Chetan Bhagat's new book - Half Girlfriend - was launched on October 1, 2014. Within a couple of days, social media was abuzz with a line from the book, poking fun at its 'crassness' and it being in Hindi in an English book.
'Deti hai to de varna kat le' was the offending line (said by the hero to his 'half girlfriend') and it raised the hackles of pretty much everybody including feminists, grammar Nazis, fans of Queen's English and their girlfriends.
The line crudely translates to (either f*** me or f*** off). Bhagat was expecting this tirade. A day before the launch, he tweeted "1 day to go. Now would be a good time to sharpen those hater knives. Be kind guys, took me three years. :)" and offered a drink of 'Haterade' for his haters.
Having gone from strength to strength with each successive novel, their film adaptations and a burgeoning following on social media as well as the real world, Bhagat's agenda this time was to take the fight to his critics.
The hero of Half Girlfriend is a boy from Bihar who gets into St Stephen's (through the sports quota) - one of India's best colleges and the fount of a fair amount of criticism of Bhagat's works. When asked if he is poking some fun back at the people who are his most vocal critics, Bhagat said "I want to tell the 'English types' what India is all about. They don't own the language and my question to them is will you not give someone a voice just because you don't like their accent. Indian literature has been catering to a niche - that is very similar to the way English is spoken or written in the West - and I always wanted to do a book that would question that."
And he certainly hasn't pulled punches, if we go by the excerpts.
'And you want to do sociology. Why?' Prof. Fernandez said.
'It's an easy course. No need to study. Is that it?' Prof. Gupta remarked.
I didn't know whether Gupta had something against me, was generally grumpy or suffered from constipation.
'I am from rural area.'
'I am from a rural area,' Gupta said, emphasizing the 'a' as if omitting it was a criminal offence.
'Hindi, sir? Can I explain in Hindi?'
Nobody answered. I had little choice. I took my chances and responded in my language. 'My mother runs a school and works with the villagers. I wanted to learn more about our society. Why are our villages so backward? Why do we have so many differences based on caste and religion? I thought I could find some answers in this course.'
Prof. Gupta understood me perfectly well. However, he was what English-speaking people would call an 'uptight prick'. He asked Piyush to translate what I had said.
By making his hero a guy with the right questions and the 'wrong language', he uses him as a metaphor for the new Indian who must learn English to move ahead in life. "I believe that everybody in India must know English but it must be functional, communication-led English", he says citing the example of China where the traditional language has many more characters than the simplified version with fewer characters and simpler brush strokes, the latter being primarily used for business and functional communication.
So where does he draw the line? What about SMS lingo and Hinglish? He says, "I always want to write proper English but it has to be the simplest English possible. I have worked with very accomplished editors like David Davidar (who used to head Penguin India and is currently heading Aleph Book Company) to keep my language correct but the dialogues are written exactly as the characters speak."
This is probably what explains the inclusion of a Hindi line like "Deti hai to de..." because it gives a better sense of the character's language and his mindset. And like in a film scene - that Bhagat has recently been writing - it is what Bollywood observers call a 'punch dialogue'.
He is extremely conscious of the reducing attention span of his readers in the last decade he has been writing. "In all my books, I have always had quick change of scenes and speech like the way it is spoken in real life. But it is becoming harder and harder to get people to pick up books. Therefore, the attempt is to have shorter, punchier, easier reads. The style of storytelling most people are used to in India is Bollywood. And I guess - subconsciously - I think of a book like a screenplay."
So who does he write for? "For Half Girlfriend, my goal is to reach out to a reader in upcountry Bihar who is literally like the hero of my story. It took me a long time to get the balance right because the story was set in rural India and I had to take care not to alienate my existing readers, who are essentially metro people."
He says it took him three years to write this well, which is the longest gap he has had between books ever since he took up writing full-time.
e seems to have succeeded in the 'getting the balance right' with the film rights of the book getting sold even before the book hit the stores. Ekta Kapoor (who redefined the popularity levels of Hindi televisions) and Mohit Suri (director of recent blockbusters like Aashiqui 2 and Murder 2) should know a thing or two about popular taste.
And of course, their faith seems to have been well-placed as the first print order has got off to a rollicking start. On Bhagat's Facebook page (liked by nearly 6 million people), his request for "feedback/ feelings/ comments/ verdict" has 10,000+ comments, which are essentially variations of "it z really .. awsMMmmm"[sic].
Of course, his tweet about the two million copies of his book weighing as much as "200 Asian elephants" draws responses around if an author should describe his own book in terms of weight, which is typically associated with raddi (recycled paper), but Bhagat is focused on making those copies vanish in a jiffy.
Famously calling his competition to be Whatsapp and Candy Crush, he has used every single medium possible to market his book to people who will probably read just one English fiction book this year - his.
And he doffs his cap to this audience in the dedication of his book, which also cocks a snook at his detractors. Half Girlfriend is dedicated to the "non-English types".