I was talking at the Jaipur Literature Festival to Chetan Bhagat, the 34-year old Deutsche Bank executive who has become one of India’s best-selling authors by writing about modern India in an easy provocative style way that strikes a chord with young readers.
While we were chatting in a quiet corner of Jaipur’s Diggi Palace that Bhagat had discovered as a retreat from autograph-hunting schoolchildren, two young guys aged about 18 discovered us and asked him to sign copies of his three books. They were not new copies bought from the festival’s bookstore, but were well thumbed and had been passed round friends and families.
One of them, Priyansh Sharma, said he had read One Night @ The Call Center, Bhagat’s most famous book which has been turned into a film, 100 times. They both said their copies had been read by ten or more people.
Multiply that by the one million copies that Bhagat claims have been sold of his first book, Five Point Someone (written when he was 29), and the near one million claimed for both Call Center and his third book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life that was published last year and is also to be filmed, and you have an idea of his reach.
Some people in the book trade say his figures are exaggerated, but the popularity of this cheerfully unassuming and approachable writer among the young , in a country where half the population is below 25, is beyond doubt and was evident at Jaipur.
Attended by 10,000 or more people over five days, the festival (which ended on January 25) was open to anyone and has now become a significant event on the international literary calendar. It drew names such as the historian Simon Schama, editor and writer Tina Brown (who has just launched the Daily Beast news website), and Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who wrote the book Q&A that has become the award-winning and Oscar-nominated Slumdog Millionaire film.
Bhagat had never ventured into this literary world before because he did not expect that he or his books would be taken seriously. Namita Gokhale, an author and publisher who is one of the directors of the festival, persuaded him not to be so shy, and he amazed himself by drawing crowds that almost outdid those mobbing India’s top film actor, Amitabh Bachchan.
V.K.Karthika, the head of Harper Collins in India, told Bhagat that he had “created many more books”through his writings. “He has struck a chord,” she told me later. “People who were waiting and wondering whether to write have started to do so”.
But Bhagat wants to do more – not for the money because he earns well as a banker – but to change Indian society. He aims to make the young break free of traditional restraints, and to encourage them to widen their horizons.
He wants to move “beyond the 10% who get into ok colleges and the 2% who get into the best”, and appeal to the “aspirational values” of the rest who get into medium colleges or disappointing jobs. He says they find in his books “a world where people can do what they like”. He’s telling them “to question Indian norms” and “to make things change by standing up against parents and the bosses”.
He hasn’t thought this through fully yet, and he admits he is still in an “analysis mode” as to why he is having such appeal. “We have 75-year olds running the country – how do they know what 25-year olds want?”
But even though he aims to sir up his readers’ emotions, he makes sure all his books “have happy endings”. He can’t, he says, “make everyone successful”.
Bhagat wrote the first two books while working for Goldman Sachs bank in Hong Kong and the third in Mumbai, where he deals (topically) with distressed debt at Deutsche – Reserve Bank of India officials come seeking his autograph for their children when they visit on inspections.
The books sell in paperback for just Rs95 ($2), which is about a dollar or so below what one would expect. That partly explains the massive sales. Aravind Adiga’s Booker award-winning The White Tiger (also set around a call centre theme but too critical and less reader-friendly for many Indians), is Rs395 in hardback. It has sold something over 100,000 copies.
Bhagat has very long term dreams of emulating India’s best-selling author, the late Mahatma Gandhi, father of the country’s independence movement, because of his ability to generate change.
He says that over five million people read each of his books. “The day it gets to 50m, then you can make change happen,” he declares. “My ambitions are changing – I’ve had the thrill of best sellers – maybe it’ll be politics long term.