Haarmoanal. Jugado. KLPD’ed. Ever wondered how these nonsensical colloquialisms by authors like Chetan Bhagat and Ravinder Singh have cast a spell on the smartphone generation? Anjali Doshi is just as intrigued.
The creative process of artists, writers especially, has long fascinated me.
When do they work and where do they prefer to sit (or stand, as Ernest Hemingway did)? Must they have a particular setting? (Somerset Maugham could write only when facing a blank wall.) Do they follow any specific rituals? (Benjamin Franklin spent hours every morning lounging around naked.) Do they always start at the beginning? (William Godwin wrote Caleb Williams backwards.) And do they labour over every word or, maddeningly, does their genius simply allow them to dash out syntactically perfect sentences? “At the beginning, when I was learning my craft, I wrote jubilantly, almost irresponsibly,” says Márquez while discussing his craft in The Fragrance of Guava: Conversations with Gabriel García Márquez.
“I remember, in those days, I could easily write four, five, even ten pages of a book after I’d finished work on the newspaper around two or three in the morning […] Now I’m lucky if I write a good paragraph in a whole day. With the passage of time the act of writing has become very painful,” he tells Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza, a journalist and, like Márquez, a writer of Colombian origin, in this limited edition, 126-page book—among my most precious possessions.
Márquez reveals it sometimes takes him longer to write the first sentence of a book than the rest of it, and he spends years, occasionally decades, in thought before he begins to write; he waited 30 years to write the 122- page Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Closer to home, Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid has spoken of why it takes him several years to write 250 pages. He goes through as many as six or seven drafts, and the story may change completely from his initial conception. Sometimes he gets stuck, for months— maybe even years. And he has to work really hard to get unstuck.
Shortly before the release of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), Hamid found himself on a panel alongside Chetan Bhagat during a literary festival in Mumbai. The writers had been invited to discuss contemporary fiction in India and Pakistan. All was going well until a young lady in the audience asked Bhagat:
“How do you feel about murdering the English language?”
Bhagat’s calm voice followed the collective gasp that filled Mehboob Studios:
“I don’t write my books for people like you.”
Of course, comparisons between literary and popular fiction, and zealous practitioners of those respective faiths, are facile. But it is no coincidence that the Indian writer alongside Hamid that day was not Amitav Ghosh, Jeet Thayil, Aravind Adiga, Jhumpa Lahiri or Kiran Desai; it was Chetan Bhagat.
An IIM Ahmedabad graduate and author by chance, Bhagat is the self-proclaimed leader of a pack of new-generation Indian writers. Furiously penning bestseller after hackneyed bestseller for the domestic market in Indian English (Hinglish), he doesn’t see what the fuss is about when it comes to so-called literary fiction.
Author of five bestsellers between 2004 and 2009, Bhagat is evidently comfortable with not separating—as Hamid puts it— “the glory of writing from the economics of writing”. He holds no Booker aspirations, has little interest in a global audience and no inclination towards spending hours—let alone days, months or years—polishing his work or writing memorable sentences that will live with his readers long after they first read them. When The Guardian called him the “paperback king of India”, they were not necessarily paying him a compliment.
“Good grammar doesn’t make you a good writer,” says Bhagat. “A good heart does. Else English teachers would be writing bestsellers.”
And yet he has spawned a significant trend: Amish Tripathi, Ashwin Sanghi, Anuja Chauhan, Ravinder Singh, Sachin Garg and Durjoy Datta—all accidental authors with degrees in business or management, no literary pedigree and several bestsellers to their name written in an idiom that India’s call centre and smartphone generation can comfortably relate to.
These bestsellers are littered with expressions like “haarmoanal”, “jugado” “KLPD’ed”, and sentences like “As his lean fingers gripped mine, an insane little voice in my head instantly started warbling, ‘Yeh toh bada toinnngg hai . . .’”
And these are the novelists India is reading today.
But you can hardly blame them for their faint regard and complete disdain for linguistic expression and the creative process. After all, why would there be any time for frivolities such as writer’s block, emotive language, character development or narrative structure when you’ve spent years obsessing over balance sheets, returns on investment and integrated marketing?
The outcome? A mercenary approach to writing, in which quantity supersedes quality, the author is as involved in promoting his product as he is in penning it and commercial success is more desirable than critical acclaim.
In an interview with Rediff.com, Bhagat—often chastised by critics for his poor language—says: “Perhaps I should put a warning on my books . . .
Do not expect super eloquence or something like that.”
In fact, he does precisely this in his 2005 bestseller, One Night @ The Call Centre, where Shyam, the story’s narrator, begins with a disclaimer: “My English is not that great . . .
So, if you are looking for something posh and highbrow, then I’d suggest you read another book which has big many-syllable words . . .
I told the author about my limited English. However, the pain-in-the-neck author said big emotions do not come from big words. So, I had no choice but to do the job. I hate authors.”
Fine. So now that Bhagat (or his narrator) has set the bar low and curled his lip at “writer types”, one might expect “big” emotions and a “big” story. However, like all of Bhagat’s five bestsellers, One Night @ The Call Centre is a simplistic narrative with a wafer-thin plot, weak character sketches and xenophobic rants.
Perhaps, though, that misses the point. Because, through Bhagat, the language of India’s campus life and city streets has made it to the fiction consumed by the country’s educated middle class: a hotchpotch of colonial English, Hindi, urban slang and the sing-song cadence so unique to the Indian tongue, in stories about online romances, modern retellings of Hindu epics and that classic Indian phenomenon— “love-cum-arranged” marriages.
Expressions such as “shoni moni”, “timepass”, “arre” and “we are like this only”
are commonplace and litter not just the dialogue, but the narrative voice itself. Like this bit from Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora (2010):
“There wasn’t a choon or a chaan from the crowd.
They were quiet.” Or this from Datta’s Hold My Hand (2013): “He gave her his number, and you know, he’s kind of charming and chivalrous in a way that only uniformed men can be, so mom fell for dad who had already imagined having kids (Yay! Me!) with her.”
Or this exchange between the protagonists of the 2011 bestseller, Can Love Happen Twice?, by Ravinder Singh, who fuses a generous smattering of Hindi with the vowelless, alphanumeric lingo of instant messaging in his novels:
“You actually want to play kya?”
I loved her style of ending sentences with Hindi words. “Hanji,” I wrote back complementing her Hindi. Her reply was prompt, “Bt I ws about 2 sleep’
Hold My Hand and Can Love Happen Twice? are published by Penguin Books India’s im- print Metro Reads, set up about eight years ago when the publishing house recognised the need to provide “books that don’t weigh readers down with complicated stories” and “don’t ask for much time”.
The new idiom that routinely features in these stories began with Shobhaa Dé’s Stardust column in the Seventies and Eighties, and was first popularised in Indian fiction by Bhagat’s Five Point Someone (2004), a story about three friends at IIT that was adapted into Rajkumar Hirani’s Bollywood blockbuster 3 Idiots. Increasingly, it is the only form of English millions in India relate to, especially first-generation English speakers.
Of 20,000 English titles published in the country every year, books by these writers are often small town India’s first acquaintance with an English novel as they make the leap from school textbooks to fiction. Not for this India the measured prose of Jhumpa Lahiri, the poignant lyricism of Rohinton Mistry or the masterful cadences of Salman Rushdie. But commissioning editors in India are not complaining.
“There is no such thing as bad or good language,”
says an editor who has worked with the country’s leading publishing houses. “That’s just the so-called intellectual elite talking. As a literary form, the Indian novel in English is still very young: just 35–40 years old. You have to give Chetan [Bhagat] and the others credit where it’s due because nobody can sell a bad book.”
Of course, “bad” is a relative term. And in a booming book market which is being gleefully exploited by Indian and foreign publishers, critics can be forgiven for thinking this is not an exciting time to be a literary fiction writer.
Priced between Rs 70 and 200, and sold at roadside stalls and traffic lights, these breezy 200-page reads are not just indicative of the subcontinent’s growing influence on the English lexicon but, worryingly, of Indian fiction’s wholesale U-turn.
This was certainly not the case in the Eighties and Nineties when most publishers in India were in search of the next Booker after the literary success of Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Amitav Ghosh, Rohinton Mistry, Jhumpa Lahiri, Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy.
In 1981, Rushdie was credited with “re-drawing the literary map of India” when Midnight’s Children earned international recognition as “one of the most important books to come out of the English-speaking world in this generation”.
English became a tool in Rushdie’s hands, a device to subvert colonialism, as he so ingeniously displayed in the story of Saleem Sinai, born at the stroke of midnight, at the precise instant of India’s arrival at independence, when “clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting as I came”. It was the coming of age of the Indian novel in English as a young nation found its voice through a protagonist “mysteriously handcuffed to history” and Rushdie’s “chutnification” of English.
In the introduction to the silver anniversary edition of Midnight’s Children, released in 2006, Rushdie writes: “I have probably said enough, too, about my interest in creating a literary idiolect that allowed the rhythms and thought patterns of Indian languages to blend with the idiosyncrasies of ‘Hinglish’ and ‘Bambaiyya’, the polyglot street-slang of Bombay.” The language divide has never been greater between diasporic Indian authors writing literary novels and those at home churning out popular fiction. Stories by Rushdie, Seth, Chandra, Ghosh, Desai, even Lahiri, are not what most young Indians—especially first- generation English readers from small town India—relate to, even if the authors have “drunk deeply from the well of India”. Instead, Indian readers were literally queuing up for the final instalment of Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy, The Secret of the Nagas. “Fortunately for me, there weren’t as many people who were not [sic] passionate about the language as they were about the story and the philosophy,” says Tripathi in an online interview. Double negatives aside, the gripe most critics have with writers like Tripathi, Bhagat and the rest of the clan is not their all-too-convenient use of colloquial idiom, but of writing that is often lazy and shallow.
At a time when art and culture in India have prostrated themselves to the demands of crass commercialism and Bollywoodisation, it is all about which side of the Salman divide you find yourself on: Rushdie or Khan. As one of Datta’s characters says in Hold My Hand: “This is INSANE . . . EPIC INSANE.”
Anjali Doshi won the Ramnath Goenka Journalist of the Year Award for broadcast sports in 2012. Former cricket editor with NDTV, she now writes on cricket, travel and social trends. She is deputy editor of The Indian Quarterly (IQ). Her twitter handle is @anjaliadoshi.