26 May 2008

Book review: Three Mistakes Of My Life

Author: Chetan Bhagat
Price: Rs 95
Publishers: Rupa
Published in 2008

The best selling feature of a Chetan Bhagat book is its readability. In a world where one is constantly striving to find time, it truly matters when you can actually finish reading a book within a couple of hours. Also, when he isn't getting too filmy and over-the-top, Chetan actually manages to hold a story well enough. That was evident with both Five Point Someone and One Night At A Call Centre. The former especially works as an excellent satire on the education system I thought.

Chetan's third book, the just-launched Three Mistakes Of My Life starts off in the same effective manner as his earlier two books, but unlike the other two, this one starts to appear too far-fetched towards the middle and then just irrevocably falls apart in the end.

The story recounts the life of three youths, Omi, Ishaan and Govind trying to make a life staying in small-town Gujarat. Given Govind's business acumen and Ishaan's love for cricket, the youngsters decide to open a shop that sells cricket goods. Omi's family helps them to get a rented place outside a temple, and soon enough the place is a hit with the locals. Chetan's biggest strength as a writer is his ability to create interesting settings and situations.

Moving on, Ishan takes a great liking to one of the local Muslim boys, Ali with a magical ability to smash the ball for a six each time. Living with the regret of making it himself, Ishan decides to train the 12-year old. Strangely, the lad himself is least interested in cricket but Ishan and his friends take it upon themselves to not only train him for free, but even endure great pains to take him all the way to Sydney at the suggestion of one of the Australian players. There, Ali is offered a contract on the condition that he become an Australian national only to have the 12-year-old spout dramatic lines such as, 'Does that mean I cannot play for India?! Then I don't want it!' and walk away.

This is where the novel begins to disintegrate and goes on to become embarrasingly over-the-top and melodramatic. As long as the author only incorporates the Gujarat earthquake and how it brings down the hopes of one of the novel's lead character, Govind -- Chetan's attempt at infusing a natural disaster with the personal is acceptable. But it's hardly likely that both the Godhra episode and the following riots would again have a direct bearing on these very characters.

The last few chapters especially go out of hand. One knows Chetan's a big fan of Bollywood and believes that much like a Hindi film that must have action in the end, a novel too must have its share of blood and gore to make it wholesome enough. First of all, Bollywood itself is moving away from formulaic fares so Chetan's jumped in a bit late here. Secondly, there is no emotional resonance or reasoning to any of the violence that takes place in the temple, with the Hindus trying to attack Ali with Ishan and others trying to save him.
It's never clear why these youths are fussing over Ali so much. There's only one explanation given - that he's gifted. Why would anyone in their right mind take him all the way to Australia or give up their life (yes, one of the youngsters dies trying to protect the boy!) to preserve his talent. None of their sympathies for him are based on the fact that he's a Muslim, nor do they save him out of any moral obligation apart from the fact that he is a potential cricketing great! Chetan's intentions are honourable but his notions of nationalism and patriotism are just too naive and simplistic.

In between, there's a love story thrown in between Govind and Ishan's sister, only to have Omi spout cheesy lines like, 'You can't hit on your friend's sister, that's an unwritten rule' etc.

Honesty, I wanted to like this book. It begins well, it’s setting is nice and it truly attempts to give the reader a slice of small-town India. Too bad, the book goes nowhere with it.

-Sandhya Iyer

Interview with Chetan Bhagat

“I can’t say much about Salman Rushdie, I'm more like Salman Khan," quips Chetan Bhagat, who was at Big Bazaar yesterday for the launch of his third book, Three Mistakes Of My Life.

The author’s earlier books,--- Five Point Someone and One Night At the Call Centre--have both been record best-sellers, making him a cult figure of sorts among youngsters. The critics of course haven’t warmed up to him calling his writing everything from 'fluke' to 'naive'. But Chetan couldn't care less. He says, "I want my books to reach anyone who has a moderate understanding of English. Even Hindi medium students can grasp the language in my books."

More importantly, the author is determined to pull down Indian writing in English from its high horse --one that he says reeks of elitism, he says-- and make it relatable to the educated middle-class. Which is one of the reasons Chetan decided to hold his book launch at a place like Big Bazaar, he tells us. "I could have done this event in any five-star hotel but really, that is not what I'm looking at. When my friends heard, I was releasing my book at Big Bazaar, they wondered if I was mad. But this is the real India, so why shouldn't I do it here?"

The unwillingness to accept Chetan into the literary fold also stems from the fact that Indian writing in English has always been very ‘concentrated’ in more ways than one. This is quite unlike, say America where all kinds of fiction –whether for mass consumption or otherwise find a place. In that sense, the Indian literary scene is more of a snoot club, he feels. “You know, the interesting thing is that they don’t know how to deal with me. I’ve studied at elitist institutions like IIT and IIM, so in a way, they know I have all the credentials to boast. Honestly, I find their snootiness sick. For some people, the British never left and nor did colonialism,” he says spewing venom at his detractors.

In one final assault, he says about Indian writers in English “I think we wasted 30-40 years…just chasing awards. That's the truth but when Chetan says it he gets slammed for it. These writers only target the West…they have no interest in appealing to the Indian audiences.”
Finally, about his just-released book, Three Mistakes Of My Life –the story does appear to go a bit over-the-top but Chetan says he didn’t want it any other way. “Firstly, I’m not a perfectionist. Secondly, I needed a dramatic ending. I cannot create a lame narrative when I’m taking about events in Gujarat. It’s over-the-top because the events themselves were over-the-top,” he says emphatically.

Given the growing appeal of his books among youngsters, Bollywood is taking to Chetan like never before. While his One Night At A Call Centre is being adapted into a film called Hello directed by Atul Agnihotri, his Five Point Someone is being made into an Aamir Khan starrer, Idiots, which is to be directed by Raju Hirani and produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
Says Chetan, "Raju (Hirani) was my first introduction to Bollywood. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn't have made any inroads here. He had read my first book and had loved it. When I met him, he asked me to remain quiet for some time and just listen to the praise he had meant to heap on me. (laughs)."

But would Aamir Khan look convincing as a student? He's playing the dare-devil character of Ryan, right? "Yes, he's playing Ryan. I think Aamir is Aamir, he can play anything convincingly. Agar hum chalis ke hain, toh lagtein hain, Aamir nahin lagta. In any case, I believe the story is being approached a bit differently. It has a lot of flashbacks, so the story starts from where the book ends."

In general, does Chetan insist that his story is not tampered with much? The young author shakes his head, saying, "No, I have no such conditions. They can interpret the story the way they like. See I think my book is like my daughter and a filmmaker is allowed to glamourises her. I don't mind if some light-make-up is applied to her, but I wouldn't like plastic surgeries to be done," he smiles.