Chetan Bhagat says he has an “awesome” dream that he shares with 4 per cent of India’s population — the Caring Objective Indians. His latest book, Making India Awesome, a collection of old columns and news essays, is addressed to them, and is about making this dream come true.
The dream is in the book’s title and, says Bhagat, it can be realised through four awesome things — awesome governance, awesome society, awesome equality, awesome resources.
To make India awesome, he writes, we have to give him a fair hearing because his is a voice “that simplifies things and points to a solution” — for everybody, on all issues, for all sides of all the divides.
Narendra Modi, for example, will have to follow his 17 commandments, which include, “come back to earth, you have not transformed India yet”. He’ll also have to drop Amit Shah because “you standing next to him is like Amitabh Bachchan standing next to Amar Singh”. And he must stop his “monologues on the radio” because “it’s not cool”.
Gandhis have it easy. There are just five things they have to do to make our desh awesome. They “need to own up to mess-ups and mistakes”, and then “gracefully handover power”. Awesome.
The 96 per cent Indians who are not both, caring and objective, will have to do many things to make India awesome. We have to face our demons about Godhra and other communal attacks, and we have to accept that “there is no one person who needs to apologise for this. We all need to.”
Bhagat, who says he’s a capitalist, a moderate and a liberal, occupies that often nebulous middle ground — a space where he says objectivity lives with neutrality. That’s where, he believes, cacophony dies and consensus emerges.
This is where he feels most comfortable.
Bhagat writes about everything, from the economy to BCCI, from women’s rights to Section 377. He makes a lot of sense sometimes, sometimes very little, and sometimes he contradicts himself.
But he doesn’t mind when you diss him or disagree with him. He’s ready to negotiate if you’d just step into his zone.
Over an almost hour long conversation, he took questions on politics, women, rights, choices, democracy, porn, FTII, beef, and many supplementary questions.
I nitpicked, I badgered. I was very irritating.
He was disarming. He cracked jokes, laughed, was honest, candid. Never once showing his irritation, never once abandoning the middle ground.
But he did one thing. In the course of questions over gender rights, his writing on women, he started addressing me as “ma’am”.
Full transcript of the interview with Chetan Bhagat, the quintessential negotiator.
In your book you’ve written that “awesome” is what “I want to turn India into — cool, aspirational, worthy of respect and that essentially inspires awe”. So how exactly do you plan on doing that?
Well, I can’t do it alone. I need other people to help me. This book is an attempt to do that. This book is an attempt to tell people that we need to work on a lot of issues — issues — and we need to get away from the battles that are happening right now. There is too much polarisation… we became very involved with the elections and it’s like we never got out of the election mode. Parliament is polarised, not functioning. Twitter is polarised, TV debates are polarised. We are not able to discuss major problems of the country because we always have one masala politics of the day and that’s what we keep doing.
I think our “awesome” nation… I don’t just want it to be a rich country. If it’s a rich country, you can have it like the Arab nations, but with no minority rights, no gender rights and that’s not what we want India to be. So that’s the intention… the intention is to get more people involved, and tell them to not take permanent sides. Take it in elections. But after that, don’t just, you know, blindly support a person or blindly criticise a person. You have to go issue by issue… And people have to change a lot of things. Mentality has to change. What can a politician do if people feel a certain way about women or Muslims? Our politicians can only do so much.
But isn’t it top-down usually, these things…
I think it is top-down and bottom up… we’ve tried top-down. We’ve tried to change the leadership. We’ve got a Modi, we’ve got a Kejriwal. Aa toh gaye sab jo aapko chahiye the. Phir kyon nahi badal raha hai? Phir kyun lad rahe hain hum? …Abhi bhi lade jaa rahe hain. Saath main kaam karna chahiye. Lekin ab bhi lad rahe hain. So I think, aaaa, you need some bottom-up also and that’s what I’m trying to attempt here. Look at each issue. Dekho ki kya kar sakte hain… A little more positive atmosphere would not hurt, you know.
You have millions of followers on Twitter (5.49 million), your books have sold, I don’t know, what’s the total number…
A lot. It’s fine.
…you do TV shows, you write newspaper columns. So I want to know, how seriously and in how much depth do you think of the issues you address, the issues you write about?
I try to, I mean I try to do a certain amount of research on everything. I think the thought is serious, but the idiom is not serious. The idiom is popular. You know, the expression method is often in a fun story, like 2 States, or a 3 Idiots kind of education system movie, but I try to understand an issue.
I’m not an expert in every issue and I’m not claiming to be. But I research enough to do an article on it and often times the issues are quite simple, if you think about it. It’s quite commonsensical. So as long as I feel I’ve got a grasp on what the key tenets are, yes. But super-nuanced is not possible. It’s not the nature of my job. You know, I can’t be an expert in and can’t be compared to someone who has worked in that field his entire life.
Why I’m asking you this is that youngsters especially, follow you a lot. They take you very seriously. So I’m just trying to understand how seriously should one take your view, because you often give solutions — yeh 5 points, yeh 10 points, yeh 2 points, right? How seriously should one take those?
To me those are solutions… those are obviously not hammered out solutions, but that’s the direction we need to go in. To me, just seeing some potential solutions gives hope. It makes people think, “Okay, I should also think like this. Maybe I should not just go out there on Twitter and criticise and feel my job is done. I should criticise, but also say, why don’t you do it this way. Why don’t we try this?”
If Twitter was throwing out solutions, even if there were 100 bad ones, there’ll be two good ones. But that thinking is only not there. I’m not saying I have all the solutions… If you look at the larger scheme, the solutions I’m proposing are not important. Maybe some are good, some are bad. But the important thing is that people need to start thinking in that manner — Toh ab karen kya? What can we do? And everybody can’t do. But some brilliant solutions will come. But if we think ki woh pagal hai, woh pagal hai, woh gadha hai, woh gadha hai — you know, that doesn’t do anything. So the aim is to make people more optimistic, more solution oriented. That’s a way of analysis which, some people say, “What is this? It is over simplistic.” I don’t think I will deny that charge. It is over simplified. It’s trying to do that. They are very, very small, consumable pieces… they are not even very long essays… that will be there. But there’s enough for people to get thinking in a positive way.
In your book you’ve described three types of Indians — Self-Focused Indifferent Indians, Caring But Aligned Indians and the third category, Caring Objective Indians. And you’ve said that this is the tiny segment that matters and you’ve addressed the book to them.
To them and to grow that segment… people who are ignorant, but who care. But caring and then taking a permanent side, you know, going after a messiah is not helping also. Because there’s no one messiah who is going to cure this country. You have to look at every decision, give your view in a fair way — that you feel that guy did it right or wrong. So that section right now is very small. And it’s tempting even for me to cater to one constituency, because that’s a bigger constituency. But then I think, that as a writer it’s my responsibility to try and take people in the right…
Which is the bigger constituency?
The people… For example, if I start backing Modi fans, it’s a big constituency on Twitter. They’ll all say, ooo… If I wrote a book on, I don’t know (pauses, thinks), Making Hinduism Rise, it would be a bigger, you know, “Haan, yeh hai kitab”. You know, I could, right? Hinduism Is Awesome, or something like that, haha. I’m sure it’ll get a lot of people excited. But that’s not what I want to be. It’s not. It’s okay, we are small now, the number of people who feel today the government was right, tomorrow it is wrong. Some people may call us fence-sitters, opportunists, confused, but if you are not in election mode, that is the way to be. If you are in election mode, then you take a side. But the moment you get out, be neutral and objective.
You’ve said this two-three times — polarisation. Who is to blame for this? Is it the Opposition, because you’ve mentioned Parliament, or is it the ruling party…
All of us are. The ruling party should have clarified on the controversies much earlier. If they had and they had even accepted a mistake — you don’t have to resign every time. Every mistake is not a resignation. We all make mistakes — it would have diffused the Opposition’s attack.
The Opposition would have protested but, maybe, said, we are going to let these five bills pass. Not because we feel you’ve done right, but because we feel it’s important for the country. I think that would have made the Congress look very good. And thirdly, people who feel that it’s okay to be this way — people are okay saying, Kiski galti hai. Congress ki galti hai, BJP ki galti hai. That’s all they are discussing, not worried that kaam hi nahi hua yaar. Kya fayeda hua? Kisi ek ki galti nahin hai. But we feel it’s okay if we are served drama instead of work. And that’s what they do. They serve us drama.
You’ve addressed the book to the Caring Objective Indian. My question to you is, why preach to the converted. Because they are, you know, already…
It’s addressed to them but it’s also… well, firstly to consolidate that because they feel very lonely on Twitter these days.
Ya, because you better join a mob or you’ll be attacked. So to built that, and maybe that’ll attract more people to that… I mean I feel that way. I feel I am attacked on all sides for giving my views. I feel there are others out there, so trying to combine…
There is this group that you sometimes hashtag and tweet about. You diss them and sometimes it’s very funny — #AdarshLiberal. So, Adarsh Liberals. You think they care less about the country than, say, you?
No, but Adarsh Liberal is a derogatory term for people who try to project an extraordinarily liberal image. And I’ve not just taken them apart. I have also written about #Bhakts (strident Narendra Modi supporters and right-wing trolls), what they do and who abuse women… Extremism of any kinds is not good…
You think liberalism can be extreme?
Of course it can be extreme. You have to be reasonable. You can be extra… Ya, of course. People confuse, people do minority appeasement in the name of liberalism. People want to be seen in a certain way, people want to be seen as hating a particular religion… Ya, I think so. I think you can confuse liberalism with elitism in India — you want to be part of that elite, you want to show a certain… that you are a… it’s more self-indulgence than truly being liberal. I’ve seen these liberal voices attacking everybody for having an opinion. How can you be liberal and say, “You shut up, you don’t know anything. What the hell are you? You are just a Bhakt.”
If you are liberal then you should at least also allow the Bhakt to co-exist. So, right. They are not liberals. They are extreme voices. They are just mobs, of a different colour. So those are the Adarsh. But there are some truly liberal people and there are some truly conservative people and that’s fine.
One of the things that you tweeted, in response to Aatish Taseer’s comment (he had said, “India, when left to its own devices, throws up a very different kind of writer, a man such as Chetan Bhagat, who… writes books of such poor literary quality that no one outside India can be expected to read them. India produces a number of such writers…”) — is that the kind of Adarsh Liberal you are talking about?
Ya, where he says that, you know… Aatish Taseer, you know, is a very interesting guy. I mean he almost wrote that whole story about, like, “when left to its own devices, India throws up a different kind of writer, Chetan Bhagat.” As if India shouldn’t be left to its own devices. It’s almost like India can’t choose properly. Or the fact that he says, Chetan is not read in the West. So therefore he’s obviously not a good writer. Which is bizarre.
And you immediately tweeted photos of your translations…
Well, I… Firstly he was wrong. Firstly he was wrong. There are 30-40 translations of my books. That I did. And also, I take offence that he published that in New York Times, deriding my country for no reason. My aim is not to change the West. My aim is to change my country. So I’m writing books in India. I’m very happy, I have a huge readership here. Ab, it’s okay, you know… Why do you have to say that because he’s not read in the West he’s…
Because you are so big, so in a sense you also become symbol of some things…
That’s okay. But to say that only when the West approves of Indian literature then it’s good literature is bizarre. I think it just reeks of a colonial hangover and I feel sad for people who think in that way. And there are so many holes in that argument. Especially in the entertainment business. Shah Rukh Khan is so popular here. He and Amitabh Bachchan are extraordinarily superstars here, they are not superstars in Hollywood. So they are not good enough?
Neither are the so-called Indian writers famous, that famous abroad. We think they are very famous and every American is thinking about our Indian writers there. They are not. There’s just one section, ya, okay, fine.
It’s silly know, in this day and age to need Western approval for our stories. Maybe for technology, but for stories?
Well, one of the criticism is that you don’t write “literature” (I meant to say literary books, but my hands rose for air quotes and “literature” came out). It’s popular, it’s pop…
I write what I write. Ab you can classify, if there is a label… It’s okay, they can say that. But again, I think, it’s an incorrect thing. Literature is not something your college course said… What do we study in literature? Literature is what’s being read at that time. That becomes literature of that time. I’m not writing the classical literature because it’s outdated now. I’m writing the literature of the current times and it’s okay if they feel it’s not… But there are a lot of people… Lot of colleges have my books — in contemporary studies, lot of PhD students I know… But it’s not classical literature, yes. That’s a fact.
The Adarsh Liberal, other side walla criticism is that you often don’t go into the specifics of issues. That you pick up an issue but you don’t…
Please blame Times of India for it. They give me a 750-word limit. I swear, ask them for a 5,000 word limit and I will go into details. But they don’t. What you see is a… I don’t have that aaaaa the platform to reach everybody and to…
Woh toh sab ke liye wordcount same hi hai.
Haan, toh kaun hai depth wala? (sniggers)
Depth ki nahin baat kar rahe. Specifics. Let’s say, if you were, aaaaaa… You are involved with films, you tweet a lot about education, about interference in IIM, etc., but you’ve not written anything about FTII.
Ya, because you know I really am confused about it. I’ll be honest with you. FTII — I don’t know how to approach it. I, I, I’m just genuinely telling you, I don’t know how to approach that a director has come and because he acted in some B-grade movies, he’s not a good director…
Chairman or whatever. Poor thing. Hahaha, you know, give him a chance, maybe he’s a really good manager. See, the chairman is not making the movies na? I don’t know.
(from somewhere in the recesses of my, I guess pancreas, this jumps out, unsolicited) Pappu Paanwalle ko agar IIM director bana denge toh…
hahahah I know, I know, I know… But, nobody does C-grade movies by choice na. Bechare ko nahin mili hongi…
(and… again)Haan, but Pappu Paanwalle ko toh IIM Ahmedabad ka chairman ya director nahin bana sakte na…
I think the issue is broader with the BJP. And if I were to comment on it, some of the actions of the BJP na shows some decisions get taken without the correct discussion… Every party needs a leader who is very strong and nobody can say anything. But you also need those people who tell you, “Nahin sir, ye nahi theek lagega. Sir yeh, this doesn’t seem like the smart thing…”
How did it happen is a bigger concern to me than the person. Bechara. Woh toh bechara phas gaya abhi… (rolling back into the sofa with uncontrollable laughter) because na woh ban sakta hai, na woh hat sakta hai.
So, but, kaise hua? How could they take a decision like that? How could they now arrest those students? How could they… the kids are also of a different kind there haan, they wanted their assignment not to be graded or something.
Ya, not right now. 2008 batch ka.
Haina? 2008 ka assignment they said ki grade mat do.
Abhi mat do.
There are kids who they are there for 10-10 years. So this is a very complicated issue is what I’m saying. Public opinion is ki maaro isko…
Aap toh mota-mota baat karte ho na — toh mota-mota baat kya hai isme?
Mota-mota baat yeh hai ki usko banana chahiye tha ya nahin. Aur, is this the right way to protest, ki bachche strike pe chale gaye. And is this the right way — ki Rahul Gandhi wahan chala gaya. It’s just… It’s a mess. It’s a total mess. I like to comment on issues which are national impact issues. I don’t want to comment on an appointment of one guy. So the national impact issue is that the BJP is having a communication issue I think, because this, and war veterans ko hata diya — that is, for me, exciting. I am not a news channel. I’m not covering FTII. There are many… Keenan-Reuben murders, I remember in Mumbai. I remember Arnab said… Very bad what happened. But I feel like I have only so much bandwidth and I only want to comment on issues which are of national impact. FTII issue is not of national impact to me yet, but it is becoming slowly, (smiles) it’s snowballing into a huge thing…
So IIM is your personal interest?
They approached me. They called me. The dean/director called me. The IIM bill is about autonomy. If IIM director (laughs)… I don’t know, kisko bana dete… Arindam Chaudhuri (laughs hysterically)… aisa koi, ya pata nahi kisko…
Toh you would have tweeted…
I would have commented on the process of appointing the director. I would have commented on how these things are chosen and it should not be arbitrarily chosen. But comment on personality…
But then that is like a sermon… It means that you are a little wary of…
Toh main keh toh raha hoon ki kya pata he’s an amazing manager (hahahaha). Maybe he’s a horrible actor, but maybe he’s a… because usko film thodi-na banani hai wahan pe…
(I can’t control myself and collapse laughing…)
Kya karna hai, staff selection… You know, what does the chairman do?
But Saeed Mirza ke baad kuch toh…
I know. hahaha It was bizarre. It was just too silly to comment. I found it a silly issue. What is the big issue? The big issue is that these are being thrusted down, na?
That’s the big issue.
And the issue is that this is the only institute till now which has stood up, in whatever, right or wrong way, but it’s the only one that has stood up…
Ya, ya… But if you are thinking I’m not commenting on FTII because of getting work in Bollywood… there is no link. Bollywood doesn’t care about FTII… You think they care what I say about…
But Ranbir Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, our stars who are known fence-sitters, they have commented. Even Salman Khan!
They are talking about FTII and you are not talking…
Ya, because that’s when I feel it’s a free for all. Now there is nothing sensible to say.
So how would you describe yourself?
How would I describe myself? (laughs)
Capitalist, patriotic, socialist, lefty, feminist…
I think I am a capitalist. I’m a moderate, my politics is about capitalism, moderate politics, issue by issue. Ya, my politics is in the book, which is to be somewhat liberal and capitalist. There is nothing ya, in India, of that category — capitalist but liberal.
You’ve written this phrase which fascinated me — “super-power fantasies and patriotic porn”. What exactly is “patriotic porn”?
See, when… It must be in the context of that article no, woh hota hai na, ki India is great, nationalism, and bina baat ke, bus, aise hi, that. It’s certain things, that India is…
Super-power fantasies I get. Yeh patriotic porn kya hai?
Patriotic porn is these WhatsApps you get, showing you ki how India is so amazing, Hinduism was so great, and, you know…
Haan! Woh bikta hai.
Irrational, unjustifiable and just sensational claims to be more than we actually are.
And that’s detrimental?
Ya, I think you should look — I’m not saying we can’t make India awesome, but I’m saying we are not awesome yet. You can’t start from this place, that we are so great, and we are Sone ki Chidiya. Where is, where was the Sone ki Chidiya, I want to know. You know, there was no India only at that time. There were like 50 kingdoms, or hundred…
500 kingdoms. So Sone ki Chidiya kahan se aa gayi? Par thi! Udan-khatole the (cackles)
So, one of the things you’ve written is that the average Indian is looking for the same thing — quality of life, a certain amount of hope and security and the freedom to make personal choices… You talk a lot about the freedom to marry, so I was…
Hmmmm Abhi yehi hai. Abhi India mein this is the first step. Gay marriages, living in… Most people in India, I found, especially after 2 States, it’s a huge thing. In most democracies in the West the concept of arranged marriage has gone. We still have it. So I think it’ll have to go.
Aap shaadi.com ki ad karte ho aur phir yeh kehte ho?
Woh toh love arranged by shaadi.com hai na.
Ab shaadi.com and all also… people are choosing. A lot of times it’s not…
But you just said arranged marriage will have to go…
Arranged marriage by parents. Parents can say, ki isko dekh lo. “Is-se shaadi karoge tum versus Jaao, iske saath coffee pe baat kar aao aur dekho tum ko achcha lagta hai ke nahin.” It’s very different. Introduced by parents is okay. Introduction marriages will never stop. But to say, ki nahin, tuh hamari biradri mein hi karoge… and the fact that when you do find someone, are your parents okay with it. That’s the thing.
You think this is a big issue?
I found that it’s a huge issue. In terms of personal freedom, it’s the first step. Freedom to choose a lover is not there in India. It’s not there. If you are lucky, then your parents are liberal. If you are lucky, then same community. But normally the diktats of the family are very high… But there is a generation which wants to break out, so I felt…
Uske baad hoga jo baki, more complex issues… Pehle toh yehi ho jaye na.
You’ve written a lot about food in the book as well. And you’ve tweeted about Maggi also… But you didn’t write on the beef ban?
I should have. hahaha Ab kya karen yaar? What all they keep doing?! Porn ban I wrote…
Porn ban I wrote, which was harder in a way. To take a stance which is against porn ban was much harder. Beef ban — I was very surprised. But beef ban is not national.
Ya, it’s not. But it’s creeping…
So then I will. Ya, then I will. I’ve written about Gujarat prohibition also.
But isn’t that your state, Maharashtra?
I don’t eat beef, toh mereko… But I think they’ve made a weird… Beef milta hai Bandra mein, yaar. But you can’t… Desh ki gaye nahin maar sakte, bahar ki maar sakte ho.
(Everybody in the room bursts into laughter, including Bhagat)
Sachci mein! Foreign cows are okay. You can get imported beef. So Bandra mein you get beef. You get like Australian beef. Frozen laate hain woh. Woh theek hai. Woh hamari Maa nahin hai, woh toh videshi hai na. Hamari Maa sirf Indian passport waali gaye hai. Gaye ka bhi passport hota hai na.
It’s so bizarre.
I also use another criteria, ki iske baare mein likhenge kya. But it’s so bizarre, it feels so bizarre, ki I’m opposing this, it feels like, ki ab yeh bhi karna pad-raha hai. But then someone said, it’s in our Constitution also, to ban beef.
Kuch hai. Toh woh bhi bada complicated hogaya. Phir kya karen ab…
Constitution mein toh bahut kuch hai…
Haan, bahut kuch hai. All Indians are brothers and sisters bhi hai… (chuckles)
Beef Ban. My god, beef ban. I think basically, if, today you want to be seen as a really big risk taker, you should be holding a beef burger, watching porn and cooking Maggi. That’s like, puts you…
That’s the selfie you are going to post?
That’s not a bad selfie to post, no? hahaha
(Recovering) You’ve written about prohibition…
I have written about Gujarat state, jo wahan…
but then you’ve written, in that piece, “I don’t endorse drinking.”
Because that’s what people think. People think ki Chetanji keh rahe hain ki daru piyo.
(I think I splattered out some spit with my burst of laughter)
Kehte hain log. Ab Chetan keh rahe hain ki porn dekho.
What? (the girls in the room, his publishers, are giggling uncontrollably, holding their mouths)
Hai, hamare desh mein thinking aisi hai, main kya karoon. Kehna padta hai. Obvious hai, I know for someone like you, who does this, journalism, for a living, it’s painstakingly obvious, ki of course he’s not talking about that. But people think ki aapne bola prohibition hata do (speaking in a naughty, conspiratorial tone) matlab ki aap toh daru peena chahte ho…
It’s like a girl saying, “Oh you are pro-abortion. So you like sex haan? That’s why you want abortion.” It is stupid. It’s bizarre. But that’s how it is… Look at Twitter. Everyday four tweets come — the writer who loves porn. They are all watching porn by the way, jo likh rahe hain, main shayad utni na bhi dekh raha hoon. Par phir bhi unko hai ki — because it’s seen like that…
And I am not endorsing alcohol. I am not saying drink. I am not saying that. You shouldn’t. But if you want to, you can.
Ya, I drink. I’m not denying that. I do drink.
You’ve written that actually — that “I drink in moderation.”
Ya, I did that. (Laughs and adds) I didn’t write that about porn. Ki I watch porn in moderation (aaaahahaha)
But do you?
There is no guy who doesn’t watch. So anybody who says he doesn’t watch is absolutely lying.
So if you had said you don’t watch, you’d be lying…
I think they’ll reach their conclusion.
But you watch a lot more when you are in college. Then, tsk, all fun things end… hahahahehe
On porn ban you’ve written, “a significant number of women watch porn too… (I haven’t finished)
Ya, that’s not me. It’s studies. And I am not endorsing that women should watch… hahaha it’s just…
But then you’ve added, in the same sentence, “though women don’t get as excited about it as say a 50% sale on their favourite handbag”.
That’s another article, actually. That’s an article on women. That’s not the article on porn ban.
Right. But it’s in the same sentence.
It’s a joke yaar.
But isn’t this chalaki — ki keh bhi diya aur phir fatafat withdraw bhi par liya.
Nahin, yeh porn ke article mein nahin likha tha. That is an article on working women.
(I can’t recall) But whatever. It’s…
I was trying to say, I guess, it’s not such a big deal for women. Porn — it’s a male thing… I don’t think you’ll find women protesting if porn is taken away from them, but men will. It’s a huge thing. Engineering colleges will stop, FTII, sare band ho jayenge…
So you think handbags are more important to women…
It was a joke yaar… You know, there was this irreverence in me, in my earlier books, in my earlier writings, which is becoming increasingly hard to keep because “Aise kaise likh diya… Kya keh rahe ho? Aise kyon keh rahe ho? How can you stereotype like this…”
But why not stand by it…
Because it’s nothing to stand by. It’s just a joke. I mean how can I… I have not done a study ki they prefer porn or a 50 per cent discount. But ya, I mean, I stand by it. But you know, it’s a tricky topic — porn — to write about. So I was trying to make it a little light hearted… Didn’t work, I guess?
I thought it was an awesome copout…
Abhi jo hai… sometimes I… not everything that comes out of my pen is…
Because not many people have written this, about women and porn, that is why I thought.
Women are not into porn as much as men.
Maybe not as much. But women watch, and it’s important that a writer like you would write that. So…
That I’ve written.
But phir woh withdraw kar liya aapne
Withdraw nahin kiya. It’s not high up on their list of priorities.
How do you know?
(laughs) Anecdotal evidence only. I don’t know. The women I know… I have not… I have seen women get more excited about… Have you seen women share porn clips with other women friends? But they share na, 50 per cent discount hai yahan pe, chalo.
Maybe it’s a more private thing and not a janhit thing
But men do it, janhit — This you must watch! (we are all giggling like adolescents) So obviously we are more excited.
Let us not discuss porn anymore, please.
One last question.
You’ve said, “It’s time to reform our moral standards. Let people have fun in moderation.” Toh aap ration karne ki baat kar rahe ho…
No, no. Let people have fun in moderation and let people decide what is the moderation.
Porn is bad. In excess amount, porn can be very bad. Let’s not make a mistake. It can affect… there are porn addicts. It’s not good to watch too much. Alcohol also, and butter also, so many things. The issue in these bans is, do you think that people are smart enough to moderate.
But our government thinks we are not smart enough to do anything.
Except elect the government. Hum ne hi unhein elect kiya hai, then we were not smart kya?
So that’s the issue. The issue of choice comes with democracy. Democracy is about choice. You can’t say, you choose us, but then we’ll withdraw your choices. Either you take away democracy. Most places where all these things are banned are not democracies.
In your chapter, Bhasha Bachao, Roman Hindi Apnao, you’ve suggested that we should use the Roman script…
Which apparently Rahul was using and then it became a big deal…
Rahul Gandhi was using, meaning?
In the Parliament nahin tha woh — abhi aaya tha na, woh cheatsheet. Woh bhi news ban gaya…
But how would it work, because…
So it’s a radical idea. That is one of those ideas where I kind of really pushed the envelope and I got the flack for it from the purists. But we need to distinguish between the script and the language. Script is Devanagari and the language is Hindi. I’ve seen in Malaysia, and in Indonesia, they have dropped the script. It’s written in English. And a place like India, I’m not saying drop the script, but adopting the Roman script makes a lot of sense. Because we have so many different scripts… if we take this, all our smart phones are using it anyway. It’s very commonly used. We’ve just not made it official.
And that’ll really help, I think. It’ll help unify the country, bridge the class divide. A poor person, all he’ll need to know is understand the characters. Words toh same rahenge, bhasha toh same rahegi, haina? Pyar ka P Y A R likh dega instead of in Devanagari. Phir woh suddenly English samajhne lagega, aur phir woh dhire-dhire wahan se English pakad lega.
But ek phonetic language hai, and the other is a non-phonetic…
Woh hain issues, but you can learn to spell. People are using. How do kids chat these days?
No, no. They chat. I’m not saying…
How are Bollywood scripts written? How are TV anchors writing… it’s all over… I’m saying, use it and harness it, and it can be the future.
See, what you are talking about, people who use the Roman script to write Hindi, know both languages — English and Hindi. So once you know both languages it’s…
No yaar, even the… Yes, yes.
Aap sikhaoge kaise? How will…
Sirf letters sikhane hain, aur kuch nahin sikhana.
Toh aap kaun sa letter sikhaoge? Aap English alphabet sikhaoge ya aap Hindi alphabet sikhaoge?
Aapke according, English alphabet sikhaoge.
English bhi sikhao, aur Hindi bhi sikhao.
So that’s my question. I agree. I think it makes a lot of sense to adopt the Roman script. But the examples you are using are of people who know both languages.
But even drivers today, for example, who may not speak in English, but they are typing.
What I mean to say is, how would a four-year-old, a five-year-old, how would he begin? What would you do with that child? What would you teach — would you teach A for apple, or would you teach A se anda? What would you do?
You teach him the language normally, but you also allow him to use Roman… At the teaching level, the fundamentals will not change. You will keep it. I’m not saying throw away Devanagari. But in official signs, in road signs… All our ads are there anyway…
I know. But are you getting what I am saying?
I know what you are saying. It’s a challenge. But you can work it out.
But tell me, if there’s a child…
You will have to learn both languages.
Right. That’s my thing.
It’s not going to save you from learning a language. No, it is not. That is not one of the benefits.
So you are not suggesting teach Hindi in the Roman script?
No. You can’t do that… woh vyakaran aur… learn Hindi, but allow the Hindi guy some Roman, so that he can step into the English world.
So are you basically saying Hinglish?
It’s not Hinglish. I’m talking about a very specific issue, of Roman script being used for Hindi.
Toh wohi toh main keh rahi hoon — ki agar aap Roman script lo, for Hindi…
Dhire-dhire Devanagari chala jayega. Correct. You are right.
No, no. I have no problem.
I also have no problem. Ja bhi sakta hai. Jana bhi chahiye. Kyunki dekho, Hindi yahan pe… South mein toh Devanagari ka koi matlab hi nahin hai.
My issue, my concern was that have you thought through ki yeh hoga kaise?
Kiya hai na, Indonesia ne kiya hai.
But is that a phonetic language which they’ve migrated to the English alphabet?
It was a script, so it was a phonetic… so ya.
So you’ve not thought this through?
No, no. We can do this. It’s fine… We have 16 official languages. Can’t we make Roman one of the official languages? Just try it out. You know, 16 official languages mein hamein koi dikkat nahin ho rahi…
So you are saying 16 official languages plus Hindi in Roman?
No. Any language, Tamil in Roman. Everywhere. So I go to Tamil Nadu, at least I can read the word. Abhi toh ande, abhi toh jalebi jelebi jalebi hai… Wahan pe I’ll see, like, Wanakam, Chennai… ille-le
But if you don’t know what wanakam means… you will have to have basic knowledge of…
English yes, little bit.
No, but you’ll also have to know Tamil.
If I start living in Tamil Nadu, I won’t do it in the first visit.
I was making this list, if it’s done as you are saying, then, A se anda, B se…
So make them write in both scripts. They’ve done simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese. How have they done it? One has 5,000 characters, one has 500 characters. Banaya hoga na unhon-ne system. So you have different kinds — some places teach both, some places teach one. I agree it’s a challenge. But it’s not like it’s not been done and I can see a lot of sense, because it will unify our country and it will unify the classes. It’s too radical an idea. It’s one of the most radical ideas in the entire book. And it’s not something we are ready for, I think. I know that after the article came out.
I think if you already know two languages, it’s fine. I think the problem is how do you make it happen from, say, kindergarten. Aap Roman A mein kya dekhaoge? Aap Roman mein k, kha, ga kaise sikhaoge.
If you really want to ask me, k, kha, ga will go away. Why will there be k, kha, ga… it’s only ABCD. A se anda. A N D A. B se billi. B I L L I.
C se banana padega kuch aapko. So C, CH, ch ho jayega… you can do it.
You lay a lot of importance on objectivity. But you’ve also written about, in the context of the Salman Rushdie episode at the Jaipur LitFest, neutrality. Why is neutrality so important?
Because extreme voices don’t get you anywhere. They are just very impractical to bring about change. They only create noise. I don’t think they create anything. So I think, taking a view that my religion is the greatest, or taking the view that religion is a horrible thing, those are like, they just don’t get anything done. The sides need to come together, if you are talking in the context of the Rushdie controversy, so ya.
But then what about freedom of speech and expression? Where does that fit in? Because you’ve often tweeted…
You have the freedom of speech, you have freedom to condemn. But you can’t kill the guy, you shouldn’t ban his book. I’m saying, Rushdie has the right to say whatever he wants to say, whatever crap thing he wants to say, he can say. But I have the right to say he’s talking crap.
Because hate sells. So he could be using hate to sell his books, you know. He feels freedom of speech, but freedom of speech could also be a marketing device. Let me at least say that.
And you’ve written that the Jaipur LitFest, the venue, should not be used…
Ya, because, you know, that year, it was crazy there.
I was there.
Ya. It was like, people were like, Diggy Palace owners, they lend the place. People were like, “Nahin, karo karo, video session karna hi hai…” It was an out of control political issue. And they said, “Nahin aap karo session. Protest and do it.”
You’ve seen the crowds there? 15,000 people. 50 political goons would have come and started hitting people, some stampede happens, 10 people die. Who is responsible? So it’s not like… Rushdie has the right to say whatever he wants. And he gave an interview to Barkha that evening. And nothing happened to anybody, right. The government allowed it.
That day, that moment, that charged up thing, that we are liberals and we will make… that was foolish bravado, I think.
How did it all start? They started reading from Satanic Verses, four guys went and… because Rushdie nahin aa raha tha toh… I guess you have the right to do it, but it doesn’t achieve anything. It doesn’t solve the problem. You’ve got to sit down and… because I believe in real change, I understand things need to be politically incentivised. People need to, you know…
In a purist sense, yes, you can say, I have the right to scream whatever I scream. Theek hai bhai. Go and scream. Hoga kuch nahin usse.
But litfest — isn’t it the place, even if I am one voice, I am a minuscule, minority voice, isn’t that the place to…
It had become a huge issue, the state government had said ki Rushdie na aaye. Ab whether they were wrong in doing that, maybe. But then these guys went and said, we’ll read the banned passages about the religion. Bus, milgaya unko… unko toh wohi chahiye tha, parties ko. So you played to their tunes actually. They think they were being very brave and free, but that’s exactly what the government wanted… to use it to divide people and gain political…
Ok. You’ve mentioned three groups in your section on Awesome Equality — minorities, women and gays. So about women, in your chapter, Home Truths on Career Wives, you’ve written about hot phulkas and…
There you’ve discussed, in one paragraph, the pros of a working wife… aaaa…. which I found a bit… offensive…
But you know, that is one of my moooost popular columns. Believe it or not, that is the most, single biggest, most popular column. Gets WhatsApped all the time… I know why you have a problem with that. And I can understand your perspective, because it is not for me to decide, whether women…
Nahin… your pros were banal.
Par woh sahi hai. Aapko banal lagte hain na. Hamare desh mein toh, jahan mard sochta hai ki aurat ka kaam hai ghar pe khana banana, uske level pe aake baat karni padti hai na. Usko thodi na main keh sakta hoon (stiffens his back, leans back into the sofa and speaks in a superior, supercilious mock voice), “Ki the correct thing to do is to do this… This is how society should be.”
He’ll say, “Theek hai! Chal, roti bana.”
You’ve to say, “Nahin, aap karo. Aapke bachche, achche, smart honge. Aap karne do usko jo karti hai aapki wife. Aapki kal ko naukri jayegi, aapko fayeda hoga.” It is banal. But nahin pata na hamare desh mein, nahin sochte aise. Ab main kya karon… It’s a challenge for me. Ya, it is.
But in the same piece you have also written, “…there are also drawbacks of being with working women”. What are the drawbacks?
Drawbacks because I wanted all the housewives not to feel na ki… hahahaha… But there will always be drawbacks.
Bachchon ka jaise, you know. They (the women) are always guilt-ridden.
Aadmi ke liye kya drawback hai?
Yehi drawback hai, time toh kum degi na woh phir aapko. Because uski alag priorities hain…
But aap bhi toh kaam kar rahe ho…
Haan. But column toh women pe likh rahe hain na (laughs)
…Non-working men toh option hi nahin hai.
It’s sexist, but.
It depends you know, ma’am. It depends on what definition of feminism you apply. You’ll be surprised, most Indian women don’t want…
Forget definition. Forget everything else. Equality.
Equality hai. Theek hai.
What are the drawbacks of working men?
Working men ke yehi drawbacks hain, ki he’ll be too busy.
Men pe column likhon ga toh woh hota hi na. I’m not saying ki men are absolved of this… I don’t think so. But to presume that since I am writing this, it’s that kind of… men versus women, yeh keh diya toh that means that. That should not be there. Theek hai. We should be able to talk about, okay, working wife honi chahiye ki non-working honi chahiye. It’s okay.
Aadmi kaisa chahiye tumhen? Ab, just because a girl says, “I want a man who is successful”, is that a sexist statement? I don’t know. It’s a slippery slope.
So in the phulka thing, you’ve written that my wife is the COO of…
She has left her job now, since that column.
Okay. But you’ve written, “She doesn’t make phulkas for me… it doesn’t really bother me…
Again, you know, it’s a very odd place I am in. I’m not just a columnist na. When men read it, they feel like, theek hai yaar.
Maine yeh phulka-maker kyun likha, kyun aaya yeh word? Because my research showed, all the women said, “Doctor hoon main, but ghar jaake phulke toh banane hain. Nahin toh meri saas bolti hai, tu phulke nahin bana sakti, phulke nahin bana sakti…” Phulka became a symbol of women’s… Cocktail movie se tha… it started with the Cocktail movie reference. This article came from there.
And you said it (Cocktail) was regressive.
And the director agreed with me, by the way.
Everybody said it was regressive
…Deepika was this totally independent woman, the moment Saif woh… woh agle din phulke banane baith jaati hai (he switches to action, like a newly wed, with many bangles and heavy earrings, would roll phulkas with that madhur sound), Cham-cham-cham jhumke-waale. So, you know, it was that… Because a lot of Indian men are trying to impress their moms by saying, “Ke dekho, meri wife kitne achche phulke banati hai.” So…
But I’m talking about you. You’ve said that it doesn’t really bother me…
It doesn’t bother me.
Really ka matlab?
Ab itna zyada, bahut zyada…
Arre, uske baad you’ve written…
It’s a way of saying, it doesn’t really bother me. You are putting emphasis on…
But after that you’ve written, “…if my wife had spent her life in the kitchen, it would have bothered me more.” These are your words, not…
I know, I know. But the word “really” pe emphasis dena… It doesn’t really bother me, versus It doesn’t realllly bother me… isme bahut farak ho jata hai ma’am, tone ka.
But you’ve written, “it would have bothered me more…” So it bothers you a little?
It would have… Well, of course, it would be nice to have jhumke-waale phulke yaar. But nahin hai. It’s fine.
I think it’s better to be realistic. To say that… Of course, every man wants, ki ghar aaye, aur garam-garam phulke khaye. Khana khilaya is the biggest turn-on for Indian men.
Garam-garam phulkon ke saath?
Haan. Garam-garam phulke khao. Ek aur, ek aur, ek aur… hahahaha
…Is it a big deal? No, it’s not a big deal. But now should I be fake and say — (again, in what I presume is the duly accented and slightly effeminate Adarsh Liberal voice) “Oh, it doesn’t matter at all you know. I’m so liberal. I was born this way.”
No yaar, it would have been nice to have someone… I’m sure it would nice for women also to have, someone coming… but if I knew that the girl cooking for me has talents and she has not used them in her life, that would bother me a lot more. That’s all I’m trying to say. Ab baal ki khal toh ma’am ab…
Agar baal ki khal hoti hai toh phir…
Nahin, correct hai. You are not wrong. But it is targeted at the average Indian male. It is, therefore, trying to blend in with how they think. Because that’s how they think. “Meri wife hai, khana nahin banayegi mere liye?” That’s the person you are talking to.
Now try to tell him… Either you say, “You are so stupid, you are duffer, tujhe toh kuch pata hi nahin hai, you are regressive, you are this…” I can label them regressive and move on. But if I want to change him, kya bolun. “Koi baat nahin phulke nahin banati.”
Ab aap bol rahe ho ki “koi baat nahin” kyun bola. Aapka kehna hai ki, kyun, baat honi kyun chahiye. Itni jaldi nahin mil jayenge aapko rights, ma’am.
Yeh samaj aise mardon ka bana hai jo bahut kattar hain. They are not going to change like that. First let them be okay with women working. Let them be okay with women getting empowered a little bit. Dhire-dhire kar ke hi hoga. That’s what I feel.
In the large scheme of things I am not sexist. But, maybe, the undertones can be sexist to a very evolved reader, yes.
Because even in the guilt piece (Ladies, Stop Being So Hard On Yourself)
I know (sniggers — this time at me, knowing exactly where I’m going)
Where you talk about women
…has really rankled you…
It didn’t rankle me. I thought you actually got many things about women right and I was so delighted with that. That sentence…
(laughs and says) par ek line… (he is now mocking me, fully, but gently)
Nahin, nahin. Bahut achcha likha hai, that “Women, especially working women, feel so guilty that if, for some reason, they don’t feel guilty for a day, they feel guilty about not feeling guilty.” Superb. I think you got women and how weird they are. But my problem was that in that whole chapter, where you are talking about women juggling work, family, life, you didn’t bring in the man at all though you were writing about married women. Ki bhai, tu bhi karle kuch.
Bola logon ne mujhe, ki aadmi ko bhi kuch… But basically… Ya, I could have. It’s incomplete in that way.
(His handler, the sweet Vasundhara from Rupa, is getting jittery. NDTV crew is waiting behind the curtain in IIC’s Room No. 52, and she is gesturing us, to hurry, to wrap it. I have a few more questions. “Bus, last two questions,” I say. To which Bhagat says to her, “She’s really done her work ya. She totally deserves to…” I smile. “No, I mean it,” he says. “Thank you,” I say (and break into a BIG smile inside). Almost instantly the smile breaks because I think that the next time Bhagat writes about women, especially the independent, working, aadmiyon-ki-aisi-ki-taisi women, he should also write that they need vindication, all the time, for everything.)
To make India awesome, you argue for equality for minorities, women and gays. Yet, you disapprove of Western inspired gay parades, right?
And “…anything that presents being gays as somewhat fashionable or cool…”
Ya, because, I’ll tell you how it was. It was a very tough column to write. These columns are very tough, right. Because I’m not gay myself, and I’m kind of giving advice to the gay community. But I had to do it. It came from Reema Kagti (Bollywood director) actually.
She told me, do something. So maine kaha, main karta hoon. I’ll do something. I said, I’ll do it, but I want some gay people to read the article before it comes out. Because mujhe nahin pata, and I did make her read it. I did make two-three other gay people read it. And they pointed this issue out — ki yeh parades ka hai, yeh aapne kyun likha hai.
Because I have to be balanced if I’m talking to the average Indian in the small towns who feels gays are, like, weird, right. I said ki they feel this. This is what they feel, “Ki yeh bade fashionable bante hain, aur hamare bachche gay banjayenge, fashion hai.” Galat sochte hain, but yeh sochte hain. Is soch ko hamein badalna hai. Ab aapko soch badalni hai ya shor machana hai? Sometimes you have to decide — you want to have a change, or you want to be noticed. If you want to be noticed, do the parade. But if you do the parade, which happens in New York, for which people dress up in drag and walk, people are not going to feel sympathy for you in India. It’s a hostile environment. It’s criminal to be gay. And now you are walking out, celebrating it. It’s only going to increase the hostility.
If you had a different campaign — “I am Rajan X, I am a doctor, and I am gay. I am so and so, I’m a lawyer, and I am gay. I’m this, I’m this, I’m gay.” That would be hugely impactful. We are one of you, rather than saying we are different from you.
So I told them, this is why I have written this. And also, it makes my piece more balanced. Because I do want to bring out the apprehensions of the other side, because they will say, “yeh toh inhin ka ho gaya”. There are many people in India who feel it is wrong. So, then, Reema said, “Keep it, I think you should keep it…” And you picked on that one thing only, which was the only thing in that article that kind of chided them a bit…
Yeh India mein kyun karte hain woh? I don’t know. Self-expression hai?
Not just that. You know LGBTQ, right. So one of the things about being queer, and by queer I mean LGBT etc, it’s… it’s — there is something called heteronormative — jo hetero aur normal hai, jo hetero hai aur therefore normal hai, right. And there is queer. So being gay, queer is also about rejecting the roles assigned to you by your gender, by birth, by patriarchy. Which includes not wearing what you would wear as a woman, as a…
I know. I don’t disagree with that. We are talking to a very hostile population who genuinely believe that this is a perversion, this is something wrong, this is something which youngsters are doing to be fashionable. They are not believing that it’s normal. That’s where we are right now. So I think for us, I even told them it’s a sin (his piece is titled, Section 377 Is Our Collective Sin). I’ve given them five-six standpoints — politically, legally, morally, why it has to go away. But, at the same time, I think the gay community can also try and do campaigns which say that we are normal yaar, we are like you. We like to go and have lunch, we like to… rather than celebrate the difference, point out the similarities — that may work better here. It’s my suggestion.
India mein nahi… I know kyun karte hain woh… (But) India mein bolte hain, “Dekho weirdos aa gaye, hijre aa gaye…” Main aapko bata raha hoon jo log bolte hain. Toh how will we change? And I’m not making a contribution if I… My desire to be intellectual, or to be seen as intellectual is not so much that I will only say things that the intellectuals want to hear. I really want to work on the mentality of people. It was hard. The day I wrote the column, I got so much hate that day.
Hate bahut aati hai aapko…
Because it’s such a strong view, to say that it’s a sin… Section 377…
You are selling it as a negotiation rather than demanding it…
It’s always a negotiation. That’s what a moderate is — who looks at both sides.
But in Gujarat, in prohibition’s context, you talk about hypocrisy. Isn’t this then advocating hypocrisy? If I’m gay, if I’m queer, if I’m a hijra…
Kar lo phir aap. Log aur dar jayenge aapse. Ya toh sun-lo meri baat, jisko pata hai society kya hai hamari… ya mat suno. It’s a suggestion. It’s my opinion.
On Twitter lots of people follow you, but you follow very few people.
You follow Mr Narendra Modi.
You do not follow Rahul Gandhi…
He’s just come. @OfficeOfRG, no?
Ek second toh lagta hai.
Is it RG or @OfficeOfRG?
Office, I think.
Haan, toh, I’m not a big fan of offices. Because you don’t know who is really doing… but okay, I should, I will follow.
No, I’m not saying you should follow. I’m asking why you don’t.
You don’t think he’ll make India awesome?
No, I’ll follow him. I follow people even if they don’t make India awesome. As long as they make India interesting I’ll follow them.
Kejriwal you don’t follow?
With some people it’s like… I’ll follow him, okay.
NO! I DON’T CARE. I’m just asking, why do you follow Modi and not Kejriwal and…
Modi is the Prime Minister yaar. You have to follow the Prime Minister of the country. If Rahul Gandhi becomes Prime Minister of the country I’ll follow him. But even now I’ll follow him. Chalo, aapne keh diya toh.
MAINE NAHIN KAHA!!!!!! Sir, please…
(I checked, just before going to press. He hasn’t started following them. Not yet.)
August 22, 2015