Poor Form

Chetan Bhagat, loathed and loved in equal measure, has now picked a fight with Narayana Murthy. Why his defence of poor English is spurious and self-serving.

October 7, 2011 11:56 am

Chetan Bhagat is at it again. This time he’s picked a fight with former Infosys chairman N. R. Narayana Murthy for saying “the quality of students entering IITs has gone lower and lower.” Bhagat, the self-appointed champion of all things IIT/IIM, immediately jumped in the fray and got very personal: “It is ironic when someone who runs a body shopping company and calls it hi-tech, makes sweeping comments on the quality of IIT students.”

But I suspect what really pissed him off was NRN’s less publicised comments about the average IIT-ian’s declining grasp of the English language.

The Infosys mentor also lamented the poor English speaking and social skills of a majority of IIT students, saying with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting students who speak the language well, gets more difficult. “An IITian has to be a global citizen and must understand where the globe is going,” he added

Let’s stipulate at the very outset that requiring high-level English language skills from, say, poor Bihari kids who make it to IIT is unfair. And let’s also grant NRN his underlying point: unfair or not, it is a requisite for achievement in the global economy.

But none of this applies to Mr. Bhagat who has made a bestselling virtue of bad English. Earlier this year, Bhagat tweeted [and then deleted] this little piece of literary wisdom: “Good grammar doesn’t make you a good writer. A good heart does. Else English teachers would be writing bestsellers.” It’s just the latest example of his elaborate disdain for anything that constitutes good English, which he is quick to underline given half a chance.

A column offering tips on how to learn English—in an English-language newspaper!—opens with this little gem: “Many Indians associate good English with a good vocabulary or eloquent language. This might be a result of our colonial roots, where the higher you were in societal stature, the more formal your language.”

And that, in essence, sums up Chetan Bhagat’s signature sleight of hand: anyone who preaches the virtues of good English—i.e. criticises mine—is an elitist little shit with a colonial hangover. Or as he put it plainly in yet another of his infamous tweets: “Many writers claiming to write for india sneer at indians who have poor english. Well 98% of indians have poor english.”

The “defender of the masses” schtick would be convincing except he isn’t part of that 98 percent. He’s received the best English-medium education this country has to offer: Army Public School, Delhi; IIT Delhi; and IIM Ahmedabad. And yet the man can’t string a decent sentence together. Either he had terrible English teachers or was just a lousy student. And neither is reason for pride.

To be fair, Bhagat is hardly the worst offender in failing upward as an author. That title surely belongs to his fellow IIM alum Rashmi Bansal whose Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish includes such giggle-inducing haiku: “Deep Kalra is your average Delhi Dude. Deep grew up in a typical private sector home; very comfortable.” She makes Bhagat look like Tolstoy.

But say one word against their English—or bemoan the fact that their readers are willing to lap it up without complaint—and you’re severely chastised as an upper-class twit who, in Bhagat’s words, “move(s) in circles where the common people and their tastes are looked down upon”. Yet just a generation ago, middle-class Indians could read, write and speak all their languages fluently, English included. The “class” argument hardly holds when your own parents are more literate than you. It’s not just that their kids are doing worse, but that they can’t even be bothered to try and do better.

More to the point, would this I’m-just-a-plebe defence work as well if Bhagat were writing in any other Indian language? Not quite. Poor grammar would instead be viewed as contemptuous toward both the language and the readers. Bhagat’s Hindi columns for the Dainik Bhaskar display all the characteristics he disdains in “good English”: good vocabulary, eloquent language, and yes, even a formal tone. So why the different standards for English? Because it isn’t “our” language? If so, why write in it at all?

Push Bhagat on his literary skills and he’ll say: “My English is not that great—actually, nothing about me is great. So, if you are looking for something posh and highbrow, then I’d suggest you read another book which has some big many-syllable words.” Like a Michael Crichton or Helen Fielding, perhaps. Why is bad English the proud marker of popular fiction in India when the rest of the world can churn out mass-market novels in decent prose?

NRN is right: there is a real problem when students of our nation’s top institutions have poor English language skills. But more so when this swarm of IIM/IIT alum authors are celebrated precisely for their linguistic shortcomings, which are touted as a badge of their aam aadmi credentials (never mind that the aam aadmi is rarely an IIT/IIM alum). Earlier this year, an Outlook magazine cover story titled “The Lo-Cal Literati” put it so:

It also helps that this new breed of “authors by chance,” as one of them describes himself, are “not burdened by the purity of language” or the literary style mainstream publishers demand of their writers. In fact, nearly all of them dismiss literary writers as either too Western, too long-winded, too disconnected with Real India, writing books that nobody wants to read any more, in a style that “stresses you out”, requiring a dictionary by your side as you read. By contrast, theirs is an Indian version of an English everyone is comfortable with, a dil ki bhasha (language of the heart) in contrast to a pet ki bhasha (language of commerce).

Sounds wonderfully idealistic except the scourge of bad English writing is all about the so-called pet ki bhasha, as Bhagat made clear to Tavleen Singh when she asked, “What if I said to you, ‘You write terrible books.’” His response: “That’s great! Please do, I’ll sell another 50,000 copies!” As Hartosh Singh Bal once said of Bhagat, “he matters precisely because he sells”.

Bhagat can make a virtue of his limitations only as long as they make a whole lot of money. Those lofty sales figures allow him to peddle his bog-standard English as a staunch commitment to anti-elitism. If his aam janta readers don’t demand better of him, no reason for him to do so either. No wonder he doesn’t have a problem with falling standards, be it in institutions or books. That’s his ideal India: mediocre, middlebrow and always mahaan.

This story by Lakshmi Chaudhry was originally published on Firstpost.com.