While he has not managed to muscle his way into the echelons of India's literary elite, Chetan Bhagat can arguably lay claim to being the country's most-read novelist. Author of five bestselling novels — Five Point Someone, One Night @ the Call Center, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, 2 States and Revolution 2020 — Bhagat has been described by The New York Times as the "biggest-selling English-language novelist in India's history". And Time magazine has named him in the "100 Most Influential People in the World" list. Since giving up his international-investment-banking career in 2009, he has undoubtedly come a long way.
Bhagat's books sell for Rs140 (Dh10) and are to be found not only in all bookstores in India but also in many supermarkets. He writes in the language of India's middle-class youth and his subject matter often reverberates with his target audience — students and techies.
Weekend Review caught up with him for a one-on-one interview recently. Excerpts:
Indians writing in English used to be symbolised by high-brow writers such as Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy. That was until you came along and sold more books. Would you say yours is the English writing for the masses?
I think people are reading just to see what is happening. It is not the same set of people. Candidly, I am like the masses. I have tried to take a different approach. Reading is not for a privileged few. Just as anyone can enjoy music, anybody should be able to read. I can't write like the other writers. But they can't write like me either. I want to entertain the readers. I see films as my rivals! As for books, it doesn't matter. Writers must not fight against each other. We should be trying to get others to come to the bookstores.
Have you ever thought of writing novels with a global audience in mind? Or for the Indian diaspora?
A global platform is not what I want to reach right now. And non-Indians don't seem to have picked up my books. But I am more interested in India. That is my focus. I think it is an incredible country.I used to work in Hong Kong. When I moved to India, I was not looking for a Hong Kong in India but for an India in India. Life is more meaningful in India. I think more good people need to move back to the country. Mindsets need to change. Indians must realise what India has to offer.
You have been on record saying that creativity needs to be commercialised.
You have to be viable. It is important. But the intention of the book can't be to make money. The intention can't be to maximise returns.
You have come out in support of Anna Hazare's anti-corruption movement in India.
Yes, this is a movement I fully support. I tried explaining to readers what Team Anna is trying to do. I wanted to explain it to the youngsters.
But you could be accused of taking sides.
I doesn't matter which party is in power. If the BJP was in power, I would tell them too. I think the entire movement is for a party-neutral reform.
A writer cannot keep quiet. The system in India needs reform. If someone is making efforts to do so, then we have to support it.
What would be your advice to aspiring young writers?
It takes me about one and a half years to write a novel. I think writing is an art form. They should have the talent for it. You can't get the basics wrong. They must ask themselves why they want to become writers. If it is only because of fame, then it will not work. Most writers write because it is their passion. It is important to work hard, have a strong will and a willingness to learn new things. And you have to be yourself. If I had tried to be a [Salman] Rushdie or a [Vikram] Seth, I would have failed.
Two of your books have been made into films. How has the Bollywood experience been so far?
Many people have had to struggle, but for me it has been smooth. In Hollywood, this [adapting books for films] has been happening for ages. They even took an Indian book and made Slumdog Millionaire! I am already selling a lot of books, so I am not dependent on Bollywood. But it is interesting to see that writers are getting more attention.
All my books have attracted interest from filmmakers. Two of my books have been made into films, and two others are in the planning stages.
You have become a celebrity in India.
It is God's will that makes you a star. It is very hard to have a fan following. God chooses you to become a star!
Chetan Bhagat will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, to be held from March 6 to March 10, 2012, at the InterContinental Hotel, Dubai Festival City and the Cultural and Scientific Centre, Al Mamzar.