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 by

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.

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Comments (11)

  1. Ashwin |

    This is a well written expose. Each sentence and each paragraph has its place in the attack, leading to a cogent finish.

    Chetan Bhagat encapsulates India’s Achilles Heel – mediocrity. It is because of people like him that our power grids fail. It is because of imbeciles like him that our traffic clogs up like a hairy drain. It’s because of people like him, with their chaltha hai attitude, that literature has been nosediving over the past few years.

    While I can excoriate this chintzy phrase composer at length, I reserve my choicest words for his editor (if there is even one). Average writing is easy. Good writing is Olympic. And a good writer needs a great editor. Bhagat’s “works” (and I lump this in the Public Works type of works) are so slipshod and haphazard that even a budding editor (who has a good command over the English language) would have spotted the typos and grammatical mistakes. Either Chetan is a cheapskate and an egomaniac who thinks his editing is par excellence or he has a tailless Doberman for an editor!

    At the end of the day, market forces dictate such whims. In the US, Stephanie Meyer has taken a lot of heat for her Twilight series. ’50 shades of gray’ should have been a catchy Asian Paints ad, but no. It’s a lubricious work of fiction devoid of any respect for the language, story telling or sentence composition. Yet these authors are rich and rolling in the miasma of their works because average people exist everywhere. It’s just that in India there are a hundreds of millions of them.

  2. Agnibho Chakraborty |

    Excerpts of a letter I mailed to Bhagat-

    When I think of Chetan Bhagat I think of homogeneity, I think of Che-emblazoned coffee mugs, I think of denim..I think of glittering vampires….and I go sigh baba. You see when art becomes a product, a commodity, as it were, it ceases to retain its aesthetic texture. I am against all those who are in favour of hierarchies in culture. If indeed there is a binary, its between artistic produce and products of the culture industry. But then when people judge all cultural products in terms of sales and figures and absolutes, and when people can’t discern these products from art in the truest sense of the term it is indeed disconcerting. Must people always be lulled if not gulled by the promised land of simplicity. Whatever happened to de-familiarization. Does not the beauty of artistic produce lie in its layering? Does not the pleasure of reading lie in peeling off those layers bit by excruciating bit, in trying to make sense of it all as it unfolds, in the multiplicity of subjective readings and going beyond authorial omnipotence? Ideally literature, or for that matter, any form of art is about bringing the people into the process of interpretation. The discourse of simplicity certainly does get more buyers on board. “I’m not interested in serious literature” my sister says. The larger issue ofcourse is that she has been shooed away by the hegemonic discourse of its supposed impenetrability, its “acerbic” obscurity. When hegemony coincides with popularity, when value judgments are made on the basis of that popularity, when quantity fornicates with quality and artistic binaries are perpetuated by those posited in the lesser fold, when people’s choices are made for them, when art has a profit motive and is not autotelic, THAT is when thou step in to save us from the malice of elitist obscurity, Last time I checked David beat the stuffing out of Goliath.

  3. IIT is a joke |

    I have never heard of IIT before until some time last year when i got to know a new colleague from india. One day out of randomness i asked him which university was he from and he said IIT adding that it is “…one of the most premier universities in india”. Subsequently i did a check and found out that IIT has an extremely stringent entrance exam where only 1 in 35 candidates passes it to enter IIT. Also, another colleague (not indian or from IIT) mentioned that IIT is equivalent to MIT in india.

    Today, i feel that i am greatly misled. My colleague from IIT has shown to be highly lazy, thoroughly incompetent and does not demonstrate the quality of what a graduate from a “premier university” should possess. My belief now is that the high standards of IIT is perceived only in india. this is further confirmed when T.H.E released its world university rankings and IIT or any indian university is nowhere on the top 200 list losing out to countries like Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. The conclusion drawn here is that IIT may seem to recruit the elite brains of india but when compared globally to other countries, these so-called elites are simply mediocre and run-of-the-mill type. I can’t begin to fathom what a student from harvard or oxford would be if they sat for the IIT entrance exam!

    The link to the world ranking of universities is below:

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-2012/top-400.html

  4. KS |

    I agree completely with the article. Especially the Bansal’s horrendous English bit. Reading her book was like nails on a blackboard. Killed me bit by bit, and then I stopped reading it.

    If I were IIM-A, I’d take back their degrees! :)

    On a more serious note, most Indian authors however, have very good simple English. Rohinton Mistry, Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc. I think that’s what makes for a successful mass Indian author, not bad English (ugh!) or multi-syllable words.

  5. Marc |

    Very well written. But I wish no one wrote or interviewed or reviewed (and hence promoted) non-writers like Bhagat. India really needs to get past its mediocrity and find value in excellence. I mean it’s just hard to imagine Bhagat being a best-selling author – India is hilarious sometimes.

  6. Kanika |

    Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children captured more of India than all of Chetan Bhagat’s books put together. Rushdie, we know, is a very measured writer. He doesn’t waste words like Bhagat et al.

  7. rohini kumar |

    Experienced person like NRN may have set high standards for indians or IIT ians to achieve, the realty is not nearer to it. The language is for comunication as long as chetan able to achieve it who cares grammer.

  8. A bigger problem than bad english is the sheer number of IIT grads working at IT giants like Infosys in the fist place. If our country is going to get anywhere, we’re going to need more tech-talent in the start-up ecosystem. I believe its our risk averse culture that is hindering us, not our questionable grammar.

  9. Konfused |

    With all due respect, Mr. Bhagat wasn’t exactly ‘creating’ value in his banking days. This is cheap publicity and he seems to be working hard on his Pg 3 credentials.

    And Mr. Murthy surely knows what he is talking about – so pls shut up and pay attention!

  10. Aania |

    It seems to be a common trait of IIT/ IIM alumni turned authors. Atrocious language that I doubt even the “aam junta” uses. Chetan Bhagat is still among the better ones.

  11. Shawn Fernandes |

    I only just realised that MBA-turned-author Rashmi Bansal filched the titles of both her books from one Steve Job’s speech!

    A perfect example of how MBA’s suck out all creative thinking.

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