When my mother handed me her copy of Five Point Someone a few years ago, I promptly bought her a copy of Richard Pevear’s and Larissa Volokhonsky’s magnificent translation of The Brothers Karamazov (the best, in my opinion). That is not a smear on Chetan Bhagat, the author of Five Point Someone; I’ve had similar responses to people excitedly shoving copies of Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist or Robin Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari into my hands, preferring Aristotle, Spinoza, and Dante as my teachers.
Yet this unnecessary spitting contest misses the point – there is no doubt that in comparison to Bhagat’s corpus of works, WH Auden is the better litterateur or Moshe ben Maimon the better logician. However, Bhagat has chosen a different style and audience for himself – he seems to prefer being the common man’s Maruti 800 to a Rolls Royce Corniche, or MS Windows to a custom Linux shell. Rather than be remembered by posterity, Bhagat prefers to get the conversation started…if we let him.
The newest round of Bhagat-bashing was kicked off by his blog post, Letter From An Indian Muslim Youth, written in an imaginary, eponymous voice. Bhagat’s scandalising suggestion was that, perhaps, the average Indian Muslim youth would rather be given opportunities than handouts, development rather than topi symbolism, and acceptance into the mainstream rather than separateness. In short, they want to be Indians who just happen to be Muslims and not “Indian-Muslims.”
Prayaag Akbar criticised Bhagat’s blog post in a poorly titled piece, Why Chetan Bhagat shouldn’t speak for Indian Muslims. I am told that authors are rarely in control of the titles of their pieces, and if so, someone at Mint really dropped the ball on this one. In his response, however, Akbar clearly states that his objection is to Bhagat’s scholarship and analysis, not that he is an outsider to the community he is trying to speak for: “while anyone should be encouraged to produce scholarship and analysis about communities or historical figures, Bhagat’s casual ownership of the voice of 150 million people is patently not that” (emphasis added).
Akbar readily accepts Bhagat’s point that many Muslims have used the political manipulation of “secularism” to their benefit, that the so-called secular parties such as the Indian National Congress, Samajwadi party, and the Trinamool Congress have pandered not just to Muslims but the “most regressive elements within the community” for their own selfish agenda.
Where Akbar legitimately disagrees with Bhagat is in the treatment of Muslims as one monolithic community. Even a cursory analysis would reveal data to the contrary – Muslims in Udupi think and behave differently from their religious brethren in Lucknow, and as occasional columnist Sajid Bhombal writes, politics is ultimately local. These differences indicate the strong role social, historical, and economic environments have on a religious group, usually more than mere scripture. The success of a Shah Rukh Khan, Zaheer Khan, or APJ Kalam cannot stand as representative of the Muslim condition any more than the Nehru clan represent the state of Kashmiri Pandits.
Akbar’s response was written in the same vein Bhagat’s essay was written – journalistic. Otherwise, he would have cited the warnings on data dredging – academese for cherry picking – databases and using labels in a cavalier manner that Ethan Bueno de Mesquita (not to be confused with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita) mentioned in an unrelated recent talk on the new methods of understanding violence. Bhagat’s writings are known, on occasion, to contain crude generalisations – just a couple of months ago, he set off another storm along similar lines with his Five Things Women Need To Change About Themselves.
Lakshmi Chaudhry’s response to the offending column can basically be boiled down to one suggestion for Bhagat: Stop playing Daddy. Her objection is to the presumptuousness of the privileged male in thinking that he can provide solutions to macro-problems by interrogating his own experiences. This view has much value, but just to water it down a little, consider this: when was the last time someone not of privilege had time to inform public discourse intelligently? There are a few, but only a few.
The IIT/IIM graduate also received much support, most notably (Bhagat RT’ed it himself) from Centre Right India’s new community editor, Sunanda Vashisht. Vashisht argued that the tempest Bhagat caused had little to do with his piece but the ideology it hinted at – in the binary world of Indian politics, attacking minority welfarism is automatically seen as a pro-BJP position. Regardless of whether this view is true or not, Vashisht’s point is that Bhagat, who is generally seen as pro-Narendra Modi, speaking on uplifting the Muslim community denies the Indian Left a major stick with which to attack the BJP in the upcoming elections in 2014.
Vashisht does not, unfortunately, address Akbar’s other criticisms but she is right about the motive for the criticism. While most critics prefer to hide in the ambiguous zone, thankfully, Akbar is refreshingly honest in his speculation:
|“What Bhagat will not admit is that this piece is the latest in his sporadic series in support of Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi and the bring-BJP-to-power-2014 effort. But—and this is only my suspicion—I wonder if his desire is the uplift of the long-marginalized Muslim community, or if this piece is a roundabout expression of his vexation with a religious group that he believes might well keep his favoured party and candidate out.”|
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, Akbar is right on this point. So what? Personally, I doubt Akbar’s suspicions are true because of Bhagat’s long history of advocating a liberal, middle class understanding of development. Whether the wells being dug and the schools being built are done in the name of Modi or or “holy secularism,” they will still provide people with clean water and education.
I do not read Bhagat for the reasons stated in the beginning of this post, but neither am I aware of him cheering for the more orthodox and regressive elements of Hindu society; I have not heard of Bhagat’s ardent support of quashing the investigation into the post-Godhra riots. If his development platform resonates only with Modi and no other political party, frankly, it is a sad commentary on the poverty of ideas among the Indian political class and they and their supporters need to take some time off for introspection.
Anyone who dismisses Bhagat because he is not a suave writer, liberally dropping quotations from Mikhail Bakhtin or Jean Baudrillard, clearly has little understanding of journalism. In writing for a mass audience, one is compelled to simplify concepts and language. While many supporters of Bhagat suggest that this kind of criticism stems from jealousy, it is easier to deal with text than intent. I would rather everyone write like Mark Hibbs, Ashley Tellis, or Aaron Zelin, but I suspect Bhagat has more readers than these three combined.
There is a fine line between complexity and reach that every author has to choose for him/herself, and editor has to decide for his/her platform. Vashisht tells a cautionary tale about the majority of Bhagat-bashing, but Akbar and Chaudhry also make some valid assessments Bhagat should think about. Given his two recent posts that have generated some flak, Bhagat might want to consider using labels and categories more thoughtfully, reflecting on cause, correlation, context of his themes and drivers. With increased reach comes increased responsibility, and Bhagat has an excellent opportunity here to demonstrate multi-layered textuality to tens of thousands of his fans.
Then again, with all those tens of thousands of fans reading his articles while I can hardly get my parents to read mine, Bhagat must be doing something right – maybe the flow of advice should be the other way around! Nonetheless, the importance of Chetan Bhagat is that has got people talking, perhaps even thinking, about an issue; he has articulated the first stage of a conversation that can be carried on in thousands of offices and homes across India. Bhagat does not pretend to be a Yeats or a Goethe, and we should not falsely make him out to be one so that we could then disparage him rather than address his hypothesis.
As for those criticising Bhagat because they do not like his political views, ignore them – it is unbecoming to dignify ideology masquerading as argument with a response.