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Salman Rushdie, who? India's new star author speaks to the masses

The latest novel by Chetan Bhagat goes on sale in New Delhi today. Mr. Bhagat is credited with helping popularize inexpensive English-language books.

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    Journalist John Elliott, left, talks to Indian author, columnist, and speaker Chetan Bhagat at the Jaipur Literature Festival, in Jaipur, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, India, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012.
    Manish Swarup/AP/File
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Hundreds of freshly printed books sat prominently on the bursting shelves at New Delhi's Bahrisons Booksellers, ready for the hordes of eager shoppers expected to snap up the latest novel from Chetan Bhagat, one of India's most popular authors.

Mr. Bhagat's new book, "Half Girlfriend," was released Thursday in New Delhi — and sales of the novel, about a young boy's struggles in rural India, are expected to be enormous.

“I love to read his books. He is so real. We can attach ourselves with his characters,” says Radhika Sharma, a teenage student, as she buys a copy of "Half Girlfriend."

Bhagat's books about middle-class Indians and their daily struggle to climb to prosperity have made him a publishing phenomenon. As the top-selling English-language novelist in India, Bhagat has helped popularize the rise of inexpensive, mass-appeal novels in a country where the publishing industry is growing and paperbacks are more popular than smartphones and e-readers.  

Unlike India's classic writers – such as Salman Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh – Bhagat's books have touched a nerve with many young Indian readers. In his own words, instead of writing about "complex subjects," he prefers to write about ordinary life.

Bhagat began his career as an investment banker in Hong Kong. When he returned to India in 2004, he wrote a short novel in his spare time. The book, "Five Point Someone," was about life on the campus of an elite Indian college. It became a bestseller and the inspiration for the Bollywood film, "3 Idiots" – the highest grossing Indian film of all time, according to the Times of India.

"Half Girlfriends" touches on serious topics, Bhagat says, including the role that English-language skills play in succeeding in modern India. 

"It's a love story about a rural boy from Bihar who doesn't speak English well. And he falls in love with a girl who speaks English very well. And the issues that come with it," Bhagat told NDTV, a New Delhi-based news channel.  "Essentially it explores class in our society and how English has become the new class system. Varying degrees of English put you in various classes in society."

A June report by the Center for Research and Debates in Development Policy in New Delhi found that 20 percent of Indians can speak English. Those who speak English fluently earn up to 34 percent more money, according to the report.

Though reading on e-readers and smartphones has increased in many countries,  reading paperbacks is still the most popular form in India. The county's publishing industry, valued at nearly $2 billion, is growing at an annual growth rate of 30 percent, according to the Federation of Indian Publishers. A 2012 study ranked India's publishing industry 12th in the world in market value. The United States and China held the top two spots.

Bhagat's books are deliberately priced low at 100 rupees, or less than $2. The author reaches out directly to readers through social media — he has 3.26 million Twitter followers — visiting universities, and giving lectures. India's two main political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party, have invited him to speak on the state of Indian youth and education.

Despite his popularity, Bhagat faces his share of criticism. Ajay Ramachandan, a critic for the The Banyan Trees, a monthly online magazine, says that “Bhagat is at best a screenwriter. He is the ideal publicist of Bollywood. His ad would read: Bollywood, now available in book form.”
 
But criticism hasn't stopped Bhagat from selling millions of novels. His fans have a retort to the critics. 

“He may be not a literary genius,” says Mohit Kumar, an engineering student and Bhagat fan. “But he connects with us. He is our favorite author.”

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