Predictable kaleidoscope of young India
A simple linear story, rivetingly told employing prose that can make a Hemingway blush – ten years, six novels and a non-fiction book since he stormed in to our literary landscape, the pattern in the novels of Chetan Bhagat, the brave young man who revolutionised Indian writing, is emerging. At a time when syrupy sagas on socialite shenanigans sold a few thousand copies and were bestowed with best seller tags, this unlikely writer in an engineer turned investment banker made light fiction ubiquitous enough to adorn the shelves beside onions and cooking oil at department stores across the country.
Half Girlfriend is Bhagat’s latest fiction offering. Like all previous novels of his, it too has a number in the title and a protagonist whose name is a synonym of Krishna. If citadels of academic excellence like IIT and IIM (both alma maters of Bhagat) and Banaras Hindu University feature in earlier books, it is the turn of Delhi’s St. Stephens now. Neither does the plot attempt anything riskily ambitious nor is there even a semblance of literary pretension. It is the kind of book that a thriller titan from the west, Jeffry Archer, would approve of, for it does what a book is supposed to do per him – tell a good story.
The tale of the encounter between Madhav Jha from rural Bihar and Riya Somani from ritzy Delhi, Stephanians with a shared passion for basketball has much for India’s teenage-twenties crowd to empathise with. It is vintage Bhagat territory of nascent puppy love and forlornness. Bhagat’s audience is culled mostly from the new yuppie generation; the ranks of tech-savvy IT professionals tweeting their dreams and Whatsapping their aspirations. They epitomise the face of new India, where a staggering fifty percent of the population is below 25 years. Chetan Bhagat’s hero, as in most of his other works, is a semi-confused drifter with a self-depreciating sense of humour and an unmistakable vulnerability. This underdog aspect instantly endears the reader to the hero, be he a failed engineer, struggling marketing executive or sports quota entrant in elite college who grapples with English, the language whose snob value can open doors for him. We partake in his foibles as he fumbles along in the treacherous waters of dating and courting females who are often empowered and sure of themselves even as they seethe in their private agonies of untold abuse.
The evolution of Bhagat as a writer is apparent as we arrive at Half Girlfriend. His craft is impeccable, the structure and style of the novel so lucid that the reader is nose-led to the very end, her interest sustained throughout the gradually unfolding drama. The title is indeed intriguing and wins streets ahead of a disappointingly lackluster earlier one like ‘Two States’, so named since the hero and heroine come from two different states of India! What is a half girlfriend – does that denote a platonic relationship or a part-time lover or something else? The whetted curiosity should egg a casual onlooker on to go pick up the book. We get the answer soon enough. Prologue and Epilogue have come to be regular in these novels and Half Girlfriend is no exception. But it goes one step ahead and makes the writer cum original narrator a more prominent character in the tale. His intervention has a part to play in the fortunes of the hero in his perseverant pursuit of initially puerile but later exalted love. There is a looming Bollywood movie all over the book and one cannot be blamed for suspecting that Chetan Bhagat wrote this particular story with a blockbuster movie in mind. Perhaps that could be the drawback of the plot as it is too corny for comfort. Parts of it are tantalisingly poised on the verge of worn out clichés. The taut suspense of Revolution 2020 is sorely missing here. The predictability of it all towards the final stages forces one to draw succor from the telling and the sights and sounds of changing locales even as the end and means pale into sorry irrelevance.
Overall Half Girlfriend is a good book even though it is certainly not Chetan Bhagat’s best. Taken together, his growing repertoire is an amazing kaleidoscope of the tribulations of young India on the move – in campuses, cubicles and cafes both in the country and abroad.