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'The biggest selling writer in English you've never heard of'

By / October 10, 2008



At least that's how the Guardian begins today's piece on Chetan Bhagat.

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"His name doesn't grace any Booker list, but it is found on the lips of every college student in India," the story goes on to say.

Bhagat is not exactly unheard of in the US. The New York Times did a story on him last March and his novel "One Night @ the Call Centre" has become popular here in a Ballantine paperback edition.

The Bollywood film version of the book, entitled "Hello," is scheduled for worldwide release today.

In India Bhagat is a publishing phenomenon – the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history. His first two novels have sold more than a million copies and 20-something middle-class Indians consider him the voice of a generation. (Even though he's actually 35.)

His latest novel, “Three Mistakes of My Life,” is now selling about a copy every 17 seconds.

But India's literary establishment looks down on Bhagat. "The book critics, they all hate me,” he has told the press.

According to the Guardian, "Bhagat's formula is simple: write in the quirky, quick-fire campus English that young Indians use and focus on the absurdities of how to get ahead in contemporary India."

He has been accused of brash populism and, indeed, sales of his last novel were launched in grocery stores.

But that's just the way Bhagat wants it. "What is the purpose of literature?" he asks. "It is to raise a mirror to society. What is the point of writers who call themselves Indian authors but who have no Indian readers?"

Bhagat's first novel is "Five Point Someone," a story of rebellious, carousing students at India's most prestigious university, the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

"One Night @ the Call Centre," his second novel, is a romantic comedy that takes place in a call center where bored young Indians take calls from the US.

His third novel, Bhagat “Three Mistakes of My Life,” is set in the western state of Gujarat after the sectarian riots of 2002. Bhagat told the New York Times that it deals with the confusion that he believes young Indians feel about religious values.

Bhagat writes of India's striving middle class as an insider. A graduate of ITT, he still works as an investment banker.

But he says today's eager young Indian college students have little in common with their parents. "The young are almost a race apart," he told the Guardian.

It remains to be seen if Indian film critics will be as tough on Bhagat as have the country's literati.

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