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Chetan Bhagat: I am successful and popular, is that why you hate me?

Lamat R Hasan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:46 IST

Chetan Bhagat is India's best-selling English writer. He is also the most hated. His seven books, written over a period of 12 years, have sold in millions. His publishers - Rupa, who gave him a break after his manuscript was rejected 25 times by other publishers and after his American boss at Goldman Sachs told him repeatedly 'you are good for nothing' - say a Chetan Bhagat book gets picked up every 10 seconds.

There are other records too.

Seven million people follow him on Facebook, and nearly 8 million on Twitter. Most of his books have been converted into Bollywood movies, raking in crores.

Time Magazine listed him in the 100 most influential Indians list in 2010. To his credit, he has got India reading -- mostly those in small towns - who have probably never read much anyway to know the difference between good and bad writing. His books are available in Braille, as audio books, and in regional languages.

With his newest release One Indian Girl, the hate-mongering has hit a new level. Because he has written in a woman's voice, because he is preaching feminism. Feminism most feminists do not agree with.

His critics who have long accused him of dumbing down literature, are now blaming him for inflicting his "Chetanese" in "Patanjali English" on an innocent and unsuspecting audience.

Memes on the two explicit sex scenes in the book have gone viral. And there's a buzz that Kangana Ranaut, who released his book in Mumbai, will play the lead role in One Indian Girl on the big screen.

In this interview, Bhagat talks to Catch about how he deals with so much hate, hour after hour, book after book, movie after movie. On Twitter, Facebook, TV rooms, press meets. Everywhere.

Bhagat is at the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi, the venue where his first book was launched, the venue where his seventh will be launched on 13 October, and the venue where - believe it or not - he has done a lot of his writing.

Bhagat is just back after a stupendous launch in Baroda, and it is rather amusing to see the man who loves to pick fights and hit back at trolls with a vengeance on Twitter, being polite to waiters, addressing them as "sir".

Also read - Half Girlfriend 'graduates' to One Indian Girl. Get ready for Chetan Bhagat's comeback

Bhagat talks to Catch about how he deals with so much hate, hour after hour, book after book

LH: How do deal with so much hate?

CB: I guess I am just better at dealing with it than many others. There's not that much hate.

LH: We see you being trolled on Twitter...

CB: Journalism has become lazy, I am sorry to say that. I take a lot of feedback and journalism needs to take this feedback that journalism is not just about looking at trolls and tweets.

They (trolls) are people we need not dignify. I know what I am doing and I do it with a lot of conviction. The book (One Indian Girl) has been done with a lot of effort and now the reactions are out.

LH: Is that upsetting?

CB: I don't feel upset or hurt. I feel disappointed.

LH: You've never felt hurt in your entire writing career?

CB: I did till 5 to 6 years ago. Time heals everything (laughs). You get used to it.

LH: How do you stay so unaffected? Do you meditate?

CB: You don't have to do all that. You have to just be true to your conviction. I am writing to reach my country and there is tremendous elitism in literature. Tremendous. It's like literature is in some ivory tower in India and only a few people will decide what is good literature or not.

They don't even understand what literature is - it is about reaching society, it is about holding a mirror to society. Which society? Our society - right? Or is it the society which is decided by literary juries in the UK?

And that is what my book is doing. Once the book has sold that much - a book which is not of modern history, not of mythology, once it is connecting with people, it has done its job.

It is disappointing when somebody gives an elitist rant, and then they claim to be a feminist. And they don't understand neither literature, nor India, nor feminism, nor Indian feminism. They are being blinded by their hate and it is obvious in the reviews.

They are not reviews, one of the reviews said it is the 'nastiest review' of my book. Some of them have not even read the book. They have gone and written letters to the character. It is because the pressure of click baiting is very high.

A glowing review will not sell 10 copies more, and a bad review will not reduce sales by 10 copies. So what credibility do they have? What is the reason for this hate? I am read by common people, I am successful. Is that your open-mindedness that reading all these books has taught you?

And here is a chance to further the cause of feminism which is so misunderstood. When I researched the book, a lot of girls told me - 'I am telling you this, but I am not a feminist type' - because a small section has hijacked the feminazi brigade which are imposing their idea of feminism on them which other Indian girls don't subscribe to.

But they are reading One Indian Girl. They are saying on Facebook that they relate to the book, and this is exactly the kind of problems they face. I am holding a mirror, you can't smash the mirror because you don't like what you see.

Maybe you want to see your feminism that you read about in New York Times in every Indian girl, but it is not there. That is what me as a writer who connects to India has found out. Now if you don't address that, but write a hate filled review, it is an opportunity lost.

I will move on, I will sell my books, I will make my movie, I will make my point and I will make sure a lot of girls understand feminism and are no longer afraid to say I am a feminist.

One of the ideas they (his critics) have is why is the lead character not strong enough. Firstly, I can write about whatever character I want. You can't tell an author that. Feminism is not being strong all the time.

I don't feel upset or hurt. I feel disappointed. I used to feel hurt till 5-6 years ago

LH: Did you read a lot on feminism before writing the book?

CB: I read what I had to read. I talked to a lot of women. I tried to understand what is feminism. Feminism doesn't mean a woman has to be strong all the time. That a woman shouldn't be sad when she has a break up. Feminism doesn't mean that a woman doesn't need a man. Feminism just means equal rights. Feminism means just give me a chance to also aspire to whatever happiness I want. There is nothing more. But when you blind it with hate it becomes very difficult.

LH: So how do you deal with hate?

CB: I just do my own work. It is irrelevant, actually. Apart from a small circle of Khan Market visiting journalists, it is irrelevant, frankly. You have made yourself irrelevant because of being so elitist, because of unwilling to understand how an average Indian girl thinks. And judging her before she has even started - and telling her 'no, this is not feminism'.

If a girl says I want to achieve these goals - to look after my house and I also want a man to take care of me - saying 'she is not a feminist, get her out'. What can we do? You don't want to address it. You don't want to look at it. Is feminism an absolute? No.

There was a lot of anxiety before the release of this book. I was writing in a woman's voice for the first time, I was unsure it would work.

One of the ways to deal with hate is - don't let praise affect you too much and then hate doesn't affect you. People who get affected a lot are those who are dependent on praise.

I used to be that way. I remember when 2 States was about to be released I went to Iskcon Temple in Mumbai. I went to this American saint there and I told him I was very nervous. He told me, You have to have depth like an ocean and that is possible only when you start writing things that you want to write about. Write things that you want to write, not what will sell. The story which is close to your heart, then you market it. Write what you think will help people. That's the only way to be happy. '

I have tried to cultivate that.

'I remember when 2 States was about to be released I went to Iskcon Temple in Mumbai'

LH: How did you think of writing in a woman's voice?

CB: I wrote a couple of columns in a woman's voice and they became really viral. A lot of books are read by women, including my books. And my readers kept telling me that the women characters in my books tend to be small, not very well defined, not layered.

I decided to give myself that challenge, I have been writing for 12 years (in a man's voice). I took some feedback too. In the middle of all that hate there will be some feedback which will resonate with me (laughs).

I figured my stories were getting repetitive. Small time boy chasing a girl, while it still works it was getting repetitive, so I decided to take a total U-turn. This is a more upscale setting this time. It's a girl, a girl who makes a lot of money.

'One Indian Girl' has a more upscale setting this time. It's a girl, a girl who makes a lot of money.

LH: Who does the credit go to for all your bestsellers? Chetan the writer or Chetan the strategist?

CB: Everything. No book can sell without content. Story has to connect. People are not reading books in India, in general it is not a very rampant reading culture. And it is me saying that, I can imagine for other writers it is even less. And that doesn't happen unless people connect to the story.

Each story has to hold...I make an effort, I am out there all the time. I am always working on stories. I have the time, I am not a journalist who has to deliver an article every day.

LH: Do we anticipate a Bollywood movie off this book - with Kangana starring in the lead role?

CB: No, the script is very different. If you can imagine a movie by just reading the book that's quite a feat.

LH: But the book does read like a Bollywood script?

CB: Not at all. This is a girl-only book. The easiest casting in Bollywood today is the boy-girl casting. This is a pure girl movie (means book). It may become a movie, but I will have to work hard.

You have to raise money in Bollywood for that, they look at your track record, which I have and that is is a plus. We now have girl movies (women-centric movies) - but it looks like an expensive film to make - there's New York, London, Hong Kong. The reality of film-making is very different.

Will it be a movie? May be, I can't say. It also depends on the success of my previous books/movies. Now Half Girlfriend is being made (which Bhagat is co-producing), if Half Girlfriend is a success, it is very likely this will get done.

If 'Half Girlfriend', the movie, is a success, it is very likely 'One Indian Girl' will be a movie too

LH: You say you can't multitask. When you are writing it is just that. But Twitter does happen in between?

CB: Twitter is very strategic. I use Twitter for promotions. I don't have it on my phone, when I am writing. It is on the desktop, couple of tweets I put out, a couple of tweets my office puts out - I WhatsApp tweets to them.

I get onto Twitter, if it is a burning issue or if I am writing a column and want to tweet about to get a feedback. But, when the book is out I am out there, and that's why you find more hate when the book is out.

I now use the haters, the trolls on Twitter to my advantage - they bait me and I bait them back.

I will say something slightly outrageous such as 'I am the greatest writer'. I know they will react. 500 tweets will be there in 20 minutes talking about One Indian Girl. Who won in the end?

Also read - One Indian Girl... not: Every Chetan Bhagat book has the same woman

I now use the haters, the trolls on Twitter to my advantage - they bait me and I bait them back

LH: Are you Neel in the book? (Neel is a partner at Goldman Sachs whom the protagonist falls in love with)

CB: I don't know. I am not a partner (at Goldman Sachs). I don't have a body like his. I have come to a point where everything I write is not autobiographical. But girls who know me closely say if I were a girl I would be like the protagonist. Which is interesting. Radhika Mehta (the protagonist) has my job. Distressed debt.

LH: Is Radhika your dream woman?

CB: I don't know. May be. Secret desire. I get attracted to intelligent, articulate and yet vulnerable women. A lot of men don't find intelligent and successful women attractive.

LH: Radhika is insecure. Is that how you are too?

CB: Yes. I think we all are - no matter how successful, strong and sorted in the head we are we all get insecure. All bets are off.

LH: Are are the bonuses in writing as good as Radhika's (that run into millions of rupees)?

CB: (Laughs) Now everyone knows and is everybody is asking me about that. I am not talking about my bonuses. But I worked for Goldman Sachs and it is a well-paid place.

It ' s pretty good in writing (laughs ). Now I can't complain.

'No matter how successful, strong and sorted in the head we are - we all get insecure

LH: Do you miss being a banker?

CB: Only on bonus day (laughs).

LH: Would you go back to banking some day?

CB: No. I usually make some personal investments. That's because of my banking days experience. I always made sure whatever savings I had they gave me a little more income.

LH: I am told that a Chetan Bhagat book sells every 10 seconds.

CB: Sounds like a very Rupa statement (laughs). Kapish (Mehra, the owner of Rupa) says so. Maybe. You can calculate - the number of copies sold. I guess you could say that. It is a very big country and I sell a lot of books - and you could arrive at a metric like that.

LH: You are the only one selling that much?

CB: Yes. Also because I have a long backlist. This (One Indian Girl) is the seventh novel. Two non-fictions have come. Translations are there. Hindi translations are there... there are books in Braille, which are not charged for. There are audio books.

LH: You say you are not the best author, but the bestselling author? What are you really?

CB: Yes. For something that is subjective you cannot really decide who is the best.

LH: Who is the second best?

CB: I don't know, all I can say is whoever it is -- is way below.

First published: 12 October 2016, 12:13 IST
Lamat R Hasan @LamatAyub

Bats for the four-legged, can't stand most on two. Forced to venture into the world of homo sapiens to manage uninterrupted companionship of 16 cats, 2 dogs and counting... Can read books and paint pots and pay bills by being journalist.