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Friday, 18 April 2014

Why I Did Not Care for Chetan Bhagat's "2 States"

Why I Did Not Care for Chetan Bhagat’s “2 States”

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 18 April, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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Today, the movie adaptation of Bhagat’s book, “2 States,” is hitting the theatres.  Completely coincidentally, I just finished reading the book a week ago. I had actually bought the book a while ago – in fact, I had bought it at the time of the big controversy over the “3 Idiots” movie, which was based on Bhagat’s “Five Point Someone,” but only found time to read the book last week, probably prompted by curiosity, since I had learned the book had been made into a movie.  These are my observations on the book.

First of all, I want to say that I liked “Five Point Someone,” Bhagat’s earlier novel. I actually thought the book was better than its movie adaptation, “3 Idiots,” although I am not a big fan of Bhagat’s writing style, which frankly is quite boring and completely unremarkable. But his strength lay, I thought, in the story itself, which in “Five Point Someone” seemed to me very interesting and original.  It also seemed very honest, and I thought it was a story I could relate to. 

And this is where “2 States” fails.  There are two main aspects in which this novel fails to grab the attention of the reader: 1. Unrealistic characters and situations, and 2. The author’s laziness in not getting simple details correct, which insults the reader’s intelligence.

Why “Five Point Someone” and “3 Idiots” Worked

To motivate the discussion on “2 States,” let me first explain some of the reasons why I preferred “Five Point Someone” to “3 Idiots.”  Having studied at IIT myself, I can fully relate to the characters in the book.  We all knew at least one person who was like the Ryan Oberoi character in the book – someone who was the bottom of the class in grades, but was actually somebody used their brain in a creative way.  We thought those people were quite cool, really.  

Where the movie ruined it was when they made Rancho (the Ryan Oberoi character in the book), played by Aamir Khan, not only the creative and out-of-the-box thinker, but also the topper in the class.  This went completely against the point of the book itself, which wanted to talk about how “5-pointers,” i.e., people who essentially “failed” in IIT, weren’t actually failures in life.  It missed the point of the book that bookish knowledge and grades are not everything.  I still remember my disappointment when, in the movie, the students all look at their grades on the bulletin board, and Rancho is the topper, ahead of Chatur.  That took away a lot of the charm of the movie.

Also, the book is a narration by Hari, the character played by Madhavan in the movie, Farhan Qureshi.  According to the book, it is Hari who gets the girl, the Professor’s daughter Neha.  But it appears Aamir Khan’s image is so important that you cannot make a movie with him in the lead without him getting the girl as well.  So now you have it – Rancho is the creative genius, the out-of-box thinker, who also is the class topper, as well as the guy who gets the beautiful girl.  I could puke.  Such a person does not exist, and I preferred Bhagat’s book because his characters were more real and I could relate to them.

I still liked “3 Idiots,” because they managed to convey what I thought was Bhagat’s most important idea of the book – that we need to think beyond grades and bookish knowledge.  Also, the tagline, “Don’t think about success, think about excellence, and success will follow on its own” – was a message the movie conveyed effectively, and it was a message that Bhagat had elaborated well in the book – which is why I liked the book for its ideas, if not its prose.  If even one-tenth of the people who watched “3 Idiots” actually internalized the message of valuing excellence over success, India would be a much better place.

“Five Point Someone” worked because you could relate to the characters. The most important count on which “2 States” failed was its unrealistic characters.

Unrealistic and Unrelatable Characters

The story is of Krish Malhotra, a Punjabi, and Ananya Swaminathan, a Tamizh girl, who meet at the IIM campus in Bangalore and fall in love, and of their struggles in getting their families to agree to their marriage.  Now, Bhagat says this is inspired by his own life, and I wouldn’t want to question the truth of that assertion.  But if it really corresponds to his life, then I am afraid I cannot relate to it.  This is something like watching an episode of “Dynasty,” which talks about the life of the super-rich in America that most people in America or elsewhere can never fully understand in a personal way.  Let me elaborate and explain myself.

The Smooth Hero

Consider the protagonist, Krish Malhotra.  He is supposed to have graduated from IIT, and moved on to IIM.  According to the story, he had a girlfriend, a professor’s daughter, in IIT – a relationship that did not work out – and he is amazingly smooth around the heroine of the story, Ananya.

Now, I’ll tell you as a past IIT-ian, we were never smooth around women.  That’s because we had very few women to practice moves on.  I was in a class in IIT Bombay with one girl among 60 boys. IIT guys are, as a result, quite awkward around women.  But our hero is not only comfortable and confident, he is so smooth, knows what to say in front of a girl and what not.  Now maybe this IS Bhagat’s story, and maybe he was this kind of person, but I cannot relate to him.

FAIL!

The Beautiful Heroine

People do fall in love in India in college, more so today than when I was a student.  But why is it necessary that Ananya had to be “Ananya Swaminathan – best girl in the fresher batch”?  Won’t the story work if an ordinary guy meets and falls in love with an ordinary girl?

Again, I cannot relate to it.  And I don’t think it is necessary to have “the best girl” to have a great love story.  So many of us fall in love with regular people and are in love our entire lives.

FAIL!

The Filmi Story

From the start, this book seems like it was written for Bollywood.   Consider: Punjabi boy, Tamizh girl. Boy meets girl in college. They fall in love. Parents don’t approve.  Parents try to marry their kids to other people, doesn’t work.  Lots of drama.  Boy persuades girl’s parents by doing something special for them; girl persuades boy’s parents by doing something special for them.  Finally everyone is happy.

Again, maybe that’s his life, but I cannot relate to it.

But of course, ALL Bollywood films are like this, so maybe the movie will work.  But Bollywood has no connection with real life.

FAIL!

The “Estranged” Father

One of the characters in the book that simply never worked for me was Krish’s dad.  Bhagat has said that this character is based on his real-life father, and I respect that. Unfortunately, we are never told why there is this chasm between Krish and his father, and why, suddenly, there is a change of heart and all is well.  In a movie, there may not be time to explain, but surely a book has enough space – a paragraph or two - to explain why?  There is some mention of domestic violence but it is never fully explored.  If the gulf is truly because of that, then where is this realistically addressed? 

FAIL!

Those are just some of the broad outlines on which the characters did not work for me.  I am not saying this is not Bhagat’s story.  It might well be.  But as a writer, he did not make a strong-enough effort to help me understand his story and empathize.

Equally annoying was the mischaracterization of Tamizh folks in the story.  I am not taking this personally as a Tamizhan, just saying that these descriptions simply don’t match what 99.99% of Tamizh families in Chennai are like.  And again, the net result is that I cannot relate to this.  Either Mr. Bhagat’s wife’s family is truly an outlier, or Mr. Bhagat simply was lazy and did not take the trouble to check anything he wrote, relying instead simply on things he pulled out of his imagination and put them on paper.  I do not know which. Let’s see a few examples.

Unrealistic Tamizh Characters

The Meat-loving, Beer-drinking, Cigarette-smoking Tamizh Brahmin Girl

The heroine, Ananya, is supposed to come from a traditional, Tamizh Brahmin family from Chennai.  Yes, I agree the world has moved on, but as a Tamizh Brahmin, I still go to Chennai once in a while , although I live in Mumbai and grew up in Mumbai.  We still watch Sun TV at home and speak in Tamizh at home, so I have an idea what happens in Chennai and what the people are like.  I also know what it was like 20-30 years ago, when the book is set.

Sure, girls are more modern today, but Chennai has ALWAYS been the most conservative of the four metros in India, and Bhagat is explaining events of 20 years ago, when they were EVEN MORE conservative.  A Brahmin girl even today in Chennai probably will be offended by meat (on average); a girl twenty years ago would probably run away.  But take this exchange from the book:

‘I thought Ahmedabad was vegetarian,’ I said.
‘Please, I’d die here then.’ She turned to the waiter and ordered half a tandoori chicken with roomali rotis.
‘Do you have beer?’ she asked the waiter.
The waiter shook his head in horror and left.
‘We are in Gujarat, there is prohibition here,’ I said.

Or take this scene from a little later in the book, when Krish has come to Chennai to work in the Citibank office there so he can see Ananya more often.  She comes to visit his apartment (which he shares with other professionals) and this is what happens:

When she finally entered my bedroom, I grabbed her from behind.
‘Can we eat first? I haven’t had chicken for a month.’
‘I haven’t had sex for four months,’ I said, but she went out and opened the fridge.
‘You have beer too. Superb!’ she praised and she pulled out a bottle.  She offered it to my flatmates; they declined.  We moved the food and beer to my bedroom.  I didn’t want my friends outside to witness sin as we finished a full chicken and two beers.

So, a chicken- and beer-loving Tamizh Brahmin girl.  She even loves eating chicken direct from the bone.  Wow.  I cannot think of anything more unusual, even today.  Not saying there aren’t some.  I haven’t seen one, and the point is it is not something you can relate to.  Maybe that is Bhagat’s personal experience, but I have a hard time believing this to be real.

The unusualness of the heroine doesn’t stop with this.  She also loves to wear shorts and smoke cigarettes.  And she grew up in Chennai in a middle-class Brahmin family.


‘Your shorts are too short,’ I said.
...
‘Let’s go to Rambhai,’ she said.
‘You are not coming to Rambhai like this,’ I said.
‘Like what?’
‘Like in these shorts,’ I said.
...
I opened the marketing case that we had to prepare for the next day.
‘Nirdosh – nicotine-free cigarettes,’ I read out the title.
‘Who the fuck wants that? I feel like a real smoke,’ she said.  I gave her a dirty look.
‘What? Am I not allowed to use F words? Or is it that I expressed a desire to smoke?’
‘What are you trying to prove?’
‘Nothing. I want you to consider the possibility that women are intelligent human beings. And intelligent people don’t like to be told what to wear or do, especially when they are adults. Does that make sense to you?’
‘Don’t be over-smart,’ I said.
‘Don’t patronise me,’ she said.

Maybe Bhagat wants to project his views that women should be allowed to do whatever men do, and not be judged for that, and I am with him there.  But to pick a girl from a traditional Tamizh middle-class family in the early 1990s and endow her with these attributes seems completely unrealistic to me.  I cannot connect.  Bhagat does not even try to suggest that his TamBram character was a rebel or an outlier, someone being openly defiant of her traditions in doing so.  No, he shows her as deferring to her family’s wishes.  So there is a disconnect here.

Understand something.  I am not passing judgment here.  Nothing wrong if a TamBram girl wants to eat meat or drink beer or smoke cigarettes (though cigarette smoking can kill, so there’s something wrong there).  Just that I’ve never seen it and it certainly isn’t typical, so I find it hard to relate to.  It is like if you wrote a story involving a Hindu boy loving beef.  Nothing fundamentally wrong with it, but it is hard to relate to.  The stories that touch us, that move us, are the ones we can relate to – the ones where you say, “yeah, I could have been that guy,” or, “oh, that reminds me of the time...”  Bhagat’s characters don’t remind me of anyone.

FAIL!

The Extremely Permissive, Liberal but Traditional TamBram Family

Ananya’s family is so unbelievably permissive, it would not be acceptable in a traditional Tamizh Brahmin family even today.  For example, Krish comes to Ananya’s home for the first time since they have shocked their families during their convocation at IIM by announcing that they want to marry each other.  Both families have disapproved, and Krish has come to Chennai to win Ananya’s family over.

When he arrives, she’s not at home, and he can sense her family isn’t exactly thrilled to have him over.  When she finally comes back home (after her evening prayers at the temple – so at home she is traditional, right?), he says,

‘Hi Ananya, good to see you,’ I said, greeting her like a colleague at work.  I kept my hands close to my body.
‘What? Give me a hug,’ she said, and uncle finally lost interest in the Hindu.
‘Sit here, Ananya,’ he said and carefully folded the newspaper.

I was stunned and in disbelief.  This book is set in the 1990s, and even today, in 2014, my wife is careful not to indulge in PDAs with me in front of her parents or mine – and her parents are not even very traditional.  And you expect me to believe that a Tamizh girl from a traditional family in Chennai (they go to the temple, sing Carnatic music at home, etc.) will tell a boy she is not married to, “What? Give me a hug!” in front of her parents?  I’m sorry, it simply doesn’t ring true.

And how about this situation?  Later in the book, Krish decides that he has suitably ingratiated himself into Ananya’s parents’ hearts to ask their permission for their daughter’s hand.  So he invites them for dinner to a restaurant in the Taj Connemara.

‘Sir, for cocktails, I’d recommend Kothamalli Mary,’ the waiter said.
‘Kotha-what?’ I asked.
‘It is like a Bloody Mary, sir, tomato juice and vodka, but with Chettinad spices.’
I looked at uncle. He looked reluctant to nod for alcohol in front of his wife.
‘I want one,’ Ananya said.
Ananya’s mother gave her a sharp look.
‘C’mon, just one cocktail,’ Ananya said.

Sorry, but if you really believe this conversation can happen with a traditional Tamizh Brahmin family, you know nothing about Tamizh Brahmin culture.  It is also puzzling that Bhagat suggests that the father may not want to openly admit his fondness for alcohol in front of his wife, but the daughter openly says she wants a drink.  Incredible.

And, in the same situation mentioned above, Bhagat makes another blooper, unrelated to any understanding of Tamizh culture, but which this IITian can never forgive him for - a science goof-up unworthy of someone who studied at IIT.

Manju picked up his box. ‘Nice, real gold?’ he asked.
I nodded.
‘Argentum, atomic number seventy-nine,’ Manju said as he held the ring in his hand.

I cringed when I read this.  Argentum is the chemical name for silver; Aurum is the chemical name for gold.  Here, gold is meant and the character is using the chemical name for silver.  Is this guy an IITian?  How can you be so sloppy?  (The atomic number for gold is indeed correct: 79).

Oh, and one other peeve while I am on this extract.  I have NEVER heard of a Tamizh Brahmin boy from Chennai named Manjunath.  NEVER.  HOWEVER, Manjunath is the most common name you will hear in Bangalore, so my guess is that Bhagat picked it up from his days at IIM and figured "hey, Kannada, Tamil, Bangalore, Chennai, what's the difference? After all, they are all Madrasis!" and gave his Tamizh Brahmin character this name.

FAIL!

Bloopers About Tamizh Culture

There is a scene in the book when Krish visits the Swaminathan home the first time.  Bhagat is trying to set the scene, and tries to show they are traditional Tamizh folks.

‘Oh, Mom is singing,’ she said, upon hearing her mother shriek again.
‘Yes, finally,’ Ananya’s father said. ‘Can you tell the raga?’
...
‘It’s malhar, definitely malhar,” she said.
Uncle nodded his head in appreciation.

I am aghast.  Malhar is a north Indian (Hindustani) raga, and no Carnatic music lover would have the foggiest idea about it.  The least Mr. Bhagat could have done is ask around a little bit or do a google search to find out the names of at least a few Carnatic ragas before writing such nonsense.

Here is another one.  In his attempt to ingratiate himself with the family, Krish hits upon an idea to give Ananya’s mom a chance to perform in public at a function his company is organizing.  Keep in mind that this character is a traditional Tamizh housewife who has learned Carnatic music.  The author makes the correct point that for classical singers, singing light music is not hard – and this is true – but look at the choice of songs here.

‘Have you done any Kaho na pyaar hai songs?  Those are hot,’ I said.
‘Yes, I have. Film songs are easy.  It is...my confidence.’
...
‘Fine, and practice the Ek pal ka jeena song.  It is number one on the charts,’ I said.

Who is Mr. Bhagat writing his books for?  If he wants to include any Tamizh folks, he better shape up.  This is sheer laziness on the part of the author.  Anyone who has spent any time in Chennai will know that Tamizh folks are clueless about Hindi.  Ask the hordes of North Indians who move to Chennai because of their jobs; they complain endlessly about how the people there only speak in Tamizh; how they have no knowledge of Hindi.  And here, this guy is expecting us to accept that in a company function, where most of his co-employees are Tamizh, someone will perform a Hindi film song?  Also, suggesting that Ananya’s mother will just start singing songs from Kaho na pyaar hai?  This is beyond stupid.  Again, it is not too difficult to do a bit of research and find out what Tamizh songs were popular at the time and present Ananya’s mom as singing one of those – far more believable.  Maybe Bhagat is not writing for people who know something about Tamizh people.  The Punjabi or Hindi-speaker will likely not see anything amiss with any of these cultural faux pas, but maybe that’s the bottom line – that people who are actually Tamizh shouldn’t bother to read this book.

FAIL!

Concluding Thoughts

To sum up, “2 States” was a huge disappointment.  The characters and the story seemed very contrived and didn’t work for me, and Bhagat simply doesn’t seem to have cared to do his homework to understand Tamizh culture enough to write a book about it.  Maybe one reason for the poor quality of the book is that “Five Point Someone” was written in 2004, before the big “3 Idiots” controversy that catapulted Bhagat to the national stage; “2 States” was written in 2009, after Mr. Bhagat had become a big star in India.  Maybe this pathetic novel is a victim of complacence brought on by success.

The movie may well work, as Bollywood stories are usually completely divorced from reality and sense, and Indian movie audiences are not particularly demanding of their films in terms of quality.  But the book is a waste of money.

4 comments:

  1. I bought Two States a few years ago, and could not progress beyond the first 30 or so pages. Ditto with 5 Point Someone. You're absolutely right about Chetan Bhagat's boring writing style. So, not having read his books beyond the first few pages, I can't comment on what you've said, except that if what you say is true, the guy has been too lazy to do proper research.

    I only have one nitpick with your entire piece. It's perfectly correct to use "Tamizh" instead of "Tamil", but it's not OK to substitute "Tamizhan" for "Tamilian", because "Tamilian" is unisex, while "Tamizhan" is purely masculine.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Ganesh! Your point about Tamizhan is well-taken! Will keep it in mind for the future. You are right, Tamizhan is masculine.

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  2. Thanks for thorough critique (criticism?) of Two States. I read it when it first came out and found it an appropriate read for my daily return commute (I want my brain to relax after all!). Being a TamBram myself, I did find the depiction not true-to-form at least not the form I'm familiar with anyway. I put it down to the limitations of my "world experience" but having read your piece, I am tending towards Mr Bhagat playing fast and loose with the facts.

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  3. Btw Kumar shd it be Tamizh or Thamizh?

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