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After six bestsellers, Chetan Bhagat’s latest English novel, Half Girlfriend, is dedicated to the “non-English types”. But that’s not surprising coming from the popular Indian author, who’s known to attract first-time readers to English-language books in his home country.
His novels are mostly inhabited by urban India’s youth, who are trying to fulfil their ambitions while studying at engineering colleges or management schools or working in call centres, finding love along the way.
His storytelling style is simple and easy to read – perfect for those who otherwise might never pick up an English-language book.
The English language forms the basis of a class divide in Half Girlfriend. It tells the story of a boy from rural Bihar who doesn’t speak much English and falls for a city-bred girl in one of Delhi’s elite colleges – but she doesn’t want to date him because of his lack of English proficiency.
“It isn’t just the English versus Hindi class divide anymore,” says Bhagat, 40, ahead of the book’s international launch at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Friday. “The new class divide is varying degrees of English.
“A lot more people are in the English fold, but with varying levels of proficiency. The elites laugh and sneer at their country cousins who are trying to learn English in India, and that is what Half Girlfriend is about.”
With the book, Bhagat tries to echo the angst of millions of Indians who are denied jobs, can’t get into university or are simply not considered cool enough because their spoken English is weak.
“English is important for a country such as India, as that is one way for us to integrate with the world,” Bhagat says.
The video trailer for the book spells it out: “Madhav didn’t speak English well. Riya did. Madhav wanted a relationship. Riya didn’t … She agreed to be his half-girlfriend.”
So what does Bhagat mean by the term Half Girlfriend?
“‘Half Girlfriend’ is the midway stage in a relationship, where two people are more than friends but not quite in a relationship yet,” he says. “When I say that is what most men (in India) get, it is more a joke as we as a society do not have a culture of dating pan-India, even though there is a lot of curiosity about it.”
Bhagat is often called a blockbuster author, given that four of his novels – “Five Point Someone”, One Night At The Call Centre’, ‘The 3 Mistakes of My Life’ and ‘2 States’ – have already been made into Bollywood films, and he turned screenplay writer for the Salman Khan film ‘Kick’.
The movie rights of ‘Half Girlfriend were picked up by producer Ekta Kapoor and filmmaker Mohit Suri even before the book’s release. What’s more, Bhagat is a co-producer with this film. So did he write the book with a movie plan in mind?
“Not really, it is just that Mohit loved the manuscript and wanted to partner up with the film,” he says. “I write a book to make my millions of readers happy. Movies are a very visible by-product, that’s all.”
Asked who will be starring, he says: “We don’t have the casting yet, and am guessing we will shoot in a year.”
It’s been 10 years since Bhagat’s first book. While literary critics have panned most of his books as unimpressive and overtly simplistic, his readers don’t seem too bothered about the bad reviews.
His website crashed when he unveiled the teaser for Half Girlfriend nearly two months before its release in India.
The New York Times has called him ‘the biggest-selling English language novelist in India’s history’.
And Time magazine named him among the ‘100 most influential people in the world’ – a tag he now puts to good use by giving motivational talks to young people and writing columns for leading Indian newspapers.
“I am quite satisfied as I have achieved what I wanted to, which is to make non-readers read and make English books reach where they have never reached before,” he says. “I also have had a lot of recognition from publications and people who matter, both in India and abroad, so even critically, I am quite satisfied.”
Bhagat was almost mobbed by students at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2011 and the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival last year. Why, does he think youth outside India relate tso well to his work?
“I think human beings are the same, wherever they are in the world,” he says. “I even have Emiratis reading my books now, and many come up to me and say they could relate to them. So far, my books have appeared in 20 languages, including Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese, so am guessing there is something universal about my stories.”
And what does he like most about visiting the UAE?
“I love the infrastructure, and that there are so many Indians,” he says. “It is how India could look if it were more developed. Also, the Middle Eastern cuisine is my favourite.”
• Chetan Bhagat will appear at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Friday (check time and location) for the international launch of Half Girlfriend