Ketan is a typical 38-year-old middle-class common man living in Mumbai. Other than being the brother of India’s most influential writer, and receiving an occasional compliment for his sense of humor, Ketan’s persona is so common that one doesn’t even need to describe it. Just look around, and you will see someone like him… saturated salary, protruding waistline, receding hairline, old marriage, rented house and a car which is on EMI. Often seen bribing police constables, watching television debates against corruption, passing time at the bar… the kind of person who sends more Facebook requests than he receives. His Twitter account has more tweets than followers. That’s Ketan Bhagat! Present everywhere, noticed nowhere.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Ketan. You seem to be ready and prepared to rule the slash title books — first with Complete/Convenient and now Child/God. What explains your affinity towards “Versus” titles?
Ketan Bhagat: It started as an accident but has now become my style. I wanted to title my first book ‘Complete or Convenient’ but my publisher believed in numerology and somehow that title wasn’t fitting well in his charts. I wanted to retain the title as it represented the philosophy of the story. Somehow the slash fitted into the numerology chart without taking away my preferred title.
When my second book was to be published, I approached a numerologist for advice. Again, the option of the slash was most recommended. So it became ‘Child/God’ even though I would have preferred ‘Child or God’.
From here on, I think I will make it my style. People have started associating my books with slash titles and my stories are always around a choice between two philosophies. So it works well.
Vinita Kinra: Your books are fictional versions of your personal experiences. Is that why they resonate so well with your readers?
Ketan Bhagat: I am no celebrity whose life evokes curiosity. Rather, I am a regular middle-class man whose life is so boring and common that he is himself frustrated with it!
I think my stories resonate because they give an entertaining yet realistic portrayal of what most men are going through. As common and simple it sounds, it is a rare phenomenon. When was the last time you read a story about what men go through when they get married and try to settle in a new country? That was ‘Complete/Convenient’. Likewise, you wouldn’t come across stories around the emotions men feel when they become fathers. That’s ‘Child/God’.
Picking up incidents and characters from real life is more for the writer than the audience. It means less research and better writing in terms of developing the character and describing the incident.
Vinita Kinra: Would you have written Complete/Convenient if you hadn’t had a brief stint in Australia?
Ketan Bhagat: No. For I wouldn’t have even appreciated the unspoken deep anguish every NRI goes through. The way Bollywood portrays, all NRIs have beach-houses, beach-bodies and spend most of their time driving Ferraris and dating semi-naked blonde women. 99% of the people who step out of India can’t afford all this. It takes a lot of struggle, sweat and sacrifice to settle as a first generation in a foreign country. Living away from your roots and your loved ones takes a huge emotional toll. Sadly, only a few look at NRIs beyond dollars, imported gifts and vacation spots.
Vinita Kinra: Why is it that grass always appears greener on the other side of the fence? Indians crave to live abroad but once there, they miss even the most disenchanting and grueling parts of their daily lives back home like scarcity of water, traffic snarls and power outages, to name a few.
Ketan Bhagat: The answer to this question is Complete/Convenient!
Happiness and perfection are not synonyms. Each one of us derives happiness from our roots and perfection from our senses. Former is in India, latter is out of India. The challenges that we face while growing up become the walls of our mind and overcoming these boundaries becomes our definition of happiness. For example, a rural traditional Indian girl’s ambition may be wearing jeans and a multiplex movie date with her boyfriend. For an urban liberal Indian girl, this is no challenge and so won’t yield any happiness. Maybe she giggles at the thought of wearing a two-piece bikini on the beach which is again a given for any American or Australian girl.
This is the reason why the more years an Indian spends away from India, the more romantic his notions become around India’s struggles like the unhygienic roadside food, the corrupt traffic constable, the bumpy potholes, the crowded local trains etc. He misses that struggle. That overcoming of his mental walls.
Vinita Kinra: You are one of the few gifted authors who dared to perceive life from a man’s eyes by making male protagonists the centerpieces of your plots. What made you take on the challenge knowing that the majority of readers are women?
Ketan Bhagat: Except for being Chetan Bhagat’s brother, I had no idea of the writing world. I didn’t read books at all. Plus, I was out of India, so even Chetan’s life was visible only through Facebook, YouTube, etc. Forget about knowing that women read more than men, I didn’t even know names of publishers or other authors in India.
But it didn’t matter as my reason for writing was different. As Indian males, me and my friends were experiencing life that no one had prepared us for. The movies only show men in colleges. They end with marriage and career happening. But in real life, I felt the real story begins after that. No dads and uncles prepare us as well. So where do we go for guidance?
Hence, I thought of penning entertaining, relatable stories that would serve as a reference manual for men. Newly married men should read Complete/Convenient. Anyone becoming a father, should read Child/God.
Vinita Kinra: Your latest book Child/God is a clever juxtaposition of the innocent with the Almighty. Do you think the egotistical adults will be humble enough to acknowledge the universal fact that grown-ups have more to learn from children than vice versa?
Ketan Bhagat: Yes. Till date, I have only received praises for this novel perspective of looking at children. That child is an instance of God was something I felt when my son was born. Over a period of time, watching my son grow, this became my firm belief. So much that I wrote a book centered on this theme. But I had never imagined everyone else agreeing with me on this concept. A pleasant surprise, the success of this novel proves my hypothesis of this generation’s fathers being exceptionally emotional about their children.
Vinita Kinra: You seem to have started your own unique genre of “Common Man Books.“ Do you agree?
Ketan Bhagat: I don’t know if I have succeeded, but I would agree this is what I intend to do.
Earlier in Bollywood, we used to have heroes like Amol Palekar and Farooq Sheikh who wouldn’t be larger-than-life like Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan etc. and yet be lovable, relatable and entertaining to the audience. Those are the kind of protagonists and stories that I represent.
My heroes don’t rob banks. Their aim in life isn’t to somehow get a girl, a sexual encounter, a college admission, a job or approval of peers. I expect a lot more out of them. I expect them to live a life that I am leading and yet show me a realistic way of becoming a true hero.
Vinita Kinra: Talk to us about the adaptation of your work into a Bollywood film.
Because I am Chetan Bhagat’s brother, everyone expects my books to be made into movies. Fact was I didn’t know anyone in Bollywood. Then somehow somewhere I met Rahul Roy who read Complete/Convenient and expressed an interest to make a movie on it. Vikram Saxena, a close friend, agreed to chip in as co-producer. Soon there was a movie writer working on the script, a lead actor reading the novel and media announcements. And then it all fizzled out. The big producer pulled out and Rahul never really could manage funding again.
In case of Child/God, while my friend Vikram is to make this into a movie and Ritesh Shah, who has written movies like Kahani, D-day, BA Pass and Airlift, has agreed to be part of the project; for some reason or the other, we haven’t been able to move forward.
Bollywood is something I aspire for, but it is a difficult puzzle that needs time, focus, luck and connects. I lack in each of these departments!
Vinita Kinra: What prompted you to leave a “Convenient” life in Australia to start afresh in quest of a “Complete” life in India?
Ketan Bhagat: Simple and honest answer: Boredom. I was at a stage in life where I was tired of looking at beautiful women on the beaches, admiring clean roads, driving automatic cars, buying groceries in large supermarkets, vacuuming carpets, filling up the dishwasher, and everything else that is part of the NRI life. There is nothing wrong with it, but after a few years, I wasn’t getting a kick out of it. I had done everything – job, business, sightseeing, gambling, sports, etc. – and there came a point where the longing for India was simply too much to handle.
I think I am cockroach inside. Even if I am in the living room, I will drift towards the dust bin in the kitchen! What else can explain someone choosing Mumbai over Sydney?
Vinita Kinra: Do you feel satiated by your life journey so far, or are there more milestones to achieve in your personal context?
Ketan Bhagat: Considering I was never good in studies, had average looks, came from a middle-class family and never really did anything great on the job front as well, I have been extremely lucky to come even this far. Honestly, the maid in my house works harder and comes across as a more selfless person than I am.
On the writing front, it feels like a satisfactory beginning. There was a time when I wished to just get published. I have been blessed with much more than that. But I will quote a line from my book here: “Human being is an oxymoron. For it cannot be human in just being.” Now, there is a desire (or actually it is greed) to see adaptation of my stories in different mediums – theater, television or movies. Plus, like every writer and motivational speaker, I feel like having a bigger audience. I am also dabbling with poetry. The journey continues.
Vinita Kinra: What is your life philosophy?
Ketan Bhagat: Life’s philosophy is to follow the holy Geeta. Just like waves are not the ocean, life that is happening in front of us is just surface level. There is a deeper meaning and working to this universe that our rational, logical ‘conditioned’ mind is unable to comprehend. Out of ignorance, we term our journey as a set of fortunate and unfortunate random coincidences.
Nowadays, the aim of my life is to understand these patterns and act in harmony with them. For example, I am 38, and many times I have come close to earning good money, but every time something happened and success slipped away. Every incident was different and unrelated. Yet, looking back, I recognize a pattern that the universe doesn’t want me to be materially rich. Likewise, I don’t promote my writing, and being Chetan Bhagat’s brother, I was supposed to fail as a writer. Despite my books being thick and unconventional, I am surviving. Maybe the universe wants me to write.
Child/God an excerpt:
What would a man prefer to do just after an orgasm? Sing romantic melodies or turn around and snore. The latter. Why? Because he has achieved what he wanted. All the song, dance, wooing, cooing etc is before that. Sales & marketing towards that one goal. Sexual release. Orgasm. Yes, there is nothing known as true love or romance between a man and a woman. What the movies show and the novels write are mere poetic vents of unfulfilled sexual frustrations. Unattainable heartfelt desire that mankind in its romanticism has named love. Why else would ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ be a bestseller? Would girls read Mills & Boons novels if they had no lovemaking scenes? Why else is a couple’s sexual union mostly the end of love stories and not the beginning?
Even as our society continues to celebrate done-to-dust permutations & combinations of situations leading to lawful emotionally-charged passionate copulation of two hormone-driven biologically ripe bodies, a new form of romance and love has surfaced in this generation.
Isn’t it amazing how easily and abundantly men nowadays are falling head over heels in love with their children? Conventional romantics would never agree but once a man becomes a father, he realizes romancing women is a total waste. Why? Because true love actually happens between a father and a child. Never between a man and a woman. As stupid as it may sound to someone who isn’t a parent, as simple and obvious this becomes in front of your new born baby. Seriously, the love a man feels for his child is so intense, it’s almost as if he has never loved before.
There is a natural purity in the father-child equation. It doesn’t have any of the elements that usually go nasty in a sexual relationship. For starters, a man is sensitive to the way his woman looks. Whereas no matter how his child looks like, a father always finds him divinely angelic. Ditto for behavior.
Every man- woman relationship, at some stage, goes through a ‘feeling ignored- so cranky-so ignored even more’ spiral. Usually temporary, at times fatally permanent, this is a phase in which a woman gets cantankerous for want of attention and is denied attention because she is ornery. However, a child’s grouchiness is immediately looked into by the same man. A husband may forget that his wife loves being pampered, but a father never misses an opportunity to spoil his child. A man can fall out of love with a woman and fall in love with another woman (or man nowadays). It is impossible for a man to stop loving his child. The maximum he can do is stop expressing it. No matter how many new children you meet, your child will always remain your child. You will never leave him or her for another newer, younger or sexier one on the block. Period.
Vinita Kinra, featured among 150 most remarkable Canadians, is a Toronto-based author, editor, speaker and activist, best known for her short story collection, Pavitra in Paris, launched to critical acclaim in 2013. She is also a contributor for India’s largest English daily, The Times of India.