Thursday, Dec 01, 2022

To Chetan Sir, With Half-Love

The biggest-selling writer’s new novel is dogged by the old problem of terminal corniness

Book: Half Girlfriend
Author: Chetan Bhagat
Publisher: Rupa
Pages: 280

Price: Rs 176

Twenty-five years ago, as an intermediate student at Patna Science College not far from Hotel Chanakya where Half Girlfriend begins, I was a member of OSLA, the One-Sided Lovers’ Association. (A more defeatist faction called itself FOSLA, where F was for Frustrated.) One-sided love was a perfectly understood, and understandable, concept to Bihari teenagers just released from all-boys’ schools into co-ed college classrooms — it was the stage, I should think, before one became a half-boyfriend. It almost never progressed that far, though, and none of us got lucky like Madhav Jha of Dumraon. But then, he went to St Stephen’s, we didn’t.

The sixth novel — and seventh book — of the “biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history” is about a Bihari boy who finds half-love in Delhi and loses it in Bihar, before things reach a satisfactory fullness in a setting the young Karan Johar would have been approved. Like most Bhagat books, it will probably become a film anyway, and like all Bhagat books, it will probably sell millions of copies. Unfortunately, like all Bhagat books, it is also mediocre, simplistic and clichéd.

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There isn’t a contradiction here, of course. Bhagat is unabashedly mass-market, catering to the “Young India” whose two greatest preoccupations he has himself diagnosed as naukri and chhokri. He has no pretensions of producing great literature. And he has a knack of slipping in apparently profound social commentary with which middle- and urban India connects so well: “We [Biharis and Indians] remain as divided as ever. Everyone still tries to cut a deal for themselves while the nation goes to hell.”

The awareness of the hold he has on his market comes through as manifest self-indulgence. Half Girlfriend begins and ends with Chetan Bhagat himself, addressed reverentially as “Chetan Sir”, and refers to both Bhagat and its hero Madhav Jha in the first-person “I”.

Chetan Sir is also the arbiter of Jha’s destiny – not just in the general sense of authors determining the destinies of characters, but in an artless, in-your-face intervention, butting in mid-book to point Jha in the right direction, and providing, in the process, the all-important twist that makes this story marketable.

There was scope elsewhere for Bhagat to be more sophisticated — and believable. It is extraordinary, for example, how each one of the “legible entries” that Chetan Sir happens to discover in the “yellowing pages” of a journal in “handwritten text, mostly illegible as the ink had smudged”, is a perfectly fitting piece of the jigsaw of Jha’s love story.


There’s some pretty corny writing. “Losers get words from girls, winners get kisses” (after the hero is denied a kiss); “Just seeing her lean body, subtle curves and the pink chiffon fabric draped around her, made me feel richer than the richest man in the world who waited for me” (when he is seconds away from addressing Bill Gates); “Even though I was in pain, I remembered the golden rule: if you live in a hostel, never throw away food” (after he chooses to keep a parting gift of chocolates and biscuits from the half-girlfriend).

And bad parody of Bihari English. “My school needing toilet as nobody able to toileting when toilet time coming” (absolutely no one speaks like that in Bihar); “Aise kheliyega? Trial-va hai ya mazaak?” (first, this isn’t Bhojpuri, as claimed, and second, any Bihari will tell you that while the suffix “va” added to certain nouns is typical of the Hindi spoken in Bihar, this, like all inflexions, still has to follow certain rules).

There are, of course, a few clever lines (“In Dumraon, the only way you could hear live music at a bar is if you yourself sang”), and at least one accurate fact about Patna. (“I have no idea why everyone in Patna loves honking so much.”) And, at the end, a flash of potential that, if nurtured lovingly, might one day earn Bhagat the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. In the shower, preparing for the consummation he has desired for a full 250 preceding pages, Jha feels “like a pack of frozen peas being thawed”.

First published on: 01-11-2014 at 02:21:53 am
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