the-mill. “Yes,” he replied, “and changing mindsets isn’t easy at all. But I think people like me, with such a big reach, have a role to play. How do mindsets change? See, you can change policy, you can create a skill development ministry, and you can keep opening colleges that award a BA or an MA. What are you learning at the end of it? Nothing. Nothing is really learned. It’s just an additional three years when you’ve already gone through twelve years of schooling and have learned all the calculus, history, and English that you need. This realization needs to come fast.”
The most important question that one can ask a writer is about writing… and maybe, reading. I know that when people ask others about their reading lists, the answers will necessarily include titles that one may want to be associated with and so such questions do not interest me. I decided to ask: Reading more vs writing more – can a writer just choose one? Does reading interfere with one’s developing one’s own unique writing style?
“When you’re writing then yes, the focus must be entirely on writing,” said Chetan Bhagat, “But otherwise you should read because without reading you will not get a sense of things as they are and as they need to be expressed. However, I think you have to read a lot. Even when I’m writing a column, for instance, on Kashmir, if I don’t read up on all contemporary issues, will I be able to do justice to what I write?” This writer, I thought, loves turning his answers into incisive questions. However, having read quite a few of his published articles I asked something connected to his query but one that turned back into the domain of writing skills:
Your column in newspapers isn’t about stories and writing. It is about issues that concern the nation and covers everything from education to politics. What I want to ask is if this happens when story-tellers lose their way? I mean, do they then hop from creative writing to activism, politics, and preaching?
He smiled and said, “It’s an interesting question. I’d say it is about a writer’s own journey. Some people are perfectly happy to be storytellers and story-tellers alone. But I am my agenda that makes me different and may have given me more prominence or a stronger voice. I am a story-teller will use stories to create some change, whether it’s the plight of people in some region, about the way we perceive relationships, or whether it’s Two States or a centre community, I always pick an issue. And therefore I write about issues. My approach is to write to create change. So for me it works. But for some people who think writers must not write on politics or question me about my approach, are missing the point about writing. The books and the movies are giving me popularity which means there are people listening to me. So, but I don’t judge people. If you want to just be a storyteller, that’s great. If you wish to be an opinion writer, fine. Most people pick one and it’s their choice.”
With the flow of the interview established, I decided to dig in and pursue writing skills a bit more. So I asked: ‘The girls in room 105’ meanders through the Kashmir issue, ‘One Indian girl’ has relationships and corporate life flowing through it, ‘Revolution Twenty-20’ has corruption in education highlighted… and they must surely be wanting to change certain thoughts and norms. However, your books, most readers believe, are easy read books. Can an easy read fiction lead to social things? Or is it only literary fiction that scores here?
“Complex writing has its place, and maybe the connoisseurs of literature may admire such books… but look at poets”, said the writer, “Poets throughout history who have made an impact are those that have been understood. I mean, you have to use language that reaches people. For instance, between Sharatchandra and Tagore, it is the former who has been read by more people. Both have created an impact, but easy language wins hands-down. I believe one can create more change by writing in ways that the common man understands. Look at Karunanidhi who wrote scripts for movies and became so popular that he ended up being a leader amongst politicians. Same is true for Jayalalitha… its usually the popular ones who become the voice of the state.”
This was my chance at knowing if Chetan Bhagat had any political ambitions, and so I asked: So what you are hinting at is that people who are popular in the creative arts stand a better chance of being people’s representatives. When do we see you in active politics?
“All I’m saying is that writers who are understood by many are able to touch people’s heart with their art. If they are able to channel this talent and convert it into politics…” he said and then after a pause, Chetan Bhagat answered, “So far as I am concerned, I am very happy to have earned my freedom to comment on things and to judge each government fairly. I think the moment you join a party, you have to tow the party line. And I’m not prepared to lose my independence.”
So you believe in judging each government fairly and independently. Does this make you anti-establishment?
“Sometimes. But sometimes, like today, I am pro-government action. I’ve been writing on Article 370 since long. For me, the abrogation of Article 370 is what was needed. It’s not easy to do what they’re doing. So I’m pro-establishment today. But tomorrow if they double the GST rates, I will be anti-establishment. Though I don’t think they are going to…”
I know someone who writes thrillers and he said that he lowers his level of writing as this is what makes his books sell more. He believes literary fiction neither sells as much nor is read. Is this a correct perspective to have?
After asking this question even I realized how silly it might be seeming to Chetan Bhagat because even I believed that masking your real writing style is virtually impossible. But then, I wasn’t sure of the kind of reply CB would give. Therefore, I waited until he said, “I don’t think it works this way. I think your writing-style is like your handwriting. It is like your personality. What you write is what you write and I don’t think you can do otherwise. You can, at best, make your writing simpler by a few notches or make it that bit more complicated. But broadly, either you have it in you or you don’t. Some people criticise my ability to write in a simple way. I consider it my forte and obviously it is not that easy to write simply otherwise, after me there’ll be hundreds who do the same. But it’s not that simple to be simple.”
You’re right. It’s not that simple to be simple. Language must connect to all sorts of readers.
“Yeah”, he replied, without a pause, “It’s actually very complicated. To be simple in expression takes a lot of effort to put forth your argument It is almost like the case of Article 370 where a lot of experts were talking in a complicated language, not solving the problem. The problem was that all this complication was creating power centres which was sometimes similar to legalizing a gangster-like penchant to take take advantage of everyone all the time.” I didn’t quite understand the gangster metaphor and so decided to switch over to organisers of Lit Fests who have anyway been hailed as everything from gangsters to jokers to Shylocks and even snooty sobs, and asked: Let us have your opinion on Lit Fests. They seem to be mushrooming like Durga Puja pandals. To be frank I wasn’t expecting him to be forthright in his answer as we were here into the slippery domain of networking and no author wants to antagonize anyone from the Lit fest community, but he replied, “I go very few. The one’s I go to are because of personal relationships and where I have a personal regards for the organisers. Like the Time Lit Fest or the Bengaluru Lit Fest that is organized by my editor. I don’t fancy these fests so much. So I go to only a few ones, when an organisation calls me with a lot of respect, and I have a long relationship with them. But otherwise, see, I think they’re good as, like Durga Puja pandals, they keep people away from the screen. Anything that keeps people, especially the youngsters, away from the screen is good. Fests, like Durga Puja festivities, not only keep people away from the screen but also gets them interested in reading. Reading books is so much better than social media chatting, watching too many videos… and a Lit fest is the right break for those who are over-influenced by the screen. But sometimes a Lit Fest and the sort of content the organisers promote, tends to become elitist… and then they’re not really connecting themselves to the public.” This surely wasn’t the sort of answer that was attempting to go round the perimeter or was safe-guarding some vested interest, but I persisted: Do you think it is ok to charge a fee for attending Lit Fests or any other event where an author is called?
Again, without pausing to rearrange his thoughts or hopping on to a patch of dry ground, CB answered, ”Very valid. Nothing comes for free in this world. And I think it’s become a fashion to expect writers to do everything for free. When we see a businessman we expect him to be rich, but when we come across a writer we expect him to be poor. And I don’t believe in poverty. I think if you call a singer or a dancer, you pay them for a performance and the same must be true for a writer. Sometimes I do charge a fee. No, not always for the money but only to promote the notion that nothing comes for free. But I think some writers attend events because they just want to promote themselves. So they’re getting value in terms of the stage and platform. For that matter even book reviewers need to get paid. Publishers can have a system where a pool of, let’s say, a hundred bloggers are listed and releases with a certain payment from the marketing budget can be allocated for this activity.”
We were sitting in the club area of the hotel, and he was occasionally taking small gulps of diet cola but I cannot attribute his cool answers to a beverage of course. My next question: A certain section of readers as well as writers feel that we now have simply too many publishers and the quality of books being published is sliding. What do you think?
“I think the costs of production and the cost of production have gone down because it’s easy now to produce a book even in small numbers. This explains the increasing number of those entering publishing.”
With publishing your book on Kindle or any other online platform becoming easy, most analysts believe that it isn’t just the quality of writing that is suffering but it is becoming increasingly difficult for readers to choose the right book to invest in. This can be rather disconcerting.
“But then earlier just these many books were getting rejected. The online platform is free and is obviously more attractive. With the entry barriers gone even quality control is gone. I agree that there is a lot of publishing and readers might be getting confused. The role of bloggers and reviewers come in to help readers zero-in on the right sort of books.”
What I have not mentioned so far is that I had also messaged a few writers and other eminent personalities a few unique questions related to Chetan Bhagat and though a few kind souls replied, many simply backed out. Some refrained from replying because he did not like CB’s writings and some because they simply wanted to play safe. So the next question simply had to be this: What message do you have for Chetan Bhagat haters?
CB smiled and answered with a twinkle in his eyes, “A lot of people say all sorts of things for Modi ji but he does what he wants. Haters don’t matter.”
How important are short-duration workshops in creative writing?
“Are they meaningful?” he said, “I haven’t done this sort of thing ever. I guess there are a lot of them and the social media announces a new one every other day. People must check who is conducting a workshop and what sort of content is planned. Otherwise, a lot of content is available on the internet as videos and audio-books. It is better to write, read, write, read… this is the cycle that is more productive than anything else. But workshops help as motivators. It is like going to a Yoga camp by Baba Ramdev where getting introduced to yoga is easier as it is in a group. Ultimately you need to head back home and continue with your practice… and the motivation from group participation helps.”
Your message for the readers of Education Post?
“EP is an education magazine. I think education is really important. Don’t waste your time on screen. Youngsters are spending hours on screen every day. If you have to do screen, use it to learn something. Not just like watch puppy videos, you know. It is such a waste of life. So far as writing is concerned, find and then follow your style.”
Chetan Bhagat is indeed a person who pays attention to details, never minces his words, prefers remaining plain and simple in his expressions, and is obviously the soul of any conversation. We at Education Post wish him luck with whatever he decides to do next.