Defending Indian Pop Fiction

I got a call from an old schoolmate this morning. The reason for this rather surprising call was amusing: this fellow, wanted help to zero-in on a book, a ‘metro-read’, as a gift for someone.

Hmmm….well. I gave my opinion, to the extent I could. I have never really been much too interested in metro-reads/pop fiction, arguably the highest-selling genre in urban India. In fact, there was a time when I looked down upon them. As you grow in years, you learn to be a little less judgmental than that.

The call got me thinking about the standing of a fiction-genre which so appeals to the young and upwardly mobile. What has prompted a generation – which didn’t so much as turn the pages of comic books – to be hooked to cheap Rupa paperbacks on Metros and public places?

Chetan Bhagat, is perhaps considered to be the pioneer of this genre (and is therefore, the favourite punch bag of critics). I read his first four novels. With the exception of Five Point Someone, all are forgettable and rather ‘trashy’.

Yet, one cannot deny the fact that all are representatives of ‘young, modern and evolving’ India. The populist story-steller even broke the ‘mould’ with Three Mistakes Of My Life. It focuses on lower-middle-class dreams and aspirations as against the standard snazzy set-up of the call centers and corporate houses or even the high-octane activity-filled backdrop of IITs, IIMs and some other premier institute.

The most common sub-genre is the campus novel, as is evident by the number of books written about life in engineering colleges, B-schools or other less obvious academic set-ups. I might not have read many, but Blogger gave me quite a list. Mediocre but Arrogant (management insti in Jamshedpur), Joker in the Pack, Keep off the Grass, (IIM), Above Average, Anything for you Ma’m (IIT), Sumthing of a Mocktale (JNU) to name a few. All are witty, satirical and heart-felt commentary on the ups and downs of campus life as well the idiosyncrasies within them. It is not hard to understand why the young crowd identifies with such fiction. It is about them and their follies. They can relate to the characters and happenings directly.

Others in the category are chick-lits (Almost Single was a rather breezy read and The Zoya Factor is another page-turner, I gather), corporate novels (If God was a Banker and even One Night @ the Call Center) and contemporary themes/issues ranging from ‘urban angst’, ‘alternative lifestyles’, ‘middle-class dreams’ etc. The closest I have come to reading something with any one of those themes have to be Two States and The Lost Flamingos of Bombay. The latter really isn’t pop fiction though. It’s more on the lines of ‘trying to be Rushdie but getting stuck somewhere in between Bhagat and his most vociferous detractor’. Not my concern as of now.

I still do not find myself inclined towards the ‘revolution’ Bhagat started, but I don’t see why I should consistently thrash the genre. It has its takers. It lets people find some sort of meaning and identity in the face of a confusing, complex and fast-paced life; an inevitable fall-out of an increasingly ‘corporatisation=development’ equation.

At least, these authors are not pretentious unlike those who write exactly about the same things and people but with deliberate conceit in terms of language-usage and character-build up.

I would much rather read ‘The fire spread’ than pull my hair out to figure out what ‘the conflagration extended its devastating career’ means!

P.S: I have deliberately kept out the new breed of mystery/thriller writers within the ambit of this post (they do not pertain to the perspective I have taken here) although they do broadly fall under the Popular category.

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