Thursday, September 04, 2008

Charming Chetan

Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat came for a book reading to Kochi recently. And the youthful audience enjoyed its interaction with the author

By Shevlin Sebastian

Best-selling author Chetan Bhagat, 34, gets a thousand e-mails a week. And he remembers a mail he got recently.

“Priyanka (name changed) told me her parents had divorced when she was six,” says Chetan. When she was in Class eight, she used to maintain a diary about her romantic crushes. One day when she went to school, somebody saw the diary and showed it to one of the boys she liked.

“Priyanka told me she felt so embarrassed she came home and burnt herself,” says Chetan. “Today, she is completely disfigured. She is 20 now and relates to men over the Internet, but does not tell them she is disfigured.”

Priyanka told Chetan she found solace in his books. “She likes the characters, because they are young and suffering like her,” he says. “She says nobody understands her. I want to give her time, but I get so many mails like this. I am helpless, and it drains me.”

Chetan meets and interacts with young people all the time. The biggest problem is that, despite the booming economy, there are not enough opportunities, especially for young people in small towns.

“They lack access to good colleges,” he says. “There is a lot of ambition, but I fear it will turn to frustration soon. These things are affecting me a lot.”

But at the Bay Pride Mall at Kochi on Sunday, where he had come for a reading, organised by DC Books, he smiles easily, which deepens his boyishness, and gives an impression of laid-back casualness: he is wearing a black T-shirt and track pants and carries a rucksack.

Following the reading, he has an interactive session. “The most common question I get from all over India is about the characters,” he says. “So many readers feel the characters are real people and are keen to find out what they are doing today. I am very happy about this. It means my stories have transcended fiction.”

The Mumbai-based Chetan has come with his family – wife Anusha and twins, Ishaan and Shyam – on their first visit to Kerala. And, like any first-time visitor, he has been enthralled by the natural beauty.

“The tag line, God Own’s Country, is not over-hyped at all,” he says. However, he feels, the state is under-marketed in another way. “I am staying at Fort Kochi, where there is so much of culture, history, and heritage. This is not being emphasised at all. Kerala is not only about the coconut trees and the backwaters.”

He also says the book market in Kerala is large. “There are a lot of readers here,” he says. “English is very prevalent. It is one of the bigger markets in south India. No author can ignore Kerala.”

His first book, ‘Five Point Someone,’ published by Rupa in 2004, had become an unexpected bestseller, thanks to word of mouth publicity. Thereafter, his next two novels, ‘One Night At The Call Center’ (2005) and ‘The Three Mistakes Of My Life’ (May, 2008) also became bestsellers.

“He is our company’s most successful author,” says Kapish Mehra, publisher of Rupa. “His first two books have sold over a million copies, while the third, Three Mistakes, has already notched up sales of half a million in just three and a half months. His stories have become a part of the lives of young people.”

Asked how his books do well, while so many others fall by the wayside, Chetan says, “My books have touched a chord with people.”

Says author Shinie Antony, who has edited all three of his novels: “Chetan is the voice of the youth: its pain and passion. In his latest book, ‘Three Mistakes’, he writes about cricket, religion and politics - a very brave move for any author. But what he has done with these subjects has been very moving. His USP is his language, which is as anti-literary as you can get.”

Agrees English language trainer, Lakshmi Mahajankatti: “Chetan’s plus points are the simple language that he uses and he writes about people that the students can identify with. Thanks to him, young people have started reading novels these days.”

As a result of his popularity, Chetan is now regarded as a youth icon, but he is uncomfortable with the tag. “Just because you have written three popular novels does not make you an icon,” he says. “So, I don’t take it seriously.”

But what he is taking seriously is the October 10 release of the movie, ‘Hello’, which stars Salman Khan and Amrita Arora, among others, and is based on ‘One Night At The Call Center’. “The promos will be starting soon, and I am hoping the film will do well,” says Chetan, who wrote the screenplay.

(Copyright: The New Indian Express,Kochi)

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