Do raise eyebrows over low brow

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January 21st, 2010 J Jagannath

Clad in a khadi kurti made in one of those sweatshops, with not a single strand of her straightened hair out of place and those chiselled facial features that transcend sexual tendencies; this local train co-passenger resembled a Cajun goddess. What’s more, she was reading a book. Blame the male mindset, if you have to, I even imagined ourselves as literary soulpartners walking into the sunset with our hands held. Anticipating a Netherland or at least a Sue Townsend I peeped into what she was reading and, here lies the dampener, it was (drum roll) Chetan Bhagat’s “Two States”. Whoooosshh! That’s how the crumbling of my imaginary castle sounded.

Why would anyone endure writing that is clunky and is the LOL equivalent of literature? Isn’t Chetan Bhagat essential reading only for those below 12 years? Why does India celebrate writers who can’t string two sentences together? These were the initial questions that popped up in my mind. I tried to find a pattern but all I have been able to glean is that we swear by bestsellers. Look at the books that made waves in the recent past, Da Vinci Code, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and, of course, Chetan Bhagat sack of chicken feed.

Most often you would find these names mentioned in the profiles of social networking sites’ users. I don’t mean that everyone ought to have mandarin tastes and should be reading W G Sebald and Patricia Highsmith. But do give Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy or closer to home, Samit Basu’s GameWorld trilogy a read.

It’s not the economic imbalance that is the difference between the third world countries and developed nations but the fact that printed word is celebrated in the latter and, well, not in the former. A US friend was telling me that everyone in the New York’s locals are to be seen reading books, a rare sight over here. My heart swells with pride at the sight of so many people reading the newspapers cover-to-cover in the Mumbai local trains. I hated Bangalore for not patronising newspapers (I, however, wonder why every newspaper is available in that bottomless pit of techiebabble). But then newspapers do not enrich one’s life the way books do. To think of it, they are not supposed to.

Some might say that the lack of reading culture may be attributed to the rise of Web but that is an argument that doesn’t deserve credence. A Pew Survey says that every American read at least ten books in 2009. This, when an average American spends ten hours on daily basis to swim across the ocean of hypertext links.

The cartoon in Atlantic Monthly captured the bestsellers’ phenomena very well by a bunch of kids holding Harry Potter books berating another child at a distance as ‘problem child’ for reading Charles Dickens. When I made a Mumbai friend privy to my rant, she said that the city is essentially ‘working class’. In that case, won’t Grapes of Wrath have greater resonance in Mumbaikars’ lives than Chetan Bhagat’s love story that is as interesting as watching wet paint getting dry.

I am not listening if you are going to mouth that gigantic cliche to justify proliferation of low brow art: “To each his own”.



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17 Responses to “Do raise eyebrows over low brow”

  1. Jagannath Says:

    @jini: I am really cock-a-hoop that you think that I can be a ‘torchbearer’ to walk you through the literary crap into a nether world of better writing. However, my point is that there are already good writers whom we don’t patronise. Don’t you think I’ll just add to the glut?

    @Deep: There’s no bigger fallacy than saying that one is entitled to his or her opinion. NO. One is entitled to his or her informed opinion. How can you let Chetan Bhagat be revered when he is as good at writing as much as Geoff Boycott’s grandmom at cricket? Let not your patriotism blind you. Lagaan is at best a half-decent film and probably Rahman’s last decent soundtrack. Have you seen No Man’s Land, which pipped Lagaan? Our cinema is not world-class that Westerners have to factor them in while talking about movies. Satyajit Ray was the only man who transcended cinematic boundaries. I don’t want to wallow in our ancient literature. Show me contemporary writing. I really didn’t think that the Nadal, Federer analogy merited a comment.

    @Vijay: Oh yes, the future looks extremely scary. As Economist said in an article, in the future the teapot will be tweeting what you had for breakfast. By the time they reach twenties, the kids of next generation would already be fogeys.

  2. Vijay Says:

    JJ- at least they r reading something now - next Gen will be carrying “ipads” and u wont even know if they r reading, being read-out from the tablet or watching some b-grade movie !!

  3. deep Says:


    Firstly, i never idolized Chetan Bhagat nor 3 Idiots. You can re-read my replies again if u want to.

    My point is what’s ur problem if some ppl decide to idolize them? I have seen so many ppl idolize Bollywood, SRK (who I feel sucks big-time!)..and I myself don’t like movies. Still, I don’t force my opinion on them.

    Because I am liberal. To give another example, I am one of Roger Federer’s biggest fans. Yet, I don’t keep on picking on people who idolize Rafael Nadal.

    Regd global acceptance of Indian music/books/movies, I will again say the same thing. “Foreign approval” is not something to run after all your life. Some examples below will make it amply clear.

    The best example of this is the Nobel Prize. Gandhi didn’t get the Peace Prize, whereas Obama gets it! A movie like Lagaan wasn’t nominated for the Oscars, but a mediocre movie like Slumdog Millionaire gets nominated! Why do u think that a movie that symbolized Indian pride didn’t get nominated whereas one which shows India in a poor light wins an award???

    I think 1000 years of colonial rule has imparted a “slave mentality” in Indians. It may be true that Indians don’t have an English masterpiece, I turn the question on its head, does any Westerner have a Hindi masterpiece???

    Regarding cultural bankruptcy, I would advise you to read Vedas, Bhagwad Gita, Upanishads. Our ancestors made these enormous books when the rest of the world couldn’t even write a short story!

    Read “A search in Secret India” by Paul Brunton (a Westerner) to know more about your culture.

  4. jini Says:

    Jagannath you write really well, how abt you becoming the torchbearer of Indian culture? Step on the gas right now and enrich Indian culture. I’ll be keenly looking forward to read your books. And hopefully you’ll come out with a series of them. Better light a candle then curse the darkness. What say? No, I’m not joking. May be we’ll get to witness yet another Salman Rushdie in the making.

  5. Jagannath Says:

    @Deep: To take my argument further, show me any Indian movie or music or book that REALLY transcends global barriers. Maybe our Indian classical music but that’s it. Which world are you living in if three idiots is the epitome of classic movie-making.

  6. Jagannath Says:

    @deep: I am talking from English perspective not from the vernacular. It’s just that when we translate the vernacular into English, it gets lost in translation. I too stand for the national anthem prior to watching a Bollywood movie. Don’t get so worked up when the truth is staring at your face.

  7. deep Says:

    @ Jagannath

    Ur sentence that “our country is culturally bankrupt” is all the proof I needed of you being a brown babu and a Macaulay’s son.

    Nothing more needs to be said! I pity you for you have an immense inferiority complex and seek to win the approval of others all your life!

  8. Jagannath Says:

    Well, if a squeaky clean book is what I would look for, then I would settle down for a second-hand Orwell than a Rs 99 worth Chetan Bhagat. Wouldn’t you? I must say that you are incredibly optimistic about surroundings as Dickensian as ours. Metamorphosis was a mass hit but it is as vacuous as two states is cerebral. i don’t know where you stay but in Bombay the conversations tend to be very one-dimensional- cricket, stock market or Bollywood. Thanks, but no thanks whatsoever.

    Thank you for reading my writing and posting comments.

  9. Swapna Says:

    If I were to read Calvino or any other good book, I think it would be a very private moment and I would definitely not dirty that kind of book on a Mumbai local. Would you?

    All I was saying is that: maybe, the world around you is not that culturally bankrupt. To continue with gastronomical analogies (ad nauseum, I know), people might be enjoying good stuff like good wine or single malt at home and drinking pints of cheap beer in public.

    There will always be commercially successful irritants - that’s what masses like me are there for.

    As for avoiding contact and staring at empty space, what I had in mind is communication with people around you, or at least observing the world around you. Might help in writing a good novel (if you are so inclined). I think your colleague Sohini Sen describes this partly in her blog:

    Cheerio, Jagannath!

  10. Jagannath Says:

    @Deep: You are missing the woods for the trees. What i am saying is that don’t go by the word-of-mouth when it comes to books. They are not commodified objects like Bhagat’s fans bring them to be. Why shouldn’t we “ape the West” when our country is culturally bankrupt?

    @shiva: Socrates said that there’s something wrong with everything that is popular. Food for thought, eh?

  11. Jagannath Says:

    @Jini: In that case we should be celebrating the thousands of migrant Indian labourers who built the tallest Burj tower. Being technically literate is not tantamount to being superior creatures. We don’t respect history, our humanities is in dumps, we will not go much ahead if all we produce are factory-made zombies who can launch satellites but can never read a poem during foreplay. That world SCARES me.

  12. jini Says:

    For a Change, do read Abdul Kalam book India 2020. Certainly, it is no literary stuff, but Kalam sir has spoken on the Indian mindset. ” Knowing English doesn’t make a Britisher great, instead the brain power counts, and Indian have proved time and again that their brains are in the right place”. Indian are technically literate and that’s get highlighted in the fact that India is one among the six countries that launch satellites. The people working in such premier institutions probably might have never heard of W G Sebald ot Patricia Highsmith. Nonetheless, they’ve managed to put India on the global radar.

  13. Jagannath Says:

    @swapna: I think it’s embarrassing to read Chetan Bhagat in public, especially if you are the type who reads Calvino. Avoid contact with people? Isn’t it better to burrow yourself in a book rather than stare at empty space apathetically? To take your fish and chips analogy ahead, it’s okay to eat the fish and chips once in a blue moon. But if that is your staple diet, then something is really wrong with you.

    @sohini: there’s no hope whatsoever. Indians are forever condemned to celebrate bad writing, sigh!

  14. Shiva Says:

    See Mr blogger, read books don’t rate them. Yes, in my opinion it’s an okay book, no master storytelling…. But Mr Bhagat must have tried to narrate the stoy in an easy manner. We expect everything simple in movies then why stories should have hard words? A writer should write a book for the masses not for the classes….


  15. deep Says:

    Why do u expect that everyone will have ur taste in books? I myself am a big reader and haven’t even heard of those 2 names u mention as “to be read”.

    Regd difference in Western and Eastern preferences, I would just say that we shouldn’t blindly ape the West!

  16. Sohini Says:

    I agree with the “fish and chips view”.. And you one should be happy that people are at least reading. Maybe someday the same people will switch over to the more intellectual works??

  17. Swapna Says:

    If your Cajun goddess reads Chetan B. on the local train - handy tissue paper probably - and Italo Calvino in her residence ???

    In NY, people might be reading books in local trains to avoid contact with the world around. After all, most popular (pulp) fiction are airport books designed for this purpose. Incidentally, Dickens, Dumas, Doyle and others used to publish their stories in serialized pulp fiction form, right?

    Also, some of the Indian states with a strong “book culture” have produced an extraordinary number of wimps who can only quote and recite other’s words.

    I once asked an avid M&B fan - with anguish - “why?” and the person chastised me gently, “A true gourmet should also eat fish and chips. “


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