Originally Published on Urbandesis.com on 17/03/2016
Chetan Bhagat. The public loves him. The critics, not so much. Many of us would have first heard of him when he broke out as a writer with his novels Five Point Someone and One Night @ the Call Center. Today he has 8 blockbuster books (6 fiction) to his name. And he sells. His books have sold over 10 million copies and all of his books have remained bestsellers since their release. Four of his books have also been adapted into Bollywood films. Besides being an author, Chetan Bhagat is also known as a columnist, screenwriter, television personality and motivational speaker.
And there is no dearth of titles attached to his name. He has repeatedly been called the ‘Youth Icon of India’. The New York Times called him the ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history’. Time magazine named him amongst the ‘100 most influential people in the world’. Fast Company, USA, listed him as one of the world’s ‘100 most creative people in business’.
I recently had the opportunity to converse with him over dinner at the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel. Despite all the fame, he comes across as a mild-mannered, bindass guy, who was more than happy to answer all my questions. In this freewheeling, casual conversation, the best-selling writer speaks about his upcoming book, tells us whether 2 States is the story of his life, talks about Singapore and says that he writes to be read, not to be celebrated or decorated.
1) So are you working on anything right now?
I’m working on a new book, which will come out in October, around Diwali. I always write my books in the first person, this time I’m writing as a woman. The book is about Indian women. I’ve been wanting to do this book for 5-6 years now but I was scared whether I would be able to write as a woman. I can catch the dialogues, the way women talk. But how do women think? When people pick up my book, they’ll expect that I’ll get it right.
2) Are you afraid that you won’t get it right?
I’m confident now that I’ve got it. I’ve waited for 5 years – to get the story right, to get everything right. I haven’t told this to many people but I’ve interviewed over a 100 women for this book. I’m not going to be able to do this again.
I know this sounds really bizarre, but if I’ve been writing a lot the previous night, I sometimes wake up thinking I’m a girl. At times, I’ve started reacting like a girl. I’m really living it.
3) So how did that first book happen? Since you were working at a bank, what made you write a book?
The inception was that there is more to life than just being in a corporate job and making money. I felt like I’d finally made it – IIT, IIM, a job that all middle class kids aspire for. But a part of me thought, is this it? Throughout college, I had done interesting things, I had done plays, I had written stuff. I wasn’t doing that anymore. It was just about banking and coming home. So I felt the need to do something. Of course, I never thought that I should change my career. I just thought that I should have a hobby. My friends played golf. I liked writing, so I wrote that book. I had no idea that it would change my life, that it would become a career one day or that I would leave banking one day.
4) How long did it take you to write that book?
I had a full-time job and I had never written a book before. It took me 2 years to finish that first book.
5) 6 (fiction) books in 10 years. You’re very fast with your writing.
I write a book every 2 years. One year, I just experience life and the other year I write. This is the writing year. Last year was about experiences, doing crazy things, doing Nach Baliye, just living life.
6) Since you just mentioned a reality show, what if you were invited to Big Boss? Would you go?
No, I wouldn’t. I’ve been invited many times. I would go to judge it, but not as a participant. In Nach Baliye, I was a judge. There is a huge difference between being a participant and being a judge. Judges have a far different stature. All reality shows are pretty much about the judges now. People may or may not remember the participants, but people remember the judges. Judges make the show.
7) You seem to be very bindass. But on TV, you sometimes come across as confrontational – why the two different faces?
It’s an act. It’s a whole setup. For Nach Baliye, that was my brief – to be the tough judge. And I wanted to be the tough judge because those are the memorable judges. If you saw the Nach Baliye season, you would remember me.
And if you’re talking of the news debates, they are designed to be that way. I understand how television works, it’s about drama. I know that Arnab is just trying to stir things up. So I don’t take it too seriously. That’s why I always laugh and smile. It’s ok to have your opinion, to choose a side, but you shouldn’t have hatred towards the other side. You shouldn’t get offended all the time. We’re talking issues, it’s not personal. I try to inculcate that. I feel that if people smiled more in debates, they would have a better discussion. But it doesn’t work because everyone is angry all the time.
8) Going back to books, you’re the biggest selling writer in India? Why do you think that is?
It’s a marketing tag. There are many good writers who are successful. We are not cricketers, it’s not a score. Yes, counting how many books you’ve sold is one measure of success. But another measure is the impact you’re having, the kind of influence you hold, the kind of stories you’re writing, how original you are – and that’s how I measure it. I write for change, for something to change. That’s why I started writing columns, commenting on politics. What matters is my writing having an impact. Do my columns lead to discussions? Do my views matter on social media? I write to be read. I don’t write to be celebrated or decorated.
9) When we read your books, it seems that you’re just thinking and typing it out, kind of like blogging. In reality, what is the process like?
You’re reading a book over a few hours, but I’ve written it over a year. I wrote a scene in January and another in October. But it reads as one contiguous story. That’s the art. People don’t realise how much effort goes into the planning. The idiom is simple. The method used to communicate is simple. But the thoughts are complex. If I’m writing a book on women, I’ve read about women’s issues from the most complex publications. I’ve had to understand the most complex feminism issues. I’ve researched with over a 100 women. To the reader, the book seems effortless. But the research is as intense as for an intellectual piece.
10) People think that 2 States is real. Is it? Is the new book real?
People think 2 States happened, that it is my life. Yes, it’s inspired, my wife is Tamil and she’s from IIM. There is some reality in it, but it is fiction.
11) Who is your favourite writer?
There’s no one favourite. There are several. Hemingway, George Orwell, Dickens. These are people who wrote simply and had a huge impact. They are always going to be an inspiration for me.
12) Do you have a favourite book (not yours)?
Animal Farm, Catch 22.
13) Favourite book out of your books?
Very hard to say. It used to be Half Girlfriend but right now my favourite book is the new book. I’m liking it more than any other book of mine because I’ve never had so much fun. I’m inside a woman’s head.
14) Book you’re most proud of?
I’m very proud of The 3 Mistakes of my Life. The book was on Godhra riots, and it made a beautiful movie Kai Po Che. I’m very happy that I did that book.
15) If you ever had to write a biography, who would it be?
I’ve always found Salman Khan very fascinating. If I write a biography, it has to be a person with ups and downs, someone who has had an interesting life. But Salman has to agree to it and I’m not yet quite ready to write a biography. I’m happy doing my own fiction but yeah if I had to.
16) What do you like about Singapore?
We lived in Singapore for about a year, but this was 10-11 years ago. Visiting Singapore brings back memories of those days. I remember celebrating our twins’ first birthday in the Singapore zoo. But I was not famous back in those days. Today Singapore is quite different for me. We’re staying at the East Coast and I’m getting recognised more than in India, which is very strange.
17) What is your favourite thing to do (or a favourite place to visit) while in Singapore?
I love the Raffles, it would be on top of my list. In fact, I was glad that Urbandesis invited me to The Tiffin Room. There are a lot of amazing places opening up but this place has heritage like none other, and you can’t replicate heritage.
18) Do you have a message for Urbandesis?
Live a life full of culture. Often times, desis get too lost in making money, fulfilling their family and extended family obligations. But culture is important in life. You have to experience things, not just watch TV and discuss politics. There has to be more. There has to be a discussion sometimes about the last book you read, about the last good movie you saw, about the art that affected you.