As a student of popular culture with a number of academic publications on the subject, I have had many occasions to question my own fascination for the popular and even the crass. It is not a simple question to answer but an obvious answer may be that it is a good way to find access to popular concerns and attitudes among the common folk who are least interested in a Hazari Prasad Dwivedi or a Milan Kundera. Like it or not, unlike politicians or administrators, students of human society do not get to wade through the minds of the common folk. Even anthropologists deal with a small sample of population and are wary of generalizing too far or at all. But does inclusion in a BA elective course on ‘popular literature’ amount to an elevation of rank? Chetan Bhagat seems to think so and there is little we can do by way of disabusing him of his fancy. According to a recentreport, Bhagat’s ‘Five Point Someone’, Bhagat’s book will be taught along with fiction novels by American novelist and poet Louisa M Alcott, English crime novelist Agatha Christie and British novelist JK Rowling. ‘Five Point Someone will be part of the Popular Fiction paper in the General Elective, which is offered to second-year undergraduate students pursuing honours and programme courses under the Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS).’
Bhagat’s glee at this development comes mixed with his well-known arrogance and the tweets below fully reflect the delusions of a pulp writer who sees a towering literary figure when he looks in the mirror.
‘Am honoured DU added my books to their course. Literature is about being open minded, reading the classics as well as the contemporary.’
‘Elitistaan theories trying to diss me and literary value of my books have failed miserably with DU adding my books to their course. Sorry.’
He may be right in assuming that to be popular is not the same thing as to be bad. Novelists like Premchand and Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay and even Rabindranath Tagore have remained immensely popular as anyone visiting a book fair in 2017 will find out in minutes. But the converse is not true – popularity on its own does not make anyone great either. Those who have read Bhagat and found him gifted with a storyteller’s ability also understand that his English prose is neither here nor there. It is not even a form of Indian English and seems interesting for allowing you a peek into the minds of the English speaking Indian middle class and that is absolutely the upper limit of praise one may grant him. Imagine a reader who will hold Bagat’s novels in high esteem and place him alongside Bhalchandra Nemade or Shreelal Shukla or even a Vikram Seth.
Unlike politics or even economy, art and literature are ruthless arenas where you cannot presume equality. Ranking a work may be an eternally debatable issue, but there are clear lines to be drawn. Who knows may be in my doddering old age I might feel nostalgic about Karan Johar’s movies, and fondly hum ‘kal ho na ho’ but I am sure I won’t place him along a Tarkovsky. In sum, Bhagat represents the aspirational classes of India but his aspirations this time round have run into an insuperable roadblock.