Wednesday, 14 May 2008

From banker to best-selling writer

Chetan Bhagat

From banker to best-selling writer
By Neil Heathcote BBC News, Mumbai

Writer Chetan Bhagat is the voice of the younger generationIt's not often a banker is called the voice of his generation.
But Chetan Bhagat shot to the top of the Indian best-seller lists with his revelations about elite student life and what goes on behind the scenes in call centres.
His third novel, The Three Mistakes of My Life, has just been released - through a supermarket chain.
Busy day at the bank
Chetan Bhagat is cheerfully apologetic as he arrives home a few minutes late after a day's work at Deutsche Bank.
Being director of a distressed asset team is an unusual background for a writer, particularly one who's struck a chord with India's Generation Next.
His first two books were so popular with readers under 30 he was immediately tagged a youth icon - a label he's still learning to live with.
"All the media are writing about me, 'why have you gained weight,'" he laments. "I guess with younger people it's an issue."
Short, fast and cheap
His books are short, fast, entertaining and cheap.
None of which endears him to the literary establishment, which calls his work more Bollywood than Booker.
Not that this seems to bother him.
"I think I opened up the Indian market for writing in English," he says quite matter-of-factly. We wasted 30, or 40 years trying to impress British juries, trying to win a prize.
"Today we have literature which is written for Indians, read by Indians, in English - and it is selling big volumes." So who are these new readers? If his fan mail is anything to go by, 70% of them are not from the big cities, but from small towns.
That raises two issues.
New distribution channels
Firstly, how to get his new book to the people who want to read it.
"Book distribution is still a problem," he says. "Books were such an elitist product that the bookshops are in trendy areas, where people meet for cocktail parties and books are launched.
"But that is not how India is. India is 500 towns where there's a potential for having English bookshops. For my new book, I'm launching it in a supermarket."
The second issue is the cost.
Small town readers have less money, so his books have a low cover price.
This, he thinks, is how the market will develop.
"It's the same strategy that McDonalds used when they came to India," he says.
"They adapted. They changed the menu. They changed the pricing. They got the right locations. That's how its going to work."
Generation Next
And what of Generation Next itself? They offer the best hope for India in a long time, he thinks.
"I always say, the previous generation, which was 1960s to 1980s - was the most boring generation.
"The generation before that actually kicked the British out, young people quit their jobs and were ready to go to jail for a cause. I mean - that's really cool.
"Then we had 1960s to 1980s where they were just interested in socialism, silly notions, fighting silly wars, and the 'Hindu rate of growth'.
"But today's generation actually wants to make a lot of money and reach their potential. If everybody does this then India will become rich and developed. I think this generation has the best shot at it."
Dual role
He himself sees no conflict in being a banker by day and a writer by night - and certainly has no plans to give up his well-paid job in finance, despite his literary success.
"You know, I like to have a boss," he says. "I like to have people screaming at me in the office, having deadlines. I don't want to live the ivory tower life."
And those extra pounds he's putting on?
"I think they're right," he finally admits. "I'd better get back in shape."
India Business Report is broadcast repeatedly every Sunday on BBC World News.

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