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EXCLUSIVE: An interview with Chetan Bhagat

Last updated on: February 16, 2012 13:43 IST

Image: Among other things, Chetan Bhagat sees himself as an opinion leader
Abhishek Mande

Bestselling author Chetan Bhagat in a freewheeling chat about all the things that matter -- and some that don't.

Chetan Bhagat often evokes extreme reactions. Author of five bestselling books, he is known to have an opinion on practically every matter that does or should concern us. In doing so, he often come across as being somewhat arrogant and sometimes flippant.

Those who know him say he is a fairly easygoing person. He isn't half as aggressive as he comes across on television debates and on Twitter.

This, however, doesn't stop him from saying things that make him sound presumptuous. At one point in this interview he says, 'Because of me God's name has been taken hundreds of millions of times'.

On the flipside though, I cannot ignore a certain element of earnestness in him. It is this earnestness, I suppose, that helps him reach out to millions of readers across the country.

In this two-part interview, Chetan Bhagat does what he does best -- talking on a wide range of topics, from his confrontational image to his stand on the Salman Rushdie controversy and the authors that he turns to.

'Nothing is personal on Twitter'

Image: Revolution 2020, Bhagat's latest book

In a recent interview, Amish Tripathi mentioned that you're a chilled out and peaceful guy. But the Chetan Bhagat we see on television and on Twitter is a very different person. It is almost schizophrenic...

(Laughs) Wow! That is a big word but I think people often ascribe a personality based on a few data points, and I am saying this in general, not just about me. So, based on someone's tweets you tend to ascribe a personality to him/her. I made a decision a long time ago that I, the person, will not be there on Twitter.

Twitter is merely a platform for opinions and some of them are strong and some of them are loose (sic). But Twitter is not the place where you'll get to know me better.

People may think that I am being impulsive or rash, but I know exactly what I am doing. I have the ability to turn passionate and the ability to turn dispassionate when I want.

Perhaps this comes from the spiritual practice and yoga I do. When I am doing something I can be very emotional about it but (at the same time) I can be very detached.

So, when I am giving my opinion, I am merely giving my opinion. Nothing is personal on Twitter.

Those opinions are genui#8800 they are not fake. But you cannot get to know me better on Twitter. It is not a real space. It is a virtual world and I find too many people putting their very intimate feelings out there. I've seen people saying on social networks: 'I am feeling hurt' or 'I am feeling lonely'.

Television debates are frankly something I avoid. For every 20 invites I get, I go to one. I find that format very confrontational and it can give out a vibe that the person is an argumentative guy. But that's just because that's the nature of the programme. When you put eight people in a room and against each other, it's difficult to come across as Mr Congeniality...

So, I think you are seeing just one facet of me through my tweets or opinions on politicians or issues and on television. Even work-wise it is just a part of me. And personality-wise it has little to do with me.

As a person, I believe in not taking things too seriously; I believe in laughing a lot; I believe in keeping things fun; I believe that nothing can't be worked out over a good joke. But that's not the place to do it.

In fact almost any opinion I have given, I am flexible to change on that but, yes, I can make my point and I will continue to do so when I feel (like it).

'We are just people's dinner entertainment'

Image: Chetan Bhagat with his wife Anusha and their twins Ishaan and Shyaam

You seem to enjoy the confrontation...

I enjoy it because I seem to be the only guy there who isn't taking it seriously. The other debaters are so charged up emotionally and so fixed in their views that they aren't able to enjoy it.

It's just a TV debate. It's different people discussing their points of view. You don't need to come out a winner. There is no prize at the end of it. And that's why I am able to enjoy it.

I do not believe in the 'for' and 'against' the motion debates that we've learnt in school. I think there is no such thing as for and against the motion. As a storyteller you learn that everyone has a point of view and you cannot say one person's point of view is right. The winner has to be the issue.

So, do you put on an act?

No, but I know I am not supposed to take it too seriously. We are just people's dinner entertainment. It's not a place where policies are being made. You don't make policies in TV debates.


'My tweets are more planned than people might think'

Image: 2 States: The Story of My Marriage is said to be inspired from story of Chetan Bhagat's marriage

You mentioned earlier that contrary to public opinion you know exactly what you're tweeting. Would you say your tweets are calculated?

I wouldn't say that, but they are done with a bit of self-awareness. In the past, years ago, I may have been more casual about the medium and not have understood it. And a lot of early adopters of Twitter have had those issues...

I may be a writer, but not every thought of mine is pure gold. I have some good thoughts, I have some medium thoughts and I have some stupid thoughts. And if you share things with people, every now and then you will say things that don't make a lot of sense. Frankly, that's okay. That's the new celebrity, one who isn't Mr Perfect. And, in fact, people who are trying to keep that image, especially on social networks, will suffer more. I haven't put up a facade of ego. But, yes, the tweets are more planned than people might think.

Do you filter your tweets?

No, but I know what I am doing. However, I do take care to word it properly.

I do let go also sometimes on non-serious issues. Luckily I have this image of being a guy who can be serious as well as non-serious. Sometimes it backfires, at other times it doesn't. I've learnt to not let it affect me so much...

'I miss my banking sometimes'

Image: Chetan Bhagat

Okay, we'll come back to Twitter later...

You love Twitter, don't you?

Well, yes. I also follow you. Congratulations by the way. 700,000 this morning, I believe.

It's the sign of the growth of Twitter in India.

About your've probably been asked this but why do all your books have numbers in their titles?

I think it's just a tribute to my past when I was a banker and engineer. When I was in a bank all I dealt with was numbers. I miss my banking sometimes...


Yes. Sometimes I do. Especially at times when there are exciting things happening (in the finance markets) like now, when the Facebook IPO is being launched. I miss my banking colleagues with whom I could discuss valuations and whether to subscribe or not.

Of course I can Google all of that, but there's nothing like being in the bank and analysing how the financial markets react when the IPO is launched etc. There are some exciting moments in finance and I do miss them.

'Because of me God's name has been taken millions of times'

Image: Five Point Someone, from which has been made into a major movie -- 3 Idiots

Name three moments when you wished you were in a bank.

Well, there's the Facebook IPO right now. I downloaded the prospectus just for the fun of it. And I realised that I was reading a financial document after almost four years.

I would also love to know more about the Eurozone crisis and also the subprime crisis. I left around the time it was happening so I couldn't really absorb it fully.

Another thing about my books is that the protagonist is named after Lord Krishna.

That hadn't occurred to me. Why is that?

It's about devotion. It's about thanking God. Millions of people are reading the book and because of me, God's name has been taken hundreds of millions of times (smiles). And it's nice and it just feels good.

See, that's what happens. When you say something like this, let's say on Twitter, you come across as being presumptuous.

(Earnestly) No, I am not being presumptuous. People expect a writer to be rational and scientific-thinking, especially with my kind of background. But I have a spiritual side to me and I do believe that there is an order of the world and people who know me tell me that a lot of things in my life seem like miracles.

I don't know... it is how I feel. In the Bhagwad Gita there is a line that says those who spread my name are especially dear to me.

'I live my life on my terms and people see that as arrogance'

Image: Anusha with Chetan Bhagat

I'm laughing right now but if I had read this on Twitter, I'd probably say, 'What a presumptuous fellow!'

It is not presumptuous. It depends upon the proclivity of the person. Some people really like it. I am very close to the ISKON movement so they're very happy that I've done this. But I have not advertised it. I have not put it in the book. It's not something I use for marketing.

Then there are other things in my books too. There's a character called Ishaan in 3 Mistakes... My son's name is Ishaan. Shyam is another character in One Night at the Call Centre so that's my other son. Ananya is my niece. Vidya Balan introduced me to Raju Hirani for Three Idiots. So I promised to name a character after her. So that's Vidya in 3 Mistakes...

I don't know if you can call it presumptuous.

See, I live my life on my terms and people see that sometimes as arrogance or (say) 'That's not how things should be'. But that's how things are for me and it's worked out so far. I don't know... why would you think it to be presumptuous? What is so presumptuous about it? (Earnestly)

Why don't you tweet that and you'll know!

(Laughs) See I said this because you asked me a question. If it sounds presumptuous, let it sound presumptuous. I don't care. In my heart I am not doing it because I am presumptuous. It inspires people. (By doing this) you can have your own connection (with god) and helps you stay humble.

'My life has been full of miracles'

Image: The 3 Mistakes of My Life

You mention miracles that have happened in your life. What are they?
Well, my entire career has been full of miracles. Getting into an IIT or an IIM is no less than a miracle. In my entire family no one had ever got into an IIT or IIM. Especially from the background I come from -- very simple, middle class upbringing -- these are no less than minor miracles.

I didn't have a very good GPA, but I still got into an IIM and that was another miracle. And I made it to IIM-A, not just any other IIM!

In my first job, the whole bank closed down and I was fired. I ended up joining Goldman Sachs! I was the first person with a purely Indian education to join Goldman Sachs.

Then I write this book that no one wanted to publish at first and it becomes the highest-selling book in the country and someone makes a movie out of it and it becomes the highest selling movie of all time.

Not only that, there is a certain interest in me as a person.

First, it's hard to get published. Then, it's hard to be a bestseller. Then it's hard to be known. And then it's hard to do it over and over again. It's hard then to graduate from a storyteller to an opinion maker and kind of survive.

I can't say I am passing out with flying colours but I am surviving. It has made a difference. The editorials I have written have been noticed.

My life has been full of miracles -- to be able to leave the bank at 35 and be able to do what I wanted to do... it has always worked out.

I wanted to be a motivational speaker and reach the youth, and it has worked out. I wanted to write editorials that people read and I am able to that.

So, God has been kind to me. I am one of those freaks of nature... born in India where life is supposed to be hard and it's not been so hard for me.

And now you may again call me presumptuous if I say my life has been full of miracles...

Tags: IIM , Goldman Sachs , IIT , GPA , IIM-A

'It is hard to handle disproportionate levels of fame'

Image: Chetan Bhagat

Well... I don't think that would sound presumptuous...

I wanted to write books that people will read and that is happening. I had an intention that my books would be made into Bollywood movies and that is happening.

If I genuinely want something in life, God gives it to me! It just comes. In fact I am scared of asking for too much because it will happen.

In fact my issue is what do I want now?

So what do you want?

Well, this year is meant to figure it out. Revolution is done and I don't want to start a new book so soon. I am trying to figure out.

I saw the Forbes list of richest Indians. And it was nice to see so many people who are so rich but I wouldn't trade places with any of them. I feel I am luckier than them. What I have, they don't have. I look at the list of movie stars -- I respect and admire them -- but I would never give up being a writer. It's just too cool to be able to... just write a story and have millions read it, especially in this age.

I don't know what I want right now. I think I need to -- and I know this sounds presumptuous -- balance my inner self.

It is hard to handle disproportionate levels of fame.

I need to calm myself down internally and because I give a lot of opinions, I get a lot of opinions back. The quest is internal to do more yoga and have more peace. People often say you've become thick skinned.

The idea is not to be thick-skinned but (as I was told) to become like the ocean.

Would you say you're still thick-skinned as you once said you were?

It's a process. Everyone gets hurt on occasions. I am not perfect but I am a lot better than many people.

I am trying to be less thick-skinned but I'm trying to have more depth as a person so that opinions don't affect me.

Let me come back to what you said about humility. Do you believe you are humble?

Well, let's just say I try to be. But it also depends who you compare me with. Compared to a lot of celebrities I am far more approachable. It's for others to judge and them to tell.

People who are around me and know me, one of the qualities they mention is that I am humble but I can't say how it is coming across in the virtual world.

I suppose when you have 700,000 followers the very act of having those many followers means that you're not very humble.

Tomorrow, in the second part of the interview, Chetan Bhagat takes on his critics and wishes he'd handled the Rushdie issue differently.

Tags: Bollywood