Bubble Wrap

Chetan’s ambassadorial faux pas

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It’s official: Chetan Bhagat has foot-in-mouth disease.

I’m not kidding. If you’d watched Bumbling Idiot Bhagat on Monday in a chat with Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif (of the brilliant book A Case of Exploding Mangoes), you’d have reached the conclusion that folks like Bhagat could only make the Indo-Pak situation worse, not better. The two were in a literary session sponsored by Times of India as part of Aman Ki Asha, a campaign to improve people-to-people relations between Indians and Pakistanis. In other words, another marketing blitzkrieg.

Back to Bhagat. What you expect from going to an evening with two authors of this sort is that, hopefully, they’d be able to point out the ridiculous in the Indo-Pak situation. Bring out the funny, the poignant, the bits that could make us see how silly we’ve all been these 60 years. But no, no one told Chetan he should keep it light and smart.

One of the first volleys he aimed at Hanif was, “We just want people in Pakistan to know we’re hurt by the Mumbai attacks. That hurt us.” What??? Hanif looked suitably amused, if not irritated, by his companion’s earnestness. His us-versus-them comment was exactly the sort of ill-considered stupidity that scores of chest-thumping folks say all the time. He referred to the Mumbai attacks as though it was a declaration of war by the state of Pakistan. You half expected Hanif to pick up his mobile and telephone “the Pakistani people” to let them know. Bhagat then followed up his first pearl of wisdom with another one: “I just wish that idiot Qasab would be sentenced fast so we could all get back to our lives.”

What’s wrong with this guy? Why does he speak like he’s been caught thinking aloud? In his defence, Bhagat was occasionally funny, especially when he made fun of himself and the troubles he got into recently with the team of the 3 Idiots film. But he was overwhelmingly silly. His sappy, overwrought commentary was almost jingoistic, often condescending. It was the sort of average-Indian sentiment that you don’t expect from a writer, even one of Bhagat’s calibre. Hanif, on the other hand, was generous, making appreciative references to the Indian judicial system, even saying that a politician like Lalu Prasad Yadav would be a boon in Pakistan. It was how Bhagat ought to have behaved—generously. The sad fact was that Bhagat seemed genuinely glad to have become the voice of India, relating his country’s pain to the “Pakistani people”; that Big Brother tone of his came quite naturally. You could almost hear a voice in his head: “Phew, I’m glad I don’t live over there”.

And please, let’s stop calling Bhagat a representative of the youth. That demographic cannot be entirely summed up by the tiny management-school-type he represents.

Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time Bhagat has botched up a speaking assignment. In her blog Akhond of Swat, author Nilanjana S. Roy describes another disastrous literary session Bhagat was part of at the recently concluded Jaipur Literary Festival: “The Hanif Kureishi-Amitava Kumar session was a classic example of how matching the right moderator to the right writer can pay off massive dividends. The JLF had a little trouble with this, with Chetan Bhagat asking Anjum Hassan daft, condescending questions about how it felt to move from “the dressing table to the writing table”. It was clearly the Teen Deviyan and One Idiot panel.”

Clearly, Mr Bhagat leaves an impression.