Desktop version

Home arrow Religion

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Mantras of the metropole: Chetan Bhagat’s millennial Hinduism

Manisha Basu

As the title attempts to indicate, this essay concerns itself with the question of how religion - often considered the atavistic other of technologised societies - continues to be instantiated in those contemporary urban Indian contexts characterised by the newest digital technologies and the dizzying pace of their penetrations into the polity. I will address this matter through a reading of Chetan Bhagat’s highly successful, second English-language Indian novel. One Night @ the Call Center (2005). The novel taps into the phenomenon of offshoring and, therefore, its subject is primarily India’s present-day economic relationship to the Unites States, but more broadly speaking, One Night @ the Call Center points to the quickly transforming aesthetics and politics of increasingly networked life-worlds. The issue of how religious sentiment and/or spiritual feeling embeds itself in the telematics of such life-worlds is one I hope to account for when I begin to unravel and critically plot the framing of the novel. Before that, however, I think it important to understand why we are considering Chetan Bhagat - someone who has been called by the Guardian the “biggest-selling writer in English you have //ever heard of’ (emphasis mine) - instead of an author with perhaps more of a recognisable place in the glittering cannon of Indian writers of English.1 To some extent, the answer to the question is provided in the Guardian's signature tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of Bhagat’s stature. Even though "you” (the implied addressee remains under elision of course) may not have heard of him, Chetan Bhagat is the "biggest-selling writer in English.” Period. Yet in order to nuance this reality we must ask ourselves a series of questions that in fact will help to unpack the possible reasons for which the addressee of the Guardian's claim is put under erasure: Why may "you” not have heard of the biggest-selling writer in English? Who then does Chetan Bhagat appeal to; for what myriad complex of reasons; what is the nub of his appeal; and perhaps most importantly, in what political, cultural and fiscal circumstances has his influence come to be?

Chetan Bhagat has been and continues to be widely celebrated in the Indian popular press for opening up a world of books written to an upwardly mobile middle- and lower middle-class Indian youth faced with the many hopes and frustrations that accompany the prospect of growing national wealth under the auspices of economic liberalisation. The content of his work is familiar to them: higher education and how it needs to be changed to suit emerging markets in India,

Mantras of the metropole 101 entrepreneurial potencies in young Indians and youthful lovers who must face obstacles from an older generation that is still committed to the idea of arranged marriages. Their desire for such thematic orientations apart, these readers are also comfortable with what is more or less ubiquitously known to be Chetan Bhagat’s mediocre stylistics. That is to say, if this is a reading public which may not be used to literary fiction outside school and college curricula and is probably intimidated by the formal and linguistic dexterity of authors like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy and Aravind Adiga who people the razzle-dazzle of contemporary world literature, then in Bhagat, this first generation of "post-call center [English] readers” finds what one critic has called a language and structure as "unpretentious as a call center cubicle.”2 The call centre is an important trope for Bhagat’s readers, for they are canny enough to know that in a post-liberalisation Indian context, the next call centre job could be around the corner, and that job would come with a preference for what we might call a kind of internationally graspable, client-friendly, "unpretentious” English. In other words, often coming from small-town India and moving to the bigger cities in search of "a better, more globally connected life,” Bhagat’s readers are youth who for the first time are being overtly exposed to the idea that reading a particular kind of English fiction may help them to market themselves for particular kinds of jobs (Dutta 2009). They are thus distinct from that other kind of reader who insists on a discoimect between literature and worldly success; that kind of reader who in her alleged cosmopolitan elitism is drawn to the Salman Rushdies of the literary canon; that kind of reader, in short, who is perhaps the elided addressee of the Guardian's reference to Chetan Bhagat.

Repeatedly hailed by publishing professionals in the Indian context as a marketing phenomenon that has radically transformed the industry, Chetan Bhagat is, even though not recognisable in canonical terms, not just another best-selling author as the Guardian would have it. Indeed, Indian publishing in English has been so powerfully influenced by his works that it can henceforth be divided into pre- and post-Chetan Bhagat periods, argue some publishers. The numbers they call upon to consolidate their claim are, as it were, mind-boggling. Five Point Someone: What not to do at LIT, Bhagat’s first novel published in 2004, sold 100,000 copies within no time of its launch. His third novel, titled The 3 Mistakes of My Life and published in 2008, sold a million copies in ten months, and just a year later, a fourth novel. Two States: The Story: of My Marriage, was all set to meet the astronomical target of a million copies in ten weeks. The promotion plans are carefully designed to ensure that the books are instantly accessible to an expanding middle class from one end of the nation to the other, for they are all priced judiciously, just below a hundred mpees, and released simultaneously across big metropolises and smaller towns. Given the resulting sales figures, it is not surprising that the common mantra amongst publishers is that Chetan Bhagat sells more, and is more accessible, even than a daily newspaper in a city, and indeed, it is in so far as his books provide the same habitus as newspapers that the author is less a feature of the canonical literary world than he is a part of emerging questions of lifestyle (Us Salam 2009).

In a 2006 interview conducted by Japan Basu, V. Karthika. the former managing editor of Penguin India, points to the entry of large retail bookstore chains like Landmark, Crossword and Oxford to further explain the phenomenon of Chetan Bhagat as a matter of lifestyle choices:

You see the big Landmark, Crossword, Oxford sort of chains coming in, they are selling to the middle class and they are selling not just books but toys and music and lifestyle to them. Therefore what happens is that along with the success of Indian writing the media picks up on it. Because the English language media - the newspapers, the magazines - are also talking to the middle class. Their readers are from the middle class. So they start giving visibility to books. So . . . book launches are glamorous events to go for. It says that this is valuable, this is glamorous, this is what you want to be a part of. So every second person . . . also wants to write a book. So everyone says oh everyone is talking about it. I must take it back to my book shelf.3

It is no wonder, given Bhagat’s embeddedness in matters of building lifestyles, that he appeals to young Indians who are becoming more and more comfortable with the nation’s "shining aspect” on the global economic and cultural stage. They find in Bhagat a "national” youth icon who does not have to narrate the nation from afar, unlike an earlier generation of Indian writers in English who wrote from and to their own migrant lives in the West, often recounting their histories of exile from the homeland or their diasporic relation to their countries of origin and weaving those in with their everyday lives in alien lands. For Chetan Bhagat’s audience, squarely situated in a national (even nationalist, one dare say), albeit globally connected context, these themes seem distant and deserving of dismissal. Secure in their global positioning, perhaps to their minds for the first time since independence, his readers are happy through Bhagat’s work to retreat into their own internal and internalised conversations, share their own private jokes and revel in a kind of idiom that does not need to be italicised, translated or explained to the outside world.4

Remarkably self-conscious in its cultivation of a style for an almost exclusively “homegrown” audience armed with an emerging national arrogance, the new Indo-Anglian novel in the hands of someone like Chetan Bhagat fashions for itself a buoyantly assertive rhetorical stance that is adamant, amongst other things, about the youthful character of the new India (Gupta 2012: 50). No longer is this a nation of only sage and august gurus, no longer are Indian youth to be held back from progress by its ancient and venerable torpor, and no longer is this antique land to be celebrated only for its unchanging antiquity. After all, these stereotypes are associated with an older, antiquated "idea of India” that is quickly being displaced. Thus, if indeed the young nation is still sentimentally attached to the quasi-Vedic wisdoms and the ethno-traditional practices of the past, then such attachments can only manifest in the form of lifestyle practices suited to the young and successful, the kind of lifestyles Chetan Bhagat proffers. And so, the youth of a new India aspire toward metropolitan landscapes dotted with hypermodern gated communities named after "Vedic Villages,” haute fashion constituted by what has come to be known as "the ethnic look” and multimillion dollar Bollywood projects involving mythic figures of the past. It is at this juncture that our initial question about how religion - much like Vedic homes, traditional attire and mythopoetic pasts - continues to instantiate itself in highly technologised urban spaces becomes resonant, for the new lifestyle that Bhagat is both shaping and addressing is indeed one that has come to be through the Indian polity’s arguably successful embrace of new age telematic lifestyles. One Night @ the Call Center, in its plot and framing, overtly calls upon this embrace, but it remains to be seen, as we unravel the content and structure of the novel, in what specific ways God (an arguably Hindu God, one might add) sits with digitally enabled citizens who live their lives through computer screens, text messages, social media and cyber realities.

One Night @ the Call Center is framed by a train journey from small-town Kanpur to metropolitan Delhi, one on which the author Chetan Bhagat meets a beautiful woman. This young woman offers to tell him a story to pass the time, but her condition is that he must turn this story into his second novel. The ensuing narrative unfolds predominantly at a call centre in a satellite township of the capital. This township, Gurgaon, was once only an arid agricultural village, but now popularly termed "Millennium City,” it is known to be one of the most important offshoring centres in the world and the site of some of the most valuable real estate in the country. Dotted with dazzling high-rise shopping malls; the Indian corporate headquarters of international giants like Coca-Cola, IBM, Pepsi. Microsoft and American Express; and, of course, a dense concentration of outsourcing call centres, Gurgaon is often showcased as the perfect illustration of a bold new India. But in Bhagat’s hands, it is more. Indeed, cyber city Gurgaon is in One Night @ the Call Center the sacred site upon which God Herself descends to intervene in the affairs of men, and as I have mentioned before, and as we shall see more elaborately in the following pages, this is a decidedly Hindu God.

A simple plotline leads to this momentous event. During the span of one night at a call centre, all the six leading characters confront some aspect of themselves or their lives they would like to change, and the story takes a dramatic and decisive turn toward the very end when, in the clutches of a near-death experience, these characters receive a phone call from God. In Her disembodied avatar on the cellular phone, God communicates in an idiom that is literally no different from the language that the characters speak - an idiom inflected by youthful Americanisms and what we might call a kind of management-speak. In Her avatar as a young Indian who is causally and fashionably "American” in Her lingo, God tells the characters She is “checking in on them,” She asks them "how it’s going,” and threatens to "hang up” if they don’t believe She is in fact God. Finally, when She offers solutions to their inner problems as well as the immediate danger they face, She employs a language of managerial brokering combined with self-help guidance:

Listen, let me make a deal with you. I will save your lives tonight, but in return you must give me something. Close your eyes for three minutes. Think about what you really want and what you need to change in your life to get it. Then, once you get out of here, act on those changes. ... The “four things a person needs for success”: “a medium amount of intelligence”; “a bit of imagination”; “self-confidence” and the experience of failure. Once you've tasted failure, you will have no more fear. You’ll be able to take risks more easily, you will no longer want to snuggle in your comfort zone, you will be ready to fly. And success is about flying not snuggling.

(Bhagat 2005: 245-246, 249-251)

The management-speak through which God talks to the central characters of One Night @ the Call Center is consolidated in the coming together of a strong telematic network of exchanges and controls. Channels of information processing in the cyber city of Gurgaon combine with the global managerial intelligences of the business process outsourcing industry, and these in turn attach to the increasing spread of mobile telecommunications, symbolised as they are through the presence of God in the medium of the cellular phone. In short, God here breaks with tradition to suavely insert Herself into a digitally enabled technocratic lifestyle where the kind of success that is valued involves risk-taking high fliers, figures who are undoubtedly made in the image of those recognisable stereotypes associated with ruthless investment bankers, Wall Street sharks and shifty hedge fund managers. Indeed, it is precisely because of such a remarkably smooth transition from tradition to technocracy that God remains pertinent for the kinds of characters that people Chetan Bhagat's works and, more broadly, the kind of audience he is writing for in the hopes of calling into being and representing the new India.

To act on God’s onto-theology of self-help, the two young men in One Night @ the Call Center, Shyam and Vroom, are propelled towards "taking risks” through self-employment and entrepreneurial innovation. The married woman, Radhika, is moved to fight for a divorce with the economic independence afforded her by her call-centre employment, and the younger Esha, who aspires to a career in modelling, is able to freely admit to allowing herself to be sexually used by a man. Finally, Shyam's love interest, Priyanka, is pushed to liberate herself from the demands of an arranged marriage, and like all good emancipated women, is inspired to "marry for love.” In pointing to these shifts, my aim is by no means to argue that the youthfill breaking with tradition as it appears here is inherently undesirable. However, in Bhagat’s world, this break from tradition, or this ability to take risks and to fly rather than snuggle in one's comfort zone, comes on the heels of the sort of swaggering confidence that God advises in the pages of One Night @ the Call Center - a confidence that cannot and will not see how structures of domination persist despite attempts toward liberation. For instance, it must be

Mantras of the nietropole 105 noted that at the end of the novel, while the now allegedly emancipated women move towards socially useful work like charity and teaching, it is the men who are given the responsibility of taking risks and becoming innovative. To gloss over this politics of gender as Bhagat seems to is to share in a feeling of national coming of age that encourages the forgetting of the continuities between India's tradition, her colonial past and her emerging technocratic present. In other words, this is a kind of nationalist sentiment that is the synonym for a globally recognisable amnesia that conceals the precarious complicities and fractures that define any narrative of national becoming. Such a sentiment is sealed in One Night @ the Call Center when, in the epilogue, we find that the beautiful young woman who had been narrating this tale to Chetan Bhagat is actually the God of the story. Women may certainly still be tied to traditionally feminine occupations such as teaching and charity, but Bhagat seems to want to erase the asymmetrically gendered roles of our everyday material lives simply by suggesting that, after all, the highest “immaterial” authority is a godly woman. It is no surprise then that after the author realises that his companion on the train is in fact God, he kneels before Her, and after lightly touching his head in a gesture of blessing, She immediately "dematerializes.”

The gendering of God as a woman, beautiful and young, brings me to the “woman question,” as it were, in Bhagat’s thinking, just as it also foregrounds the insidious matter of God being implicitly Hindu in One Night @ the Call Center. The matter of goddesses dotting the polytheistic landscape of Hinduism apart, the words that in the novel give away Bhagat's female travelling companion as God are recognisably from the Bhagavad Gita, a text instituted through a complex of 18th- and 19th-century Orientalist-nationalist mappings as the holy book of a singular Hindu civilisation.5 In that book, God is however decidedly male, and the fact that Bhagat reverses that gendering is, I will argue, a key axis in the marriage our author effects between Hindu tradition and technocracy. But before unlocking further this key point, it is important to plot some of the women in Chetan Bhagat’s novels and tie them to comments he has made on other platforms about the place of women in the contemporary Indian context. As I have already noted, it is the two young women in One Night @ the Call Center who are advised by God to adopt “human service” professions like teaching and social work. These of course have traditionally been highly gendered, relying on a masculinist conceptualisation of feminine care and, of course, the parallel reality of lower wages.6 In contrast to such a fate for Priyanka and Esha. the two young men in the novel must play the heroic knights who not only rescue the call centre from complete dissolution but also take upon themselves the much more complicated task of developing entrepreneurial skills to bring about economic reform within national space. The same is true of at least two other women in relation to the men of Bhagat's novels - Neha Cherian of Five Point Someone and Vidya of The 3 Mistakes of My Life. In the former, Neha is the 18-year-old love interest of the primary narrator. Hari Kumar, and she pursues a degree in fashion designing, a field stereotypically indebted to the ostensibly intuitive aesthetics of women. In contrast, it is left to Hari and the other men in that novel to make their way through an elite course in mechanical engineering, questioning large academic structures that stultify their creativity and thereby advancing the cause of educational remodelling in the nation. Similarly, in Bhagat's third novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life, while her brother and his friends are entrepreneurs in the sports industry, honing talent to perfect India's already pre-eminent place in the high-stakes cricketing world, Vidya’s ambition is to be accredited in public relations. This, according to some studies, is an industry increasingly dominated by women, possibly because “men lack crucial sensitivity toward maintaining relationships with clients, journalists, and target groups” (Frohlich and Peters 2007: 240).

In showcasing these largely limpid women from the world of Bhagat's novels, my point is not to suggest that the new India has no room for its women, or that the new India has no room for its women unless they stay in their "place.” My point, instead, is to demonstrate the far more menacing reality that that “place ” itself has been only nominally transformed and that it is precisely this nominal transformation that is expected to lend to the branding of a young, liberated, cyber India. Indian women are now expected to venture forth from the home, for in the new India they cannot be taken seriously if they were to stay home, bake the bread, care for the children, shy away from sex or seem in any way stymied by what used to be understood as a traditional Indian set-up. However, when such women do go out into the world, they do so only to find careers in traditionally feminine walks of life - fashion, interior design, modelling, charity, teaching, and in the world of business, only public relations, where they can play the role of event managers and clothes horses. In other words, in Bhagat’s oeuvre, new age India has a permissive face rather than a conventional one associated with the antiquated customs of an ancient Hinduism, but this face is the result of creating a vision of the emancipated woman while still conserving and sustaining a traditional patrimonial structure.

The idea appears most clearly in Bhagat’s journalistic columns, which, starting in 2005 and increasingly so in the years after 2012, begin to be invested more and more in the "woman question.” These include "Home Truths on Career Wives” (29 July 2012), "Five Things Women Need to Change about Themselves” (10 March 2013), “Let’s Talk about Sex” (24 March 2013), “Watching the Nautch-girls” (1 June 2013), “Item Girls of Politics” (25 January 2014), "The New Vote Bank for Politicians: Aam Aurat,” or, Common Woman (9 February 2014) and "Wake up and Respect your Inner Queen” (6 April 2014).7 In these columns, Bha-gat, in his signature not-so-gentle maimer, guides Indian women toward the choices he believes are available to all women in the civilised world. He encourages them to live as full and free human beings (which means to be able to wear swimsuits on beaches); to embark on journeys of self-discovery; to share their homes with male room-mates; and to have sexual, career, and parenting free will - and he is unabashedly lucid about the "national” reason for which they might want to do so. That reason is the following: the new nation will come into being on a continuum between a telematic Hindu God, managerial technocracy and nominally liberated women, and in One Night @ the Call Center, this continuum is adroitly effected as God appears, a beautiful, young, Indian woman, empowered to travel alone through the country and comfortable speaking to her disciples in a kind of poetics of management through the medium of the cellular phone.

However, one still needs to understand at this point in the argument how exactly, in Bhagat’s account, the liberation of Indian women is to be achieved. In “The New Vote Bank for Politicians,” Bhagat provides something of an answer, beginning with the gimmicky claim that “women are the new Muslims” in India (Bhagat 2014a). His only thinly veiled attack in this case is of course directed against "pseudo-secular” politicians who, according to most contemporary Hindu nationalist party sympathisers, have for long numerically seized upon the figure of the Muslim citizen merely as an axis for the question of electoral balances. Now that Muslims have "figured out the political games played with them,” that vote bank is neither as "secure” nor as "predictable” as it once was. Especially given the wake of the recent spate of gender-related crimes, attention has turned to women voters, who as a massified population have the power to swing any party's fortunes. But Bhagat’s counsel for "the common woman” voter is to not allow either political or legislative action to offer to change her condition, for politics can only be a game, as we have seen in the case of the Muslim citizen. No number of schools for girls, movements to end female infanticide or reservations for women in Parliament can affect a difference in cultural attitudes, and so women must take it upon themselves to transform the "sexist” attitudes that prevail amongst Indian men - "one guy at a time” (Bhagat 2014a). In short, empowerment is to be realised not in the alterations women could make to the violent history of their structural enviromnents, but rather in the changes they ought to make to their own styles of being. This argument reaches its climax in "The New Vote Bank for Politicians,” with Bhagat exhorting "the ladies” to "assert” themselves, to not "back down” and "be too eager to please the men,” and to never “accept inequality.” Platitudes as they are, the same guidelines had appeared in an earlier Bhagat column paternalistically and therefore aptly titled "Five Things Women Need to Change about Themselves.” In this column, writing in the epistolary form, Bhagat addresses his "dear ladies” on the occasion of "Women's Day.” But because, as he puts it, “we men are prone to risk-taking,” he also attempts the unthinkable - the task of declaring, as a man, and on a day that purports to celebrate women, what women need to “change about themselves to make things better for their own kind.” However, when he asks their forgiveness for having dared to tell them what to do - “So forgive me, for I have dared” - it is clear that the nerve “to dare” is for Bhagat the sign of a superior mettle, on par with the pioneering pluck rooted in what he has called the habitual “risk-taking behavior of men” (Bhagat 2013a). Things have at this point come full circle, for we are back at the same sentiment we had noted in the novels of our author: it is indeed Bhagat’s men in these stories that have entrepreneurial verve, while the women, even as they emancipate themselves, must rein their ambitions to manageable limits. This is precisely why in One Night @ the Call Center God is a beautiful young woman, who, in order to remain pertinent to the new nation, must insinuate Herself into the instalments of its emergent lifestyle practices.

Post-political Hinduisation and the woman question

In recent years, several scholars like Paola Baccheta, Tanika Sarkar, Partira Chatterjee, Nivedita Menon, Radha Kumar, Janaki Nair, Urvashi Butalia and Kumkum Sangari have commented on the role of patriarchy and colonial society in shaping the Indian nationalist imaginary of women, the contemporary feminist movements peculiar to the Indian context and the role that women (ideologues) play both in consolidating and resisting Hindu nationalist movements.81 will not repeat here these valuable and already established conversations. Instead, I will argue from a slightly different perspective that someone like Chetan Bhagat instrumentalises the empowered figure of the woman - but of course only in the restricted sense I have previously described - as primary evidence for a new kind of Hinduism that is suited to the global spread of quickly liberalising economies as well as to a new kind of urban Hindu nationalism that has gained ground amongst the technocratic middle classes in the contemporary Indian context. Indeed, it is not too far-fetched to claim that Bhagat's liberated lady - confident about her sexuality, assertive about her inalienable right to bare her flesh, to fight for a divorce, and to travel the world without being chaperoned - is the symbol who will shield against the notion that Hindus are trapped in an antiquated tradition and thus incapable of progressing in the modern world. It is this symbol that will rescue the Hindu-Indian man from being seen as a parochially sexist creature unable to process the success of women in his world, and if deployed cleverly enough, it is also this symbol that will blunt accusations of human rights violations levelled by international platforms against the contemporary Indian context. Most importantly, this symbol of a certain kind of empowerment could be the most graphic way of demarking the Hindu from the Muslim, the timid taker of hijab from the swimsuit-donning diva and the oppressed female follower of Mohammad from the free-spirited devotee of Shiva.

The growing pace and intensity of Bhagat's self-righteousness on the question of the free Indian woman came hot on the heels of what was rightly publicised in India and across the world as one of the most heinous crimes against women in recent recorded history. In the face of severe national and international condemnation after the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy intern who was travelling with her male friend on a public bus in New Delhi on the night of 16 December 2012, Bhagat and other defenders of a quickly liberalising national space ran helter-skelter to rescue brand India both at home and abroad.9 It is with this context in mind that we should understand not only the increasing frequency during this time of Bhagat's columns addressing gender issues, but also his advice to the Indian man to celebrate (working) women, "in the interest of the nation” (Bhagat 2014b). Such national interest would involve first and foremost providing a pro-growth economic environment to domestic and foreign investors, but such a desirable business environment would have to have "security,” "democratic freedom” and a “liberal culture” as its globally recognisable principal features. It is precisely these features that are attached to the "woman question” as it is developed by someone like Chetan Bhagat, and it is also precisely these features that are attached to the female Hindu God as She appears in One Night @ the Call Center.

Chetan Bhagat belongs to that strange ilk of self-fashioned raconteurs who hope to function as public intellectuals without having to take into account the pressures inlierent to traditional institutions of the public sphere. This is why. just as his directions to women involve the idea that they isolate themselves from legislative and parliamentary promises in order to affect change on gender-related matters, so too are Bhagat's columns addressing ostensibly political issues emptied - tonally - of what the author understands as divisive ideological content. In so far as this is the case, the post-political and post-ideological tenor of Bhagat’s journalistic mantras is central to shaping the kind of audience he hopes for. He has maintained for instance that parliamentary politics should be about "managing” the nation rather than politically lording over it. and in order to do so he has argued that it is time to stop treating India like a fractured polity and think in terms of that which provides Indians a common bond (Bhagat 2013e). He has also suggested, as I mentioned earlier, that in order to arrive at this common bond, India must concentrate on providing a market-driven, pro-business, pro-growth landscape to global investors (Bhagat 2013d). Furthermore, since "the fashionably left, almost communist, intellectual mafia” has (an unfair) absolute hegemony over representative public institutions in the country, Bhagat has contended that to be "anti-poor” in India is to be right-wing with a dash of the communalist thrown in (Bhagat 2013c). And finally, according to Bhagat, secularism is a desirable commodity, but Muslims in India ought to develop a specifically Indian way of being Muslim, and Hinduism should be practised in a maimer consonant with the aspirations of Indian youth in a globalised world (Bhagat 2013 f). It is not entirely clear what the conceptual strength is behind Chetan Bhagat’s pithy dictums of millennial motivation, but it is indeed perfectly clear, as I will illustrate momentarily, that the "political” content of some of these scattered wisdoms could be more easily found in the ideology of what I have elsewhere theorised as a kind of urbanisation of Hindu nationalism, rather than in the admittedly post-political air of Bhagat’s thinking (see Basu 2016).

In the course of his career as a special columnist, Chetan Bhagat has commented a number of times on the possible fate in contemporary India of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, its politicians and its agenda of Hin-dutva (loosely understood as cultural nationalism under the banner of Hindu-ness). In a 2011 article titled "Five Steps to a Revitalized Brand BJP,” Bhagat strains against what he sees as the imminent irrelevance of the BJP if they do not develop poised, "aspirational, globalized Indian[s]” to lead the party, leaving behind the “crass,” "regressive” politicians who have no relationship to "modern thought” (Bhagat 2011). Indeed, for Bhagat. a globalised Hindu nationalism of the 21st century ought to be, for instance, about cleaning up the holiest of the Hindu temples - "infected with bad management and corrupt priests” as well as unsanitary and unhygienic conditions - not about religious riots and fanaticisms. After all, the face of development can be productively advertised in the former and only irredeemably harmed by the latter. This is what Bhagat calls Positive Hinduism:

"Modem, safe, scientific, free, liberal, and ... with good values” (Bhagat 2013b). The terms used here are perilously proximate to those one may imagine Bhagat using to describe his ideal new Indian woman, the phrase "with good values” harking back to the idea that for Bhagat no matter how “free” and "liberal” the Hindu woman becomes, she will always be a "good girl” in accordance with the moral weight of her religious orientation. It is for this reason that the kind of Hinduism that Bhagat prescribes for the contemporary Indian context is one that can address the fundamental issue of security - and, as we have seen, particularly women's security as the referent for national/territorial security - without encroaching on the (sexual) "freedom” of youth. In short, Bhagat’s thinking in this regard carries Hindu nationalism, on the backs of its women, into the new millennium - not only with a liberal, safe, scientific, hygienic and free face, but with a technologically viable aspect, as comfortable on Twitter platforms and Facebook portals as it is with gods and goddesses, temples and priests.

In this context, it is worth remarking that Bhagat advises Hindu nationalist parties what he calls just "the right amount of saffron-ness” - a euphemism referring to the colours of the followers of Hindutva - even though there is nothing wrong in his opinion with using aggressive Hindu symbols like the tilak, the sword, and thepagdi to wage one's political campaign (Bhagat 2013b). In the same vein, he also writes that although “it is true that in the name of secularism, the Hindu voice is often subverted,” this "doesn't mean that we criticize other communities for the same,” slipping almost unnoticeably from the third person adjective "Hindu” to the first person pronoun "we” to indicate either the shiftiness of his allegiances, or conversely, where these allegiances actually lie (Bhagat 2011). Indeed, it is precisely such shiftiness that explains the vacuity of Bhagat’s political dictums, even though my contention is that it is in turn this very post-political vacuity that serves not only as the nub of his understanding of the woman question, so to speak, but as the optimum peak for the style of governance proper to Hindu nationalism in its latest millennial-metropolitan avatar.

In his June 2013 column for the Tinies of India, asking "Can Modi win in 2014?,” Bhagat (2013b) lays out what ought to be the BJP's plan for those fence sitters who could still be won over by the campaign leading up to the parliamentary elections. His suggestions are actively apolitical, carefully isolated from the mechanisms of the public sphere, and emphasising at once both the place of "numbers” in imagining a massified population of voters and the importance of one-on-one contact with each voter. As such, Bhagat’s is a model that perfectly illustrates the simultaneous tendencies toward individualisation and totalisation that Michel Foucault had pointed to in his study of the intersection of disciplinary and regulatory instruments of power:

They can't be marketed to. They have to be persuaded on a one-on-one basis. An army of educated, not overtly political volunteers, say one lakh in total or 200 per constituency is required. They'd work one-on-one on no more than eight families, or about 20 votes a day. This would be the level of micro-campaigning required to convince people. . . . Trust needs one-on-one interaction, not mass media advertising.

(Bhagat 2013b)

Not surprisingly, this argument resonates with the way in which Bhagat speaks to women through his journalistic columns, encouraging them to change their situations on an individualised basis, while also totalising them as a mass population of voters who, as we have seen before, are, according to him, the "new Muslims” of the Indian context. To understand further his model of campaigning to women and to particular political parties, it would be worth taking into account the specificities of Bhagat’s own intellectual and professional formation. Coming from an elite educational background starting at the Army Public School in Delhi, Chetan Bhagat received a degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and then went on to be certified by the Indian Institute of Management (Ahmedabad), without doubt the premier centre for management training in the country.10 In 2009, he abandoned an international career in investment banking and returned from Hong Kong to Mumbai to become a full-time writer and stay-at-home dad. Bhagat has several times suggested, perhaps in keeping with his business management background, that he is interested in the idea that “commercializing creativity [is in itself] a creative act,” and it is not difficult to see that his project is to transform "creativity” into the principle of commerce and imagination into the matter of business - just as in One Night @ the Call Center, the creative principle that is God becomes a managerial principle, and the new allegedly emancipated Indian woman becomes the bearer of such a God, while still ensuring she is associated with good Hindu values.11 In short, in Bhagat’s works, the traditional idioms of Hinduism are slickly tailored to the millennial aspect of urbanised Hindus through a syntax of Americanised English, managementspeak and the medium of social networking sites, all cleansed ostensibly of fractious political ideologies and borne on the shoulders of the new Hindu-Indian woman. It is thus that Bhagat provides contemporary Hindu nationalism with a much-needed apolitical face, resplendent in its upwardly mobile youthfulness, dazzling in its call for emancipated women and complete with the powerful language of instantaneity provided it by a telematic assemblage of networks of information processing, managerial controls and mobile telecommunications.

Despite Bhagat’s visibility specifically in a national landscape, it is perhaps significant that this aspect of his work circulates quite successfully in the global corridors of economic power. In this context, one could remark that even though his six blockbuster novels did not receive much attention from the Anglo-American literary or academic establishments, Bhagat featured on the 2010 list of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world,” as well as on Fast Company's list of "the 100 most creative people in business” - along with the likes of Jack Dorsey and Sebastian Thrun of Twitter and Google X fame, respectively. Bhagat’s choice place in the emerging global financial market for younger and younger celebrity entrepreneurs is the function on one hand of a kind of global talent-spotting phenomenon that is currently a principal factor in the world of business. On the other, it is the product of the flourishing of premier business schools and management education and research in the Indian context. That is to say, Bhagat is both a discovery for international platforms like Time magazine and Fast Company, as well as someone who is able to influence the protocols for that kind of discovery in national space. To put it differently, one could say that he is both himself globally recognisable as a young icon, as well as a galvanising principle for the circulation of the concept of youth in the national management of economic and cultural desires. His pioneering status notwithstanding, in so far as Chetan Bhagat is part of this larger picture, he is not alone but rather is part of a consolidating telematic formation that has furthered and will continue to further the optimisation of a new age discourse of Hindu nationalism, one that rides - as I have tried to argue in this essay - on the shoulders of liberated Indian women, a digitally savvy citizenry and a Hindu God who can insert Herself into both the image of the swimsuit-donning diva as well as the medium of the cellular phone. Indeed, it is this instantiation of religion - of an emancipated, female, digitally enabled God - that is the animating force on a global stage of the emergent, increasingly powerfill Hindu India.


  • 1 Guardian, 8 October 2008.
  • 2 For the reference to Chetan Bhagat’s post-call centre English readers, see Dutta (2009). For the reference to Bhagat's “unpretentious” language, see Thottam (2008).
  • 3 Extracts from the interview with Mrs V. Karthika, (now former) managing editor. Penguin India; Interviewers: Tapan Basu, Vaibhav lype Parel and Akhil Katyal, November 2006. New Delhi. unpub-doc-interview-mrs-v-karthika.htm.
  • 4 See extracts from the interview with Mrs V. Karthika. (now former) managing editor, Penguin India; Interviewers: Tapan Basu, Vaibhav lype Parel and Akhil Katyal, November 2006, New Delhi, ments unpub-doc-interview-mrs-v-karthika.htm.
  • 5 I have elsewhere elaborated on the Bhagavad Gita and its Orientalist-nationalist mappings. See Basu (2016).
  • 6 See Gilbehnan (2003) for an elaboration of this claim, particularly in relation to social work, but also taking into consideration the gendering of other human sendee professions.
  • 7 The columns I list here all appeared in the English-language national daily the Times of India, but Bhagat has also written, albeit less prolifically, for the Hindustan Tinies.
  • 8 See Baccheta (1996, 2001), Bacchetta and Power (2002), Chatterjee (1989, 1993), Menon (2000), Kumar (1993, 1994), Nair (1994), Sangari and Vaid (1989), Sarkar and Butalia (1995).
  • 9 See Buncombe (2012); Anne F. Stenhammer, “UN Women Condemns Gang-rape of Delhi Student.” news/stories/2012/12/un-women-condemns-gang-rape-of-delhi-student/; “Delhi Gang Rape: Protests Go Viral Nation-Wide, Unstoppable Public Outpouring as Gang Rape Victim Dies.” Economic Times, 29 December 2012 for a sense of the outrage in the face of this event.
  • 10 It is noteworthy that the establishment of the Indian Institutions of Management (now numbering 13 public, autonomous institutions of management education and research

Mantras of the metropole 113 in the country) was initiated by the first prune minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the recommendation of the proto-socialist Planning Commission of the Government. The irony in the situation lies in the fact that it is precisely a Nehruvian socialism that the most successful of current IIM graduates decry, and indeed, in his first Independence Day speech (15 August 2014), the B JP prune minister, Narendra Modi, whose ideology can no doubt be aligned with the managerial class, announced in no uncertain terms the end of the life of the Planning Commission.

11 Subhash K Jha interviews Chetan Bhagat, “Commercializing Creativity is Creative Act.” Mid-Day, 21 May 2011.


Baccheta. P. (1996) "Hindu Nationalist Women as Ideologues.” In K. Jayawardena and M. de Alwis (eds) Embodied Violence: Communalizing Women's Sexuality in South Asia. London: Zed Books, pp. 126-167.

-------. (2001) "Extraordinary Alliances in Crisis Situations: Women Against Hindu Nationalism in India.” In K. M. Blee and F. Winddance Twine (eds) Feminism and Antiracism: International Struggles for Justice. New York: New York University Press, pp. 220-249.

Bacchetta. B. and M. Power (eds) (2002) Right-Wing Women: From Conservatives to Extremists Around the World. New York: Routledge.

Basu. M. (2016) The Rhetoric of Hindu India: Language and Urban Nationalism. London, New Delhi: Cambridge University Press.

Bhagat, C. (2005) One Night @the Call Center. New York: Ballantine Books.

  • -------. (2011) “Five Steps to a Revitalized Brand BJP.” The Times of India, July 31.
  • ------. (2013a) “Five Things Women Need to Change About Themselves.” The Times of India, March 10.
  • ------. (2013b) “Can Modi Win in 2014?” The Times of India, June 14.
  • -------. (2013c) “Pro-Poor or Pro-Poverty?” The Times of India, July 12.
  • ------. (2013d) “Can India’s Backward Polity Ever Provide a Pro-Growth Economic Environment?” The Times of India, September 6.
  • -------. (2013e) “Manage the Nation, But Don’t Try to Play King.” The Times of India, October 19.
  • -------. (2013f) "Being Hindu Indian or Muslim Indian.” The Tinies of India, November 1.
  • ------. (2014a) “The New Vote Bank for Politicians: Aam Aurat.” The Times of India, February 9.
  • -------. (2014b) “Wake Up and Respect Your Inner Queen.” The Tinies of India, April 6.

Buncombe, A. (2012) “‘I Feel the Attack in My Heart’: India’s Shame at Brutal Rape.” The Independent, December 20.

Chatterjee, P. (1989) “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question.” In K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds) Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali for Women, pp. 233-253.

-------. (1993) The Nation and Its Fragments. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutta. D. (2009) “The Writers Community on Chetan Bhagat.” Forbes India Magazine, December 23.

Frohlich, R. and S. B. Peters (2007) “PR Bunnies Caught in the Agency Ghetto: Gender Stereotypes, Organizational Factors, and Women’s Careers in PR Agencies.” Journal of Public Relations Research 19 (3): 229-254.

Gilbelman, M. (2003) “So How Far Have We Come: Pestilent and Persistent Gender Gap in Pay.” Social WorkAZ (1): 22-32.

Gupta, S. (2012) “Indian ‘Commercial Fiction’ in English, the Publishing Industry, and Youth Culture.” Economic and Political Weekly 47 (5): 46-53.

Kumar, R. (1993) The History ofDoing: An Illustrated Account ofMovements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

-------. (1994) “Identity Politics and the Contemporary Indian Feminist Movement.” In V. Mogliadam (ed) Identify Politics and Women: Cultural Reassertions and Feminisms in International Perspective. Oxford: Westview Press, pp. 274-292.

Menon, N. (2000) “Embodying the Self: Feminism, Sexual Violence, and the Law.” In A. Chatterjee and P. Jeganathan (eds) Community, Gender and Violence. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 66-105.

Nair, J. (1994) “On the Question of Female Agency in Indian Feminist Historiography.” Gender and History 6 (1): 82-100.

Sangari, K. and S. Vaid (eds) (1989) Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. New Delhi: Kali for Women.

Sarkar. T. and U. Butalia (eds) (1995) Women and Right-Wing Movements: Indian Experiments. London: Zed Books.

Thottam, J. (2008) "Techie Lit: India’s New Breed of Fiction.” Time, October 30.

Us Salam, Z. (2009) “It’s All About Numbers.” The Hindu, November 23.

9 Kali and the queen

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics