Literature is frequently looked upon as being representative of the socio-economic realities of the time in which they were written. This is precisely the reason why both litterateurs and historians bank upon written sources to analyse the time period in which they were produced. Given this fact, we might say that centuries from now, when an eager scholar trying to decode India of the 2000s, picks up a novel written by the highly popular Chetan Bhagat, he or she would very well be encouraged to think of a generation of Indians, stuck with their ‘first world problems’ of boring, unstable careers and confused love lives involving multiple break ups. He or she might be inclined to think of a linguistic culture in the country that spoke in the Queen’s language dotted with phrases like ‘deti hai to de varna kat le” (a dialogue of the hero in the Bhagat’s novel Half-Girlfriend).
Suffice it to say, that the analysis is not completely wrong. A large majority of us do indeed speak in a similar language and face familiar problems. However, the question remains if Bhagat’s novels do indeed represent the socio-cultural realities of contemporary India at large, or if at all they need to be celebrated as being the finest products of the Indian literary circuit.
Last week, Delhi university’s committee of courses passed the syllabus of popular fiction elective course, listing Chetan Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’ as one of the texts in the course. Accompanying Bhagat’s novels in the list are JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’, Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ and Agatha Christie’s ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’
The popular fiction course of Delhi university is an attempt by the authorities to introduce literature enthusiasts to pieces of literary works that have a mass appeal. The fact Bhagat is the only author of Indian origin among the set of writers prescribed by the university authorities, is clearly representative of the popularity he enjoys in the country’s readership. Often, the argument made in support of his wide appeal is that he made literature democratic, by opening up its access to those who were never fond of reading. There is no denying that Bhagat’s texts are widely appreciated because of their instant relatability, particularly by the average English speaking youth of the country who might not have a very specific intellectual inclination. By using the language they speak in, and narrating the kind of problems they face, Bhagat has very effectively broken down class barriers among the educated readership.
However, when an esteemed university of the country makes reading Bhagat a part of their prescribed curriculum for students wanting to specialise in English literature, we need to reflect upon the very status of literary works being produced in the country. To begin with, there is no dearth of young Indian writers of English literature in the country. For that matter subjects like misogyny and ambitions, which Chetan Bhagat claims to uphold in his texts are in fact dealt with by several other contemporary Indian authors, in a language that may not be representative of the youth’s tongue, but nonetheless consisting of a linguistic aesthetic to it.
Take for instance Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book “Palace of Illusions” that narrates the Mahabharata from the point of view of Draupadi and skillfully weaves together a feminist take on the epic that most Indian women would be able to relate to. Several contemporary Indian authors in fact go beyond the representative socio-economic class in Bhagat’s novels and delve into the problems of those who live on the fringes of Indian society. For instance, Kunal Basu’s latest novel “Kalkatta” is a detailed, hard-hitting fictional account of Bangladeshi refugees in the City of Joy. There are several others like Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri and Amit Chaudhury who have consistently been producing works of literature that are not only a pleasure to read, but are also representative of a more inclusive contemporary India and have achieved international acclaim for the same. Why then does a reputed university, known to be high in demand among literature enthusiasts, need to sideline the popularity of all these homegrown literary gems and celebrate the popularity of someone who has been best described by critics as mediocre?
The problem here is not just about the celebration of mediocrity, but also of the lack of mass appeal of those who are classified as ‘elite’ in the literary circuit. The fact that Bhagat and not any of the above mentioned authors were selected by Delhi University for the popular literature course points to a deeper problem of incomprehensibility of good writing by the average reader. It points to the failure of the likes of Kiran Desai and Kunal Basu to reach out to the larger readership in India. It is upto these authors of international acclaim then, to step down from the pedestal of elitism and produce work that is not restricted to one particular kind of readers alone.