Chetan Bhagat: The Three Mistakes of my Life

Bhagat, Chetan (2008), The 3 Mistakes of my Life, Rupa
ISBN 978-81-291-1372-6

I don’t often read genuinely terrible, awful, no-good books. When I read a book I consider bad, it’s often “just” mediocre. It’s just – look, my reading habits often filter out the truly awful. So when I say that Chetan Bhagat’s novel The 3 Mistakes of My Life is a truly terrible book, I don’t mean: bad like Paul Auster, or bad like Daniel Goetsch. I mean bad like the essay you wrote in high school, bad like that movie you found on an old VHS in the ruins of an abandoned blockbuster starring Zachary Ty Brian. I mean bad. To be clear: Bhagat is, from what I can tell, a spectacularly successful Indian novelist (I recommend this post for an excellent analysis of his appeal), and this book is interesting for a variety of reasons. None of them are literary. This is not a good book. By comparison, Dan Brown is a genuinely competent novelist (he’s not) and Paulo Coelho erudite and clever (he’s not). If we exclude the thousands of pages of epic fantasy I’ve read in my life, Bhagat’s novel ranks among the worst books I have ever read. It’s a 250 page book structured into 210 pages of mind-numbing banalities and 40 pages of harrowing, grim, brutal action, which coalesce into a half baked strange political point and end in the writer’s autoerotic epilogue. This is bad. And yet…

And yet – I am so used to reading Indian literature in English, often by writers who do not live in India, like Rushdie or Mistry, or writers like Amitav Ghosh or Arundhati Roy, who are, at least partly, writing for a commonwealth audience, for readers who are not Indian. Bhagat’s novel is clearly directed at Indian readers, making small in-jokes about cultures, cities and communities, constantly relying on the reader’s sense of how certain things work and how certain historical backgrounds function. That makes for an extremely interesting reading experience. There’s room here to consider this book in connection with some postcolonial thinking, about the extent of colonialized speech. There are curious notes on religion and race, as well. If only the book’s core wasn’t the story of a couple ofi nsecure-but-boisterous boys, confused about and dismissive of women, and if the prose didn’t resemble that first draft you write at 4 in the morning after a bender just to get the idea out, maybe there would be something here? Following Gayatri Spivak’s essays on the archives (“The Rani of Simur” still holds up today) and on the subaltern, there was always a mildly disquieting element in the way Indian writers were received and perceived in the West, part of a traveling community of writers who Rushdie described well in essays collected in one of his best books, Imaginary Homelands.

Describing, speaking about India in English has always been an inherently tricky business, and the Western appetite for essentialist, dubiously fetishistic narratives of India has only fueled that. When Rushdie, after the stunning Grimus, recalibrated his writing under the influence of Grass, Desani, Marquez and others, his use of a specific tone, almost a genre of writing, a mode of how to speak about India in English to a Western audience, is clear and palpable. Particularly among the fêted but clearly weaker writers, like the inexplicably Booker winning Kiran Desai, the use of generic markers is obvious, and deserves interrogation within Spivak’s parameters. Chetan Bhagat is a completely different kind of writer, and I don’t just mean that he’s an incompetent boob. His book is written in English, but it makes no allowance for English readers by explaining, contextualizing, explicating terms, words or descriptions. His audience knows what he’s talking about, and the experience for me as a reader is fascinating. One encounters these things in translation, obviously, but there is a specific context for Indian literature in English, and within that context, reading Bhagat can be a puzzling experience.

Take Bhagat’s nationalism: there are people in the book who are non-Indian native speakers of English, specifically Australians here, and Bhagat’s descriptions of Australians and their language is very clearly that of someone who googled the words “typical Australian phrases” and copy and pasted them into the novel, with only very cursory care for whether the sentences around them syntactically supported the insertions. Bhagat’s characters are proud Indians, saying things like “I don’t want to be Australian in my next life. Even if I have a hundred next lives, I want to be Indian in all of them.” This unabashed, unchecked, clear nationalism, together with the essentialist and ignorant treatment of Australians is a curious fit for many conceptions of the discoursive structure of Indian literature in English. One of Bhagat’s most recent novels follows the foibles of an Indian who attends a British public school and thus invites, maybe, comparisons with books like Rushdie’s (very good) memoirs. But all of this has less to do with Bhagat’s novel, as it has to do with me as a reader and Western traditions of reading and how Indian writers, both those who live in India and those who made Canada, the US or the UK their permanent home respond to those tradtions.

Bhagat’s novel appears, at first, to be about cricket, and about some very odd ideas about love, sex and gender, but ends up making a serious point about politics. The background to the book are the Gujarat riots. As far as I can tell, Bhagat, a public intellectual in India, whose offensively low skill as a novelist appears to be equal to his skill as a public intellectual, is currently, more or less, a supporter of Modi’s government. In the novel, Bhagat strongly excoriates the Gujarati mobs, and offers a multi-cultural vision of India where all Indians are raising the national flag and beat Australians at cricket, because dammit how come that tiny nation keeps beating us! He doesn’t really offer an opinion on whether or not a Muslim mob was responsible for the Godhra train burning (they may not have been), and he strongly suggests that BJP leadership had a role in inflaming and steering the riots, indirectly implicating Modi, who indeed many people have considered complicit. The solution to these issues? Sticking together as a nation, with all resentment directed at foreigners, not Indians. History has turned out differently, and as it turns out, Nationalism is bad medicine. It’s like rubbing hot sauce into a wound. So the novel’s politics are at best naive. Fittingly, every person in the book shares the author’s naivete.

There is the main character, Govind Patel, an aspiring businessman in his twenties who has sex 9 times with a 17-18 year old girl who he’s supposed to tutor and who inexplicably falls for his geeky looks, seducing him on a rooftop, culminating in a sex scene that is both explicit and extremely prudish. Govind may be a big ol’ virgin, but Bhagat himself doesn’t appear to be quite on the up and up about the mechanics of sex, as he has Govind insist multiple times that they had sex with a condom, but then also feel bad for having “unprotected sex” – I’m not sure what kind of protection Bhagat envisions. Maybe it’s the same protection that kept his editor from touching the manuscript, because there is no way anyone edited this borderline random collection of letters and (completely mad) punctuation. There is his best friend Ish, whose sister had protected/unprotected sex with Govind, and who, while fleeing from an angry, murderous Hindu mob, takes a cricket bat to his best friend when he finds out Govind has been tutoring her in very naughty subjects. And then there’s Omi, whose father is a mad priest/BJP politician, who drinks two litres of milk per day and almost faints at the sight of breasts.

But the book’s worst, most unbearable character is a man called Chetan Bhagat. You see, the book is framed by the story of Bhagat receiving an email from Govind who is about to kill himself but uses the time while he waits for the pills to do their work to send off a weird fan email to Bhagat, whose books he loves so much and who, he feels, is the only person who can understand him. So Bhagat finds Govind who has survived his suicide attempt that was clearly as badly planned as everything else in Govind’s tiresome life, and Govind then tells him his story, culminating in murder, fear, and friendships breaking apart during the Gujarat riots. Of course, that’s when Bhagat adds TWO epilogues, because if there’s anything more important than a horrifying event in recent Indian history, it’s pointing out what a nice and helpful person this Chetan Bhagat is, who ends up reuniting old friends and lovers. He’s quite something, this Chetan guy. And so humble! In his introduction/acknowledgements, he explains: “I don’t want to be India’s most admired writer. I just want to be India’s most loved writer. Admiration passes, love endures.” I mean, cockroaches would survive a nuclear desaster, so God knows, Bhagat’s work might endure.

And I can see literary critics in a century reading these books, thinking “surely this is satire” and giving Bhagat a spot in the pantheon of satirical writers, as the master of satirizing bad prose. I had to read parts of this book to people, just to make them aware of the existence of observations like: “The great thing about girls is that even during pauses in the conversation you can look at them and not get bored.” I have never read a book like this, and God willing, I will never again. And yet, even as I go through these pages of terrible dialog, awful descriptions, and embarrassing thoughts, I can’t help but be fascinated by the book as a part of literary discourse. If only it were better.

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Khushwant Singh: Train to Pakistan

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Singh, Khushwant (1981), Train to Pakistan, Grove ISBN 0-8021-3221-9

Train to Pakistan, originally published in 1956, is not a very good book, but quite enjoyable much of the time. Khushwant Singh, less than ten years after Partition, in 1947, wrote a novel of less than 200 pages and still managed to create what’s probably best described as an uneven mess. Ideas, allusions, characters and bits and pieces of story float all over the book. There’s no denying that Singh, who has since become a famous public figure and intellectual in India, prefers to lecture rather than write a fully coherent novel. This is not to say, however, that Train to Pakistan is a bad book. There is much in it that is successful, much that is interesting and even engrossing, especially in the first half of the book, which is far more compellingly told than anything in the second half. In the latter half we flounder unhappily through Singh’s feeble attempts to hold all strands of his story together to deliver what is clearly meant to be a moving and inspiring ending to a book that isn’t shy about its intent to present the reader not just (or even primarily) with a convincing story, but with a convincing reading of history. This is one of the reasons why the book is sometimes hard to read or assess for someone (like me) who may not be knowledgeable about Indian political debates in the 1950s and 60s (at all). It’s hard to tell what is a distortion and what is the goal, or: the target, of that distortion or presentation. In the absence of that in-depth knowledge, readings (such as mine) may fall short of properly assessing the power of tropes and images used by Singh. Nevertheless, the most important trope, the basic constellation of the book seems clear, even more so since it’s a widely used topos in world literature. Singh’s novel is set in Mano Majra, a village in the Punjab, a border region between Pakistan and India, shared by both countries. There are five major rivers in the region, one of which is the Sutlej, “half a mile“ from Mano Majra. Information like this allows us to situate the village in the province of Punjab (the region Punjab consists of several provinces, one of which is also called Punjab), which is relevant, since Punjab is an Indian province that is predominantly Sikh, as far as ethnicity and religion is concerned, and it is the conflict between Sikhs and Muslims in the year of the partition that forms the novel’s main impetus. Most of the characters on Train to Pakistan are, in fact, Sikh or Muslim. The roles of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus within the novel form what appears to be a central subtext to its narrative, which employs the village as a metaphor to discuss the fate of a whole nation or nationality. It’s a well-worn, fairly common construction, one that every reader can be relied upon to recognize, and thus perfectly suited for didactic purposes. It’s also the reason why Singh’s characters are paper-thin, with just enough depth to fill out the roles assigned to them. These roles are already visible in this early description of the village

Mano Majra is a tiny place. It has only three brick buildings, one of which is the home of the moneylender Lala Ram Lal. The other two are the Sikh temple and the mosque. The three brick buildings enclose a triangular common with a large peepul tree in the middle. (…) There are only about 70 families and Lala Ram Lal’s is the only Hindu family. The other are Sikhs and Muslims, about equal in number. The Sikhs own all the land around the village; the Muslims are tenants and share all the tilling with the owners.

As schematic as this description of the village is, so is the rest of Train to Pakistan‘s construction, including the sentimental love story threaded through it. We quickly realize that realism can’t be expected from this book, that its stakes and ambitions are higher than that. Oddly enough, once the allegorical nature of much of the book’s narrative is established, Singh tries to reverse the process in the second half, piling on geographical and historical references aplenty, clearly not completely trusting his readers to make the connection of Mano Majra’s history to the broader history of the region in particular and India in general. At the beginning, though, we are presented with a village that shimmers with charm, meaning and possibilities, and a story with just as many possibilities, and even more charm. The Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story of Jugga, who is both a “budmash” (an English word of Persian origin meaning “a worthless person” or “a bad character”) and a Sikh, and his love Nooran, who’s a Muslim weaver’s daughter, is a clear indication of the direction that the book is going to take. Jugga, a mischief and troublemaker with a criminal record, has had a falling-out with some local gangsters and rowdies, and while he is engaging in a secret tryst with his lover, his former mates and fellow “dacoits” (a Hindi word meaning “outlaw” or “robber”) make a surprise visit to the city, killing and robbing the Lala Ram Lal, the moneylender. It is this murder that summons the rest of the world to appear in Mano Majra, first in the form of a sub-inspector, charged with clearing up the circumstances of the crime. Additionally, a deputy commissioner arrives and oversees the procedure, but he is also responsible for bringing the village ‘up to date’, for introducing it to the upheavals that were troubling the nation, and especially the region, in 1947. Incidentally, both police officers are Hindus and, like the murderous gang, outsiders to the village. In the passages that detail village life before the police arrived, an atmosphere vaguely reminiscent of Sir Salman Rushdie’s work (think the Kashmiri village in Shalimar the Clown) is created, with the few individuals that Singh selects for closer inspection appearing warmly, starkly, in front of the reader. The impression is less that of a village and more that of a family, albeit one with secrets and some animosities. The outsiders, starting with the dacoits, force the community to contract, presenting us a more or less unified front of ‘villagers’. And from this point on, individual conflicts, though they are hinted at in the beginning and feebly re-introduced throughout the book, play a role so small as to be almost non-existent. And the minute we start to look at the village as a homogeneous mass, it starts to fall apart into smaller blocks, Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The only exceptions are granted to people with official roles. The priest, the mayor, the policemen. This kind of construction contradicts slightly annoying critics like Peter Morey who try to apply theoretical concepts like the one proposed by Frederic Jameson in his 1986 essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” to Train to Pakistan, Jameson’s point being precisely the opposite. In Jameson’s mind, emancipation leads to narratives where the third world subject is no longer a stand-in for the fate of a nation or nationality. Without further discussing Jameson’s theory here (which would be a waste of breath anyway; Jameson being one of the most consistently overrated and useless practicioners of ‘theory’)), it should be stated that Khushwant Singh’s novel is as far from such a kind of writing as possible. Singh’s writing is explicitly, expressly representational, indirect. Singh’s characters’ individuality is dissolved in the broader narrative of the region and the nation. This literary technique is mirrored in the fate of a Iqbal Singh, an agitator from New Delhi, come to spread the message of the People’s Party to rural India. A regular narodnik, he is as young as he is naïve, and, upon being picked up by the police, his youthful resentment and anger allow them to typecast him as a Muslim Leaguer, a powerful accusation in the changing climate of Mano Majra, where Sikhs have come to mistrust their Muslim neighbors and vice versa. The insider/outsider logic of the way the community works makes it easy to convince the villagers (a word that quickly only means “Sikh villagers”) that this outsider, this foreign face, is not one of them, that he is one of those Muslims who keep killing Sikhs and Hindus, sending trains full of corpses back over the border. This process of categorizing people is both criticized and affirmed by the book, which creates an odd reading experience. As Iqbal is stripped of his individuality, we see that this is a bad thing, but a few dozen pages later, the only bad thing about this is the incorrect categorization. This is the first of many elements that are puzzling about this book, which is directly and explicitly critical of the violence and the disruptions that have been taking place, yet at the same time, it affirms them, and the difference between the two statements appears to be an adjustment of the lens and a cheap, general condemnation of violence. It’s as if the novel condemned the actions but approved of the results. What’s more, these are not the only affirmative aspects of Train to Pakistan. In a very strange way, the book seems to approve of the general power balance and social structure that was in place during the rule of the British empire. The schematic description of the village’s social structure might have tipped us off, but, as Ralph J. Crane points out in his essay “Inscribing a Sikh India” (2005), the real giveaway are the roles assigned to the different ethnicities. Singh consistently portrays his Hindu characters as weak, as officials, to wit: subalterns. Muslims are below Hindus, they are objects to be used as the narrative sees fit. Above the subalterns, the Hindus, however, are the Sikh. As confused villagers they may seem weak sometimes, but it’s the circumstances that made them so. In fact, all the power players in Train to Pakistan are Sikh, and any decisive action, positive and negative, is undertaken by them. The best that Hindus can do is propose or scheme. Ultimately, they submit to the power exuded by Sikhs. And as we all know, this directly mirrors the situation in Punjab under British rule, when, among the ruled, Sikh were the rulers. Sikh were better educated as a rule, better off, and as a consequence of this and other factors, more powerful. Education is an important part of this, because what Crane didn’t mention is the baffling linguistic quality of the book. Singh’s subaltern doesn’t talk back. The book, though celebrating the inside half of the insider/outsider division, is written from the outside, as far as language is concerned. Khushwant Singh’s language reads to me, in many ways, like a continuation of Colonialist language. Indian terms, except for a few words that have been assimilated into English, are bracketed, exoticized. The language is always clean, sometimes even bordering on bland, but what’s worse are the self-indictments that the characters deliver in this language. Anything that characters tell us about themselves is weirdly contorted, it’s both charming and self-effacing, but at the same time I can’t shake the feeling that it’s all supportive of the Colonial discourse. Jugga, in prison (of all places) , tells Iqbal, who wants to tell Jugga that he’s a victim of the establishment, tells his bespectacled fellow inmate, that he deserves being jailed, being targeted, because he’s just that kind of guy, he needs something to do, and if that happens to be mischief, mischief it is. Listening to these kinds of statements it’s easy to list the Colonialist diagnosis of people ‘like Jugga’. And this is the worst thing about all this caboodle. Worse than reproducing reductive categorizations, worse than reproducing the language and hierarchies of the freshly departed Colonial masters, is the novel quiet acceptance of the Colonial gaze inasmuch as identities and culture is concerned. Part of the book feels like a report commissioned by an occupying force. In this light, it’s quite fitting that its use of the village and its stunted use of travel hark back to an older time, to a simpler idea of the borders between ethnicities and cultures. You can’t help but think of James Clifford’s dissections of, for example, Malinowski’s work in books like Routes. Singh’s interest in Train to Pakistan is in power and how a cataclysmic upheaval (and Singh doesn’t spare us the gruesome, horrific images and descriptions that accompany this upheaval) can send ripples through that kind of structure, not uprooting it, but making us aware of the true foundation of the whole social construct. In this he succeeds marvelously, but the myopic, affirmative nature of the book (at least it seemed to me to be that way) does detract from that success, just as the confused, over-ambitious second half lessens the fun that the reader had reading the first half. Now, this book is, to an extent, a classic in India, and I admit I am not well equipped to contextualize it properly. The references I use are invasive, to an extent, and I’m quite likely wrong in several respects. My knowledge of India is nil, so, whatever I said in the handful of preceding paragraphs, was of necessity like groping in the dark. If any reader has some links, books or comments to add, I herewith encourage him or her to do so. Below this post, via email or twitter. As for Train to Pakistan, do read the book. It’s not a good novel or an interesting historical/political statement, but I did enjoy myself while reading it.

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