You cannot blame bestselling author Chetan Bhagat for not attempting to get under the skin of his characters to better portray them in his novels. For instance, for his most recent book, One Indian Girl, written in first person and from the point of view of a woman, he decided to wax his body hair, ostensibly to get an idea of the experience and to better understand women.
‘It was really painful,’ he said later, in a promotional video that was shared extensively on social media to market the book. However, the pain he endured at the salon perhaps paled in comparison to what he felt when he was raked over the coals online by women who took umbrage that he had reduced womanhood to epilation. There’s more to a woman than waxing, they said, trolling the author for weeks after his post.
But then flirting with controversies is not new to the columnist, screen writer and one of the most popular authors in India. His tweets (like the one on historians in which he wondered what they really do), his stand on celebrating Diwali with firecrackers, and his row with the makers of the Bollywood film 3 Idiots, which was based on one of his novels have ensured that he is constantly in the media’s spotlight, albeit not always for the right reasons.
A former investment banker, the award-winning author will once again be in the limelight when he will speak at the 10-day Emirates Airline Festival of Literature which opens on March 1 (find early bird discount tickets at tickets.emirateslitfest.com).
Chetan, who wrote his first novel, Five Point Someone, in 2004, while pursuing a career at Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong, is said to have redrafted the manuscript more than 15 times before it saw the light of day. But his efforts clearly paid off. A runaway success, Five... sold more than a million copies across the world and was the basis for the hugely-popular Aamir Khan starrer 3 Idiots.
Flushed with the success of his debut novel, the IIT Delhi alumnus quickly churned out his second book – One Night @ the Call Center – the following year. Although this book took a little longer than his first novel to achieve the million sales figure, Chetan was convinced it was time to pen a new chapter in his career. ‘I actually toyed with the idea for two years, before I took the plunge after One Night...,’ says Chetan, in an exclusive interview with Friday. ‘It was a risk to quit my job and focus on writing alone but I didn’t want to live with the regret of not trying, and killing my dream for a few dollars.’
Although he wishes he took the plunge earlier, ‘perhaps a couple of years sooner’, he says he was reluctant because ‘I neither had the wisdom nor the courage.’ But once he took the step, there was no looking back. Choosing topics that touch a chord among the common people of India – the pressures, very often parental, to land a seat in a top school and college (Five Point Someone); the pleasures and pains of working in a call centre (One Night @ the Call Center), a set of essays on how to improve the Indian economy through social reforms (What young India wants) to name just three – Chetan’s books appealed to the youth, and his fan base quickly grew. At last count, he had 11.2million followers on Twitter.
Literary praise, too, came calling – Chetan, 43, won a Publisher’s Recognition Award and Society Young Achiever’s Award in 2005 for his first book. Although the second book failed to garner the same approbation – one critic termed it ‘a dud’ – it too did not fail to set cash registers ringing.
Taking a break from youth-centric issues, Chetan, for his third book, focused on the burning topic in the country at the time – the Gujarat riots.
Again, the management postgraduate from IIM Ahmedabad did not get it wrong. 3 Mistakes of my Life, which was adapted into the Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer Kai Po Che, soared to the top of the bestseller charts with the initial print run of 420,000 selling out quickly. It was also translated into French, Sinhala and Tamil.
More books followed – 2 States, Revolution 2020, Half Girlfriend and his most recent, One Indian Girl, the last breaking records when last year it became the leading title in pre-orders in Amazon’s history in India.
What does he credit his popularity to?
‘I feel my simplicity and ability to connect with the reader instantly are my biggest USPs,’ says Chetan, not forgetting to give good fortune its due. ‘Luck plays a huge part, too.
‘I came at the right place at the right time with the right story. The kind of response I’ve received is exceptional and far more than I deserve. I’m thankful to God for this gift,’ says the author.
As for mentors, Chetan says he doesn’t have any ‘although some senior colleagues at Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank truly inspired me and I try to emulate their values of hard work and excellence to this day.’
When he started writing way back in the early noughties, Chetan spent a lot of time touring rural India to understand the market and learn what people want from a novel. He still travels around India quite a bit ‘mostly to deliver motivational talks. It allows me to get an insider view on the real India’. One of his insights is that ‘the tastes of the people are definitely changing. With greater exposure and access to digital content on the phone, people in rural areas also want to connect to the cities, for instance, and want aspirational content. They are however, also lost in their smartphones; that makes it difficult to get them to pick up a book to read.’
When not touring the country, Chetan prefers spending time at home with his family – his wife and twin sons. ‘My average day begins with a long morning tea session with my wife [Anusha Bhagat] before I head off to the gym for an hour or so of workouts. After that, I go to my writing place and fiddle around a lot until I finally settle down to write.
‘I give myself rough daily targets and leave only when I’m done. Evenings I try to spend with my kids and have a meal together.’
Apart from writing novels, Chetan also blogs, writes regular columns for newspapers and gives motivational talks. ‘The schedule can be tough,’ he admits. ‘But I plan my calendar well and try to limit the workload I can handle. For instance, I try not to do [more than] 3-4 talks in a month. I do a column twice a week and a book once in two years. That allows me a happy balance between work, family and me time.’
He has started on a novel that he hopes to publish this year. ‘I’m looking at Diwali [for publication],’ he says. ‘After that I’ll be working on a non-fiction book.’
What drives him to write? Is it fame, money or thirst for social change?
‘It’s all of them combined,’ he says. ‘Actually the reasons that drive me to write have changed over the years, or rather evolved. Today I write to tell engaging stories that leave an impact and nudge people to change. I guess if I had to pick one, then my goal of writing is to create change.’