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Does Chetan Bhagat’s writing work as textbook material?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-04-2017 Rajyasree Sen

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

One of the tritest forms of writing is to begin with a quote. But in light of the Delhi University’s recent syllabus decisions, and twists and turns in Chetan Bhagat’s fortunes, Dickens seems apt. The lines above are from A Tale Of Two Cities. We studied the text in school, way back in the day. It’s good literature. The language is beautiful, the word play, inspiring, the storyline and characters, gripping (we all wanted a Charles Darnay in our lives) . It is clearly literature.

Delhi University’s definition is a lot more catholic.

It has announced that Chetan Bhagat’s book, Five Point Someone will be part of the popular fiction syllabus of the general elective course offered to second-year undergraduate students studying either Honours or programme courses under the Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS). The paper is not going to be offered to BA English Honours students.

Therefore, this will be a Commerce or Science or History student’s introduction to popular fiction in English literature. Bhagat’s book will be sharing space with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. To be fair, apart from Little Women, none of the other books can be considered high literature.

Close on the heels of this news comes reports of Bhagat being accused of plagiarism by writer, Anvita Bajpai. Bajpai claims that Bhagat’s One Indian Girl was a copy of her short story, Drawing Parallels from her book, Life, Odds & Ends. Following Bajpai’s lawsuit, a civil court has passed an injunction stopping sales of One Indian Girl temporarily. Bhagat has said that Bajpai’s claims are false “I write universal stories about everyday issues,” he added. The two sides and the courts will figure that one out.

Truly, it’s been the best and worst of times for Bhagat.

I do believe that Bhagat getting any hate for being included in the DU syllabus is ridiculous. After all, it’s not his decision. It is DU’s decision.

Bhagat is the biggest selling Indian author writing in English in the country. That one has to preface “writing in English” with “Indian” is itself telling. Bhagat’s books are indeed popular. I have seen him mobbed by droves of students at the Jaipur Literature Fest many years ago. His books get made into Hindi films starring popular stars and he is a social-economic-political commentator in the media. But does this mean his books are worthy of being studied and taught as higher education?

What of students who will now have to read his book as the only English book written by an Indian author in the Popular Fiction course?

My bone of contention with Bhagat’s book’s inclusion is simple. Is this the best English popular fiction coming out of India? Or are merely the sales figures of his book, the determinant of whether or not his book should be included? It was made into a film starring Aamir Khan, but I’m hoping that’s not what makes the DU English Department lean towards choosing texts. But who knows. This has nothing to do with elitism or communalism, but everything to do with quality. I mention elitism because Bhagat tweeted, “Elitistaan theories trying to diss me and literary value of my books have failed miserably with DU adding my books to their course. Sorry.”

“To me, good literature is writing that actually touches people, whether in the past or now. It isn’t something an elitist club decides…I wrote a book. Many say it changed the Indian literary landscape. But elitists have a problem and label it communal”.

Where did communal even come into it?

I don’t think much of the character development and sentence construction in Bhagat’s books. The fact that tomorrow’s adults and potential authors will view Five Point Someone as a reference text for good writing, is worrying to me. But that’s just me.

Bhagat’s inclusion would have also made sense—or at least been palatable—if other Indian authors had also been included. But to pick him as the only contemporary Indian author worth studying is bizarre. If he was being taught alongside Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, Anuja Chauhan’s Those Pricey Thakur Girls, there’d be some method to the madness.

That it is madness is also evident by reports that say the DU English syllabus may soon include Facebook post writing as a course on “academic writing”. A core committee for the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) has recommended this! According to the reports, “the department has sent a proposal detailing the recommendations to all the colleges teaching the honors course in literature studies and has sought feedback”. A senior official has been quoted as saying, “Writing does not necessarily mean writing heavyweight non-fiction books or highly dramatised fiction. It also includes writing generic but important content properly such as that for blog posts, cover letters or for that matter Facebook posts. The proposed components will be part of the Skill Enhancement Courses (SEC)”. And so, young adults will spend hours learning how to write social media posts in an institution of higher learning. And here I thought we go to college to widen our horizons and tax our brains. Silly me.

If you ask me, this is how the breakdown of civilisation takes place. One badly constructed sentence at a time.

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