I had never heard of Chetan Bhagat before I came to India, but he is the highest selling Indian writer working in English. Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Aravind Adiga or Amitav Ghosh are all highly acclaimed in the west, but essentially write literary fiction for a literary market. Bhagat writes for the IT generation: the millions of recently educated people in their twenties and thirties who straddle the traditional world of India and the beckoning influence of the outside world. His first novel was published in 2004 and since then 4 more have followed along with a book of essays and journalism. Rupa his publishers recently produced a box set of the novels, so I thought it might be fun to work my way through them all in sequence.
He is seen as the “Voice of young India”, a title he plays up to, but as a 38-year-old ex investment banker he’s clearly part of the upper strata of modern Indian society. His background is not a literary one and that has its strengths and weaknesses. A dedication to Bill Gates and Microsoft for producing “Word” is something I have never experienced from a writer before and hope never to again. He writes in a very structured way (each book is almost exactly the same length of around 260 pages). His writing is unpolished (at least in the early books) and his viewpoint is clearly that of a young Indian male. He can’t write sex scenes, he’s a Maths geek and when he tries to be imaginative and fantastical it’s an embarrassment. Also, his main protagonist (at least in the first 4 novels) is clearly a version of himself with little difference between each book. However, he captures the voice of a type of young Indian male well. He’s also very good at displaying the phobias and cultural restrictions people labour under, from the difficulty in talking to women, to the pressure to succeed and the way Indian society is so heavily stratified. Many of his readers never read novels before he arrived and since his success he has inspired an industry of Indian Writing that ranges from chic lit style to stories of making it in business all available for around 140 INR (£2) each or less. He’s probably also responsible for putting some fun back into Indian literature which does have a dour, worthy image of stories about grinding poverty and abuse.
I’m just over halfway through my quest, having read his first three novels and part way through the fourth, so I will have to update as I go along, but let’s start at the beginning with Five Point Someone.
It’s set at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi in the early 90’s and centres on the story of 3 students (Hari, the narrator, Ryan & Alok)who struggle with the intensely competitive, rote learning culture and rebel. Matters are complicated by the narrator falling for the daughter of one of the senior lecturers. It’s humorous with some dark moments (think Tom Brown’s Schooldays with added pop culture). I enjoyed it, but I have to say the film 3 Idiots, which is loosely based on it, is much better and if you want to start somewhere, that is the place to go. Score 5/10.
Next, we have One Night At The Call Centre
This is a real curate’s egg of a book. Set in a Call Centre at the start of the outsourcing boom, the first half of the book is a cracking read with the sexual politics and relationship dynamics of the 5 main staff in one team well-developed. The description of the resentment felt by Indian call centre workers at the way they are treated by American (in this case) customers and their own superiors rang true. Bringing class into the writing perks up his writing. And then… he introduces a plot device that is so awful and hackneyed I was actually saying “No, no, you aren’t really going to do that are you?” out loud. It totally spoiled the book for me. Score 3/10
In 2008, came The 3 Mistakes of My Life,set in Ahmedabad in Gujarat.
Another story of 3 friends, this plays out against the massacres of 2001 and is his first foray into Politics. This is by far the best of the novels. It portrays the impending crisis in a realistic manner and deals sympathetically and even-handedly with Moslem and Hindi characters. Familiar plot devices (the usual idealised girlfriend to be wooed, the 3 sided male relationship, flashbacks) are better embedded into the narrative and this one moves at a great pace. The seriousness of the issues works to undercut his normal sentimentality and apart from a fight scene which is a little too Bollywood, there’s much to praise and his writing has clearly moved on. If you want to start with one of his books, I’d go for this one. Score 8/10
in 2009, Chetan’s 4th novel was 2 States: The Story of My Marriage (Have I told you he likes numbers?) and is the partly autobiographical story of the difficult love affair between two graduate students: a Punjabi male and a Tamil female. As part of the novel is set in Chennai, I’m particularly keen to see how he handles the south, As I’m only 50 pages in, I’ll reserve my review for when I finish the book, but so far so good: it captures the sulky petulance and chauvinistic behaviour of young men well. To be continued.
Tanglish, is a slang term used by some to describe the style of pidgin English used by rickshaw & cab drivers, security guards, market stall holders and most of the people you’ll meet in the streets of Chennai. Getting around in Chennai can be difficult if you don’t know the destination, particularly as everyone will tell you they know where it is and then try to guess their way there or ask some other innocent along the way.
Here are the rules
1. Less is more. Reduce sentences to as few words as possible. I live near Loyola College, so will just say “Loyola” to a rickshaw driver. Every direction I have tried to give longer than 1 word has been met with incomprehension, except when we get there and then the driver repeats it back to me as “Aaaye Spencer Plaza” and I think: that’s exactly how I said it.
2. Aim for the nearest landmark and sort out the fine detail when you get there: preferably when you can point. Hands are essential accoutrements to finding your way as you will have to indicate direction and of course specify the price. The driver never uses his hands, especially if a hand signal is required.
3. Most rickshaw or cab drivers speak in a highly guttural argot which to my ears sounds like a slightly excited toothless old man. Yes is usually expressed as “Aaaye”. I’ve found that I have started to copy this. I probably sound like Kenneth Williams doing his sea shanties when I do, but it seems to be accepted.
4. Everywhere is left then right, except when its right then left or straight then left. (remember rule 1)
5. The first objective is to get moving in the right direction (see rule 4)
6. The other side of the road is “U Turn”
7. To go behind somewhere or beyond it you are going “backside”
8. Never change your mind about where you are going or appear confused. There’s already one person lost and he’s driving.
9. Rickshaw Drivers are often inquisitive and will engage you in conversation. This will often mean turning round and chatting to you. This is usually fine while you are moving as all other drivers know that the last person you want to have an accident with is a rickshaw driver. If your driver stops chatting on his mobile while he talks to you as well, even better. You’ll probably be totally confused by the conversation as Tamil and Telugu syntax is (I assume) totally different to English, but just refer to rule 3.
10. In theory every street in Chennai has a name (the only city in India where this is the case). It’s a great theory and liked so much that many roads have several names, just often not displayed.
But don’t worry, I’ve never heard of anyone having an accident in an auto rickshaw.
There was a disturbance in town last night as the agitation that has resulted from the anti Muslim film produced by some extremist nutter spread to the US Consulate here.
There isn’t much in the Hindu and little online, but it would appear that a large organised group descended on the Consulate in the late afternoon and caused some damage. Fortunately the staff seem to have been warned and nobody appears to have been hurt, though there have been a large number of arrests.
It’s quite a surprise for this top occur in Chennai as the Muslim community lives easily alongside all of the other groups and this is not a city with inter faith tension. Indeed, the more worrying threats have been related to some sabre rattling by the Chief Minister against non Tamil Sri Lankans.
Without wishing to underplay the seriousness of the fact that a riot took place, there is something rather odd about it. The Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam claim to have informed the police that they would be marching on the embassy, yet only 10 police were outside when they arrived (about the normal detail size). Stones were thrown, US flags burnt and some windows smashed, but the violence was very controlled. We drove past the Embassy twice today and apart from one cracked window there was no sign of any activity the previous night. I was actually running a course in a building 300 yards from the incident yesterday and was completely oblivious of anything happening until I picked up the paper this morning.
The US Consulate is a pretty forbidding building with high spiked walls and razor wire. However several thousand people had wanted to storm it, they probably could have done so. Next door to the US Embassy is St George’s Cathedral and there is a Christian shrine on the main road with a plate-glass front. There’s not a scratch on it. I have just the smallest feeling that this was a token effort that got a bit out of hand. It almost feels like the organisers feel they have ticked the right boxes and that’s it.
I do hope I’m right.
It’s a little bit of the tourist map, but is as good a church as you’ll find in Chennai and a fine example of Georgian architecture. In honour of Andy Murray’s US Open win, here’s a brief piece on a part of Chennai that will always be Scottish.
Consecrated in 1821 by members of the Church of Scotland resident in Madras, as then was, who would have been employees of the East India Company.
It’s an almost circular building and was apparently modelled on St Martins in the Field in London and designed by a Major de Havilland and a Colonel Caldwell of the Madras Engineers, it stands on 150 “wells” and 16 columns. The former was a traditional Indian style of foundation, sinking shafts in moist soil up to 23 feet in depth. It is regarded by architectural historians as the finest designed church in Chennai, if not Asia and there’s some good historical detail on the Kirk’s own website here
It was empty when we visited apart from a lone organist playing an approximation of “We Plough The Fields And Scatter” and someone who I assume was the church warden. Quite amazing it doesn’t get many visitors as there’s a lot to see, including the beautiful pews forming a semi-circle towards the altar and a blue starred dome, said to represent the Scottish sky. The steeple is 170 feet tall, so it’s clearly visible from the bustling Poonamallee High Road on which it is situated in reasonably well maintained grounds. The pews are made from teak and rattan and are well-preserved.
As you can see, the decoration is fabulous.
There are strong military connections here as can be seen from these two ornate marble dedications to fallen military figures.
In fact the military dedications outnumber those of the elders and ministers of the church (similar to the St George’s Cathedral in the Fort). In this example a sepoy (Indian soldier) is appropriated as a mourner for his lost commander, even though he seems to have died outside the field of battle. I find the iconography of death and Empire from the 19th Century absolutely fascinating and a forgotten corner of British Art well worth exploring as it weaves a romanticised vision of death and service together, but the insecurity of the colonial venture is all too clear in the need to incorporate images like that of the sepoy. Anyone interested in this stuff should visit the Watts Gallery (www.wattsgallery.org.uk) in Compton Surrey where you can see the form at its fullest expression.
Above: “Hope” by George Frederic Watts.
There are also two wonderful stained glass panels near the organ (itself rather impressive) of St Andrew and St Peter.
Go and have a look if live in Chennai.
I have found the perfect dessert to die for. I mean to die for. Not swoon a little. No, seriously, you have to wrestle me away from the bowl before I eat myself to death. Shrikhand is a thickened sweet yoghurt preparation originally from Maharashtra. The curd is strained through a cotton cloth for several hours to create Chakka. Sugar and cardamon or saffron are added and it’s left to chill. In some parts of the country Mango are used. The taste is sweet (more like pistachio than cardoman) and creamy. Very, very creamy.
It cleaves to the spoon in the way all great puddings do, so take a large spoonful and run it over your tongue. There’s always more left on the spoon. What a way to go. You need this dessert in your country. Chakka, Chakka Khan (old 80’s music joke).