Mumbai Fully Booked: Chetan Bhagat, Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid

This is my first post from my phone. I’d thought I’d write this up after attending the session with auhors Mohammed Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and Chetan Bhagat (moderated by Times Now’s Arnab Goswami) but it’s a funny thing about this business of being employed, once I’m at work, I’m, well, working. I know. Confounds me too.

Anyway, back to The Times of India Literary Carnival: Mumbai Booked. First dilemma: workshop or panel? Since Hill Road was just an unmoving mass of metal and humanity, that issue was settled for me. There are few things more embarrassing than walking into a workshop 30 minutes late, so with a clear conscience I headed to Venue A to watch Hanif, Hamid and Bhagat.

Venue A, incidentally, is where the Anish Kapoor show was held. I was hoping Bhagat would be seated in the area where Kapoor’s cannon had splattered massive wax pellets; just so I could imagine Bhagat facing the cannon. Sadly, no such luck. Bhagat did, however, face Hanif, and that was GOOD. Here beginneth my notes and quotable quotes.

Hanif talks about an occasion when he made a joke that was taken very seriously by an extremist woman writer. She wrote a “pretty scary” article on Hanif. A senior journalist’s response: “Since you’re an English novelist, they got a woman to threaten you.”

The place is packed. I’m standing at the back and there’s a camera crane that is probably going to decapitate me.

Goswami just said “in recentness”.

Bhagat complains about being made to sit as though he and the Pakistani authors are at war. Hanif and Hamid offer to make space between them on their couch. Bhagat: “No, that’s also too much.”

Bhagat smugly says domestic publishers have shifted their attention to the kind of books he writes. “Publishers are not as interested in Booker prizes now.” He says Pakistan is benefitting from being “the flavour of the month” and that there are more stories in Pakistan because there is more strife. And Pakistani authors tell better stories while Indian authors are obsessed with writing good English. Bhagat also says there is no literary scene in Pakistan. Bhagat: “Beware of the validation that comes from the West. … Literature must come from the inside.” He sounds like he should be on Aastha channel.

Hanif is collapsing with laughter.

Lots of chatter about knowing your market and writing for a market, Western and/or local.

Hanif: “I haven’t heard writers talk so much about markets in my life. I thought I was in a stock exchange or something.”

Hanif: “I thought you’re a writer because you don’t write.” People ask what you do and you say you write but actually you’re not doing anything. Hanif says he has no idea what his market is. Also readers don’t know what they want until they discover something they like.

Hanif on the relationship of chaos and creativity: “You get up in the morning, get a cup of tea, get into your writing ritual. Something blows up in your city. And you think, ‘Ok great, I’m going to write much better today’? … A writer wants what a normal citizen wants – some peace and quiet.

Bhagat argues Hanif needed a “maverick” like Zia. Hanif points out the “delicious” crime fiction from stable Sweden.

Hanif getting applause and laughter. Bhagat looking stormy. Clearly he doesn’t like it when he isn’t the author the audience loves because that, after all, is his only cache: popularity. If the “intellectual” author is also popular, then Bhagat’s screwed. Because then all he is, is a bad writer.

Bhagat tries to curry favour by mimicking Goswami. It works: audience claps. “Would you disagree, Mr. Goswami, that you called me and told me to make it spicy?” Now that’s what I call playing to the gallery. So ironic because Bhagat has been accusing “intellectual” authors, presumably like the two sitting opposite him, of playing to a Western gallery.

As it turns out, Bhagat is bland and Hanif is the spicy one. No wonder Bhagat looks like someone took his toys.

Hamid: “We just sit at our computers, or typewriters if you’re really retro, and we make stuff up. That’s a very strange thing to be doing.”

Goswami: “Has the purity of it (Indian writing) gone?” Er, WTF?

Bhagat keeps making jibes about Indian writers being wrongly focused on English grammar. Also in his vocab, ‘intellectuals’ is a bad word. Bhagat: “If 50 intellectuals ready my book at a lit fest and enjoy it, that would be impure to me.” Bhagat says he cares about numbers and sales because he is writing to effect change.

It is Hanif who points out the many kinds of Indian literature and the multiplicity of language. He also says honestly that he hasn’t read enough and therefore can’t really opine about Indian literature. Contrast to Bhagat who a) has a take on the Pakistani literary scene, and b) sees India as a homogenous mass labelled “My Fans”, and that’s all that matters to him.

Hanif asks Bhagat why he doesn’t enter politics or become a tv journalist if he really wants to effect change. Bhagat is flustered. I don’t suppose he can say, “Because I’m lazy and it’s easier to write crap novels that are, by the grace of god, selling like hot cakes.”

With some convoluted and completely flawed logic, Bhagat says that, in a way, Hanif and Hamid are Indian writers. Goswami agrees. Audience claps. I’m appalled and nauseated by this thoughtless and rude comment from Bhagat. Worse still, this audience clapped. So I leave, because at this point I need to distance myself from both Bhagat and his crowd.

And now my battery is dying. Time to hit post.

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