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'I could be working in a call centre'

By Lindsay Pereira
Last updated on: February 08, 2006 15:59 IST
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Chetan Bhagat comes across as the kind of guy you wouldn't mind hanging out with. He seems easy-going, responds to questions in a down-to-earth manner, and isn't afraid of being honest when it comes to analysing his own worth as a writer.

Interestingly, it wasn't his writing that drew Senior Features Editor Lindsay Pereira to him. It was the reaction to the writing.

What Bhagat had managed, within two short years, was to top the Indian bestseller list for fiction. Twice. There was Five Point Someone in May 2004, followed by One Night @ the Call Center in 2005. To say that both did extremely well would be an understatement. Readers clearly loved the novels. What grabbed Lindsay was the way critics dealt with that success. They all agreed Bhagat could hold a story, but there were all kinds of questions raised regarding the literary and non-literary aspects, theories about why such seemingly simplistic works had touched some chord, and how the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon had come into being in the first place.

Through it all, the author calmly went about his business as an investment banker in Hong Kong, appearing only to do a few interviews and, it would appear, collect his rather hefty earnings from book sales.

As Lindsay points out, Bhagat's writing is all about offering inside views, via plots intricately tied to the novels' settings. The stories move quickly, the dialogue never stepping out of the colloquial. His debut, Five Point Someone, was about three friends unable to cope with their lives at an Indian Institute of Technology. As for One Night @ the Call Center, it is rather self-explanatory. Both novels have smaller tales strewn liberally about, which, Lindsay imagines, contributes towards making them such quick, easy reads.

Bhagat's first novel won him a Society Young Achiever's award in 2004 and a Publisher's Recognition Award in 2005. His latest has also begun life well, continuing to sell even as you read this. When speaking of the genre it ought to be slotted into, the author says it is "in the humour category, with dark undertones. Like the previous book, this one has a fast-paced, thriller feel to it." Apparently, research for One Night… involved a network of call centre agents. There were stealth visits to call centres at night, and Bhagat was supposedly "whisked in and hidden behind desks" in his attempt to understand that life as much as possible. This excerpt should give you an idea.

If Bhagat were to ever attempt an autobiography, Lindsay suspects it would read much like his novels, considering the interesting twists and turns his life has taken since a childhood spent in Delhi. After attending Army Public School, he graduated from IIT Delhi in 1995. An MBA from IIM Ahmedabad came next, followed by a job with an American investment bank, which he continues to hold.

Bhagat is married, with year-old twin boys. He likes yoga, once wanted to be a chef, is extremely fond of Govinda films and, according to a note on his web site, loves making friends. Armed with all that information, Lindsay decided to ask Bhagat about his writing. About what his idea of a good novel was, for instance, and what he would do if he were to spawn a generation of copycats in India.

The result, in Bhagat's words: "My most candid interview ever."

What made you consider writing fiction? Did you feel you had something specific to say, or was it just a love of writing that prompted the move?

I have always enjoyed entertaining people. Also, I feel strongly about a few things in society. Fiction allowed me to combine both in the form of a story with a message. I have always enjoyed writing, so I felt it was worth trying.

Both your novels have met with tremendous success. Did that come as a surprise the first time? Were you expecting One Night @ the Call Centre to be as successful as Five Point Someone?

Yes, the extent of Five Point Someone's success surprised me. This is because the book was rejected by so many publishers that my expectations had hit rock bottom. I just wanted to see it in print. For ON@TCC too, my expectations were modest. Matching the first novel's freakish success was not going to be easy. I was a lot more nervous before the second novel's release than I was at the first. However, I think I underestimated the loyalty and love of my readers. ON@TCC sold as much in three months as Five Point did in a year. And readers reacted by asking, 'What? You were worried?'

The setting is a key part of your work. How do you go about deciding what to weave a story around?

Setting is critical, as otherwise stories are just about people. But a key role of fiction is to transport the reader into a different world -- and the more interesting the setting, the better the reader experience. In my case, the problem is somewhat complicated as readers expect me to do a relatable setting as well. So, based on these two criteria and my own curiosity about the setting, I choose.

You maintain you have never set out to write a literary novel, but do you believe in that category at all? How would you categorise your kind of writing?

Of course I believe in the literary novel -- it is just that I have never aspired to be in that category of authors. For me, entertainment comes first. This is because what is entertaining travels far and wide, and thus, the message wrapped in the story travels wide. This means the story you created had a purpose, which is very satisfying for any author. Entertainment is a complex enough field if you try and understand it properly, so I get a lot of intellectual challenges from it as well.

What, according to you, makes a good novel?

There is no one answer, but I think that if a novel can transport its readers into a new setting, make the characters seem so real that you think you know them, and the story grips you such that you can't keep the book down, it is working well. Also, if the story can trigger three things in you -- past memories, imagination and emotions -- you have really got a good book in hand.

Who were the writers you turned to during your years studying management and banking? What is the kind of fiction you enjoy?

I read a wide variety of books, but my preference for contemporary and funny stories remains. In college, I went through an Ayn Rand phase (don't we all). I read Catch-22 several times, and it was a humbling experience each time. Among Indian authors, I read Rohinton Mistry.

In the past, you have spoken of the dark side to these call centres. Do they worry you, in terms of the sociological, physical or other damage they tend to have on their employees? Did you conduct any research on that aspect of the BPO industry, apart from the way it actually functions?

Yes, it worries me. While there are several issues related to call centres, my main concern is on one issue. Is the government creating the right kind of jobs that work our young people to the full potential? Call centres are becoming a mainstream solution now, so it is important to discuss it. I believe if the government really gets its act together on infrastructure, the young workforce will get better quality jobs that are more fulfilling and will make India move ahead.

I have a dream -- I want to see India as a developed country before I die. And, for India to achieve its full potential, people have to work to their full potential. If I see people at the top not doing their job, and the young generation losing an opportunity because of it, I am not going to stand for it. I am sick of my country getting the short end of the stick each time.

I would clarify that this obviously has nothing to do with people who work in BPOs. My cousins work there, and they are making the most of options available to them. If I wasn't lucky enough to clear a few entrance exams, I could possibly be working there too.

Is there anything about contemporary Indian fiction that excites you?

Well, the most exciting part is the potential size of the market. It really is infinite. Fiction in India has not really taken off as it could. A lot more growth is possible in the coming years.

What if you were to spawn a generation of copycat writers back home in India? How would you deal with that?

I would blush at the indirect compliment. Seriously, readers can tell when someone is original and when someone is not. And luckily, the concept of remixes has not really taken off in fiction.

Would you ever consider writing a novel about investment bankers?

Perhaps, but not while I am in the investment banking business. I write to escape from my daily life -- doing a novel on banking would be too much of the same thing. But yes, there are some funny, dark stories around here…

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Lindsay Pereira