“My school needing toilet as nobody able to toileting when toilet time coming”
If you thought this was one of the latest Santa-Banta jokes doing the rounds on watsapp, think again. This instead is a line spoken by Madhav, the hero of Chetan Bhagat’s latest work “Half Girlfriend” as he tries to prepare a speech for, hold your breath, none other than Bill Gates. And this is the state of his spoken English after having graduated from, yes hold your breath again, St Stephen’s college.
For a long time I’ve wondered how Chetan Bhagat managed to become the bestselling author in India. Then recently somewhere I read about him wanting to “make India read” and it all made sense. His books, by his own admission, are not for the classes but for the masses. And in our country if you can produce something- a good, a service, a movie or a book – that caters to the masses, you’ve got a winner on your hands. Who can beat the collective power of the teeming millions? And a book that costs less than a pizza, is written in the manner of spoken English, complete with the Bihari/Bhojpuri touch to it, gives you a glimpse into the hallowed portals of St Stephen’s College (or as pointed in the book “English types call it- Steven’s”) and takes you through a hurried trip of Manhattan, it is bound to be a winner- at least sales number wise.
Before I attract the wrath of the all the torchbearers of “Hindi our mother tongue” bandwagon, let me clarify that I have nothing against Hindi. In fact, this whole mentality of equating English speaking with well educated and cultured as opposed to Hindi speaking with the lower class and uneducated reeks of a colonial mindset just like equating fair skinned with beautiful. Neither am I making a case for High art that caters to the elite as opposed to pop art for the commoner. In today’s world of fusion, this line stands blurred.
My problem with Half Girlfriend, quite to the contrary is that it does nothing to break these stereotypes. Instead, it reinforces them. The protagonist “Myself Madhav Jha”, despite his relentless pursuit of Riya, the rich English speaking Marwari babe fails to convince us of his “love” for her. All that one sees is a boy from the backwaters of Bihar besotted by a girl who seems straight out of a Bollywood movie. Despite Riya making it very clear that she is not interested in Madhav in “that way”, that a no means a no, just does not sink into him. In fact, that he cannot speak English has nothing at all to do with her refusal. She just does not feel that way for him and one can see Riya’s point of view. Instead of a rapid English speaking course that the book contains for free, what Mr Bhagat could have tried to teach the Madhav Jha’s of our country is to learn to accept a girl’s no as a no. Bursting into crass vulgar Hindi when an English-speaking girl refuses to go to bed with you isn’t exactly the best way to bridge the gap between the “English speaking monsters” and those who still introduce themselves as “Myself so and so”.
For all his championing of women’s causes and telling men to respect women, Chetan Bhagat’s protagonist fails to show the same respect towards the heroine. The book rambles on, with all the predictable twists and turns of a Bollywood movie to reach a Karan Johar type denouement in the bars of New York. Only if all “love stories” could start from Dumraon and end in Manhattan! And only if Chetan Bhagat could, for once, have broken the clichés instead of reinforcing them. That however is not to be. As for the whole “English bashing” in the book, all I can say is by way of a quote from the book itself – that English is a “global language” rather than a “foreign language”. It is all very well to be proud of and know your mother tongue. But to do so by belittling the English language or its speakers reeks more of a colonial mindset than learning the language that suits your needs and carrying on.