entertainment

Review: ‘One Indian Girl’: Chetan Bhagat Re-Plays Stereotypes, But Gives Little To Be Thankful For

Chetan Bhagat is a writer whose writing we may love or hate, but we can’t ignore. He’s always in the news, either for his tweets, or for his decision to judge dance shows or even for simply being there. In my teenage years, I never liked Chetan’s stuff, to be honest. Having been brought up on Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters in a typical urban Bengali household, I never took a liking to the simplistic writing Chetan Bhagat stood for. His language was less literary and more colloquial. But, then he did achieve something many other writers couldn’t – he reached out to the massy Indian boy/girl who didn’t speak much sophisticated English but were always waiting for a writer who could tell them a simple story their way.

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I hate to admit it, but apart from Half Girlfriend, I have read all of Bhagat’s books. The premise of the books were simple and the story was predictable, but I still read him, because who doesn’t like a light read on a lazy Saturday night?

But, when Bhagat announced his new book, which he called his most ambitious project till date, titled, ‘One Indian Girl’, I was a bit taken aback. For the first time, he had made a female the protagonist of his book, and he was going to be writing in a female voice. I became sceptical of his approach because I know that writing as a woman won’t be easy. Especially if you’re trying to be a woman in modern day India, facing the brunt of the patriarchal society. The book released two days before my birthday, another reason for me to flinch. But I bought it, and went through it. And guess what? Like always, Chetan Bhagat chose to play safe. Youngsters with an elite education, with jobs in fancy companies’ are Bhagat’s forte, given his background of an IIT Delhi and IIM Ahmedabad education.

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Take a look at his previous work – Two States : IIM A Grads, working in Unilever and CitiBank, with just one worry in their life – getting married to someone of a different state. Five Point Someone : Three IIT grads, with an impossible task of getting a decent GPA and graduating. Revolution 2020 too had its brush with the IIT exam, with one of the characters getting into IIT and the other protagonist getting mired in corruption just so that he can earn more money and win the girl over from the uber-bright engineer.

Bhagat loves to play safe, and he has been doing so for a long time now. I thought things will change with One Indian Girl. I guess the target crowd of this book are modern, working Indian women, who have to face flak from the society for every step they take. When they are overtly ambitious, they are considered sluts, and are denied their right to have a family. I agree these are problems being faced by many Indian girls nowadays. But, is the magnitude same for every woman?

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Lets fast forward into the review now. Radhika Mehta, a young girl from Delhi, cracks the CAT, enters IIM Ahmedabad, lands her dream job at Goldman Sachs in New York. When she informs her typical Punjabi mother about her job, her mother’s instantaneous reaction is, ‘You’re so successful. Now, who will marry you?’

There are instances of Radhika’s messy love life, of men she loves but turn out to be hypocrites. Her success is her biggest bane, primarily because it turns men off. She’s always wanted to be loved for who she is, but doesn’t get that either from her parents or from her siblings or her lovers. To be honest, I connected. I know what it means to be an ambitious woman, someone who speaks her mind, has a good education, does a good job. I know what it takes to stand up in front of elders and let your opinion be known to them, risking your image of a ‘good, sanskaari Indian girl’.

And yes, the struggles Bhagat has enumerated for Radhika are very much there. But, how many women make it to IIM Ahmedabad and Bangalore every year and end up with a supremely high-paying job at one of the top investment banks in the world? Radhika is stuck in  ‘man’s job’ yes, where she has to be cold-hearted and calculative, helping Goldman close down on impossible deals. But, apart from investment banking, there are more such professions where women are finally making a mark. I had expected this story to be about a young girl in a city like Delhi or Mumbai, who landed a job from a small city, came to understand what is economic liberation, and then went through the entire ordeal of patriarchal bullshit most working women have to go through in India, where we are still seen as women who should sit at home after marriage. Because, who will take care of the kids?

I don’t know, is this the ‘Pink’ effect speaking? I am not saying the book is very bad, in fact, Bhagat writes better in the voice of a woman than a man. I think he has finally found his voice. But, he is yet to make more sense of a woman’s various emotions, and when one reads a ‘novel’, one expects to find a character who defies all odds, and doesn’t consider herself a failure at not being able to comply to patriarchy. Radhika Mehta is every working woman’s dream – she earns her own money, does well at her job. Yet, she feels lonely, she feels the need for a man to hold her and make her feel secure, she wants to get waxed to go on a date, she wants to seem less ‘nerdy’. Sounds more like a potential film script rather than an actual novel, that could have helped break so many stereotypes for women had this book been written otherwise. Even Elizabeth Bennett had more courage in the 17th century than this girl, who seemingly seems to supress her ‘inner-me’ to conform to societal regulations.

I waited and waited to reach one point in the book where I would applaud Radhika for being different – alas, didn’t get any such moment. Yes, there were instances when I connected with her, for example her pain when her first boyfriend Debu unceremoniously dumped her, or when she fell dangerously into love with a married man, and later wanted her right as a wife but was denied that.

Ambitious working women in relationships, especially those who care a good deal about what project they have to finish next morning instead of how to make a bowl of raita, are always in fear that their guy may assume that this relationship is meant to be just a sexual one, not a real one, that might culminate into something permanent. After all, these women can’t take care of the house, they are the ones who want to go out and do a ‘man’s job’. If they earn more than the man, then when the question comes as to who will take care of the house, then the lesser earning man will have to sit at home instead of the woman. Well, hello boys, but here’s a little tid-bit for you : Both of us have to take care of the home, not just the girl, even if you have grown up seeing your mom take care of the kids and not your dad. Grow up.

It’s a tragedy that women who date are assumed to be sexually promiscuous and unaccustomed to love. We women are tired of being stereotyped and our choices dictated to us. But Bhagat could have done this much better, and with a little less gloss of Manhattan’s skylines and Hong Kong’s IKEA stores. To be honest, most of us Indian women have not been to New York, nor do we have the money to shop from an IKEA.  We are women who head to Sarojini or Janpath to buy that Rs. 200 kurta, because it’s pretty and doesn’t cost us a bomb. We are those women who commute by the Mumbai local to work, because taking a Uber isn’t in line with our budget plans. We are those women who count every penny of what we earn and save it aside because we don’t want to be dependent on a man for money, be it our fathers or our boyfriends.

That’s who we are Mr. Bhagat. I do appreciate your attempt at trying to make sense of an Indian woman’s life, but there is still a long way to go before you can break out of your mould of creating that perfect film ‘script’ that looks and feels like a fairytale, and give women that novel that will change India and Indian’s perceptions about women and their choices.

 

Indian education

Dear Mr. Chetan Bhagat, At Least Read The Newspaper Before Cracking A Joke!

Dear Chetan Bhagat,

I was leading a normal life on Friday, when I suddenly chanced upon your tweet on Historians.

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And then, the tweet after that.

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A believer in free speech, I won’t say I would like you to take off your tweet. I don’t even want to get into your opinion on other things in general like intelligentsia returning their awards, nor will I comment on your ‘political affiliation’. You already must have faced flak for such a thoughtless statement and I would like to tell you that your statement comes at a time when History and Historians are being targeted the most in India. Join the brigade, maybe?

As an ardent reader, I have somehow not strayed away from reading your work. While I realise that your educational background is from an elite engineering college, where admission is difficult and close to impossible, I would also like to tell you that the tweet that you tweeted is something I have heard from many other students of that institution before. So, as I basically understand, the feeling of considering the humanities and social sciences ‘useless’ is pretty much an institutional issue.

Now, I do know that the IITs have been trying to inculcate ‘holistic’ knowledge of the social sciences in their institutions through the study of humanities. Many students huff and puff and prance and go to study Humanities courses at IIT. Now, let me point out which humanities courses are taught at your IIT- i.e, IIT Delhi. Economics, Linguistics, Philosophy, Sociology, Policy, Psychology, Literature and some multidisciplinary courses that include Communication skills, Art and Technology, Social Science Approach to Development. I can see that History isn’t a part of the Department courses, forget even being offered as a course within the Multidisciplinary ones.

So, I think, I am not surprised at your little and petty understanding of the discipline, and why historians can’t take a ‘joke’ right now in this country, like the “holy cow”. In fact, while I was in college, I was told by some very distinguished students of that very institution you studied in, “what’s the point of reading History in college? Anyone can do that. You can read those same history books in your pastime and know as much as any history student!”

Image source: The Week.in
Image source: The Week.in

But what I am worried about, is the implication of your tweet. Because there are people who read and worship and follow Chetan Bhagat and now all they need is your tweet to brandish in people’s faces that History or the study of it, isn’t needed.

Do you know Mr. Bhagat, that for the past one year, Historians are being targeted for the same thing you have said? – What do they really do? Some of them have been asked to rewrite a Hindu version of history, after all, what’s the point of reading the same history again and again and again? Right?

The advisory council of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) was disbanded this year in March, because these very historians were responsible for ‘reviewing’ the articles that will appear in the IHR journal. Some of these historians were, namely, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Muzaffar Alam, JS Grewal, Richard M Eaton, Satish Chandra, to name a few. Now, why would anyone bother about this? After all, these are the same people, who are wasting Government money to research on something that is constant across time and space- history. What is new to dig up in it?

Added to this, the new Chairman of the ICHR is now Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, who holds the view that Indian intellectual, spiritual and scholastic achievements have no parallel. I am wondering, Mr. Bhagat, how you will react if one day your sons come home and claim that the Taj Mahal is actually a Vedic temple? After all, that’s what’s written in their textbooks, isn’t it? And don’t worry, we already have people in this country claiming so.

Soon, our Vedas will be considered the most important and ‘oldest’ text in the History of mankind. Manusmriti might just come back into vogue! I hope you are aware of the things the Manusmriti states? According to the Manusmriti, as a woman, I shouldn’t even be countering you right now, because that is not what I am supposed to do!

I am surprised that a man as “learned” as you, after studying at two of the most elite institutions in the country, could not even understand the political scenario of the nation, before making a tweet in “good humour”? I think you are the same learned person who wrote a book called, ‘What young India wants’? Do you really feel, Mr. Bhagat, that ‘Young’ India doesn’t need historians? Or do you feel that those currently in the profession aren’t really needed in the country?

Let me enrich you with information on another incident. Recently, actually this week itself, Prof. Romila Thapar was at KC College, Mumbai to deliver a lecture on secularism. A police van had to stand vigil outside the college to “provide protection in case there was any problem.” As a writer who is quite vocal about his views, do you feel that a historian, however useless she may be, needs police vigil to be protected for talking about secularism?

Your tweet isn’t just a joke in good humour. In the larger paradigm, your statement is taken seriously by a lot of people. It is unfortunate that as a public figure, you couldn’t keep in mind a simple, rational fact that people, who are right now agitated at even the mention of ‘objective’ history will simply use your tweet as a starting point to agitate even more against those who are the only people in the country right now there to save your future from being re-told in a format suitable only for the current political opinion.

As a responsible citizen, and unfortunately, a historian, I must say, today, I am ashamed that the IITs couldn’t create conscientious thinkers. Because not only does their institution not teach one of the most important disciplines of the social sciences, but its students are also passing statements on the non-necessity of free speech and debate, and opinionated thinking. I wonder whether you are planning to write a book on a historical event in the future? Please don’t let your tweet be the deciding factor for you to pick up your pen and pen down history. We have too many unnecessary people wanting to do that already.

Regards,
A Very, Very, Not-So-Angry, And Not-So-Surprised Historian.