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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