by K Vijayachandran

By Engr. K Vijayachandran F.I.E
In his fifth novel, Half Girlfriend, Chetan Bhagat tells the love story of Madhav Jha and Riya Somani in three Acts, a prologue and then an epilogue. Story is told in first person singular: Prologue and epilogue are, of course, by the author himself.

Madhav is the chief narrator in the three Acts, staged in Delhi, Bihar and then in New York. However, heart of the story gets narrated by the fuzzy scribbling of the puzzled heroine and the author plays Sherlock Homes. The book reads more like a film script and less like a novel: No wonder, all Chetan novels had found ready takers in the Bollywood.

Stories and characters of Chetan are molded around Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), patronized by the English speaking elite classes of India. Chetan is a Punjabi and a product of Army School Delhi: Later took a degree in mechanical engineering from Delhi IIT and then an MBA from Ahmedabad IIM.

Unlike most others of his class, Chetan did not migrate to the West but joined a new generation bank in India, and got married to his Chennai based Iyer girlfriend from the IIM. His books and films were a roaring success among the newly rich younger generations of India. However, his Half-Girlfriend initiative seems to be giving troubles and attracting resentments.

In the present novel, Chetan has chosen St. Stephens College Delhi instead of IIT or IIM: Act I is enacted in the vast expanses of this good old institution, founded by the British in 1881, soon after British Raj shifted its head quarters from Calcutta and East India Company was taken over by British Crown. St. Stephens was the pride of British India and its elite classes, and had served as a role model of not only for the Benarus Hindu and Aligar Muslim Universities, and also their post-independence secular edition of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Among the 45 Alumnus listed in its webpage is several dignitaries, living and deceased: Fakhrudeen Ali Ahmed, Kushwant Singh, Sitaram Yachury and many others.

Madhav, a Bihari and a member of Dumraon royal family from Buxar district, is simply overwhelmed by the imperial campus of St. Stephan and its decidedly superior culture supported by authority, as he seeks admission to a post-graduate course in Social Sciences, on the strength of his certificates, as a well established state player of basketball. He finds Language as the biggest barrier in communication, as theorized by Hermann Hess, the great German mystic. And, finally he manages the selection on sports quota, with the help of a Bihari compatriot, who happened to be the sports faculty at St. Stephan’s.

Love and commitment for basketball brings Madhav closer to Riya, an under-graduate, who later signs up as his half-girlfriend. Apparently, that was the maximum relationship that could be suffered by the author, considering the acute class contradictions that existed between the two: Riya belonged to an immensely wealthy Banya family settled down in Delhi and engaged in global commerce. And, it does not take much time for global commerce to assert itself and Riya get married to a wealthy NRI in London. Madhav survives the shock, completes his degree and gets back to Bihar, feeling sick of the world of commerce under the hegemony of the absurdly rich.

After a fourteen hour rail journey from Delhi, as he travels in an auto rickshaw from Dumraon station to his royal residence, known as Raja ki haveli in the locality, Madhav critically recalls his history lessons in the local school, on the Great Battle of Buxar in 1764: “Frankly, it should be renamed the Embarrassing Battle of Buxar”, he laments, and then continues with his soliloquy: “The battle was fought between the British East India Company and the combined armies of three Indian States –Mir Qasim, the Nawab of Bengal, Shuja-ud-Doula, the Nawab of Awadh, and the Mughal King, Shah Alam II. The Indian side had 40,000 troops. The British had less than 10,000. Guess what happened? The British clobbered us. How? The three Indian kings ended up fighting with each other: In a day the British had won the battle and taken control of most of India. I don’t think Indians have learnt much since that day. We remain as divided as ever. Everyone still tries to cut a deal for themselves while the nation goes to hell”. That of course, was plain AAP talk and Chetan refuses to prescribe any solution.

Dust clouds created by the bumpy auto ride were very much unlike the Delhi experience and no roads were visible in most places. Class rooms and offices of the Royal School of Dumraon, organized by her mother, had occupied most part of the old palace complex, which looked as expansive as the St, Stephens, in the absence of compound walls and security gates. Madhav’s return from Delhi was celebrated with poojas, feasts and coronation ceremonies with the active participation of local people and political classes, including MP, MLA Sarpanch and others.

Madhav makes earnest efforts to help his mother’s school but finds the social, political and administrative backwardness of Bihar as real obstacles. He was lucky to get Bill Gates to visit the Royal School in trouble and with the help of the language and organizing skills of Riya, managed to get a large dollar grant for upgrading its hardware and software: Riya had by then got a divorce from her filthy-rich husband and was living on the funds provided by her father, who was no more. Sudden disappearance of Riya was a puzzle for Madhav. In the prologue part of the novel, Madhav had sought the help of Chetan, as a renowned author who knows best the pulse of our new generation English speaking intelligentsia.

Chetan deciphers the mystery of Riya’s disappearance and advises the Bihari to look for her in the bars of New York bars, where young and old US citizens flock together in the late night and listen to heartrending songs and music by those who are alienated from society, thanks to merciless global business. It appears the scribbling of Riya had given sufficient indications that her own status as an individual, alienated from her own family and society at large, needed that sort of deliverance; not very different from our Banarus or Haridwar.

I have no idea if Chetan had read or studied as part of his MBA curriculum, the Communist Manifesto, which is a poetic rendition of a serious charge sheet against the modern bourgeoisie classes: “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment….

..It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation…

..The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation into a mere money relation.”
Anyway, with or without Marx or his manifesto, Madhav makes a thorough search of the dark gullies and avenues of New York, where sentiments, love and poetic feelings supposedly get translated into soul-searching music. Fifty pages of Madhav’s adventures in New York expose the cultural poverty of Indian Diaspora in USA. Riya get liberated from this mess by Madhav and the couple decide to round off her status as half-girlfriend. They finally settle down in Dumraon and decides to spend three months in US every year and with the Midas touch of Bill Gates, the Royal school turns global.

Chetan has proved his story telling abilities through half a dozen novels in English. He has chiseled a craft that effectively communicates with a narrow band of compatriots with very high purchasing power: the new generation technocrats and bureaucrats of a rapidly changing India. He is yet to prove communication skills, outside of his class and time. Half girlfriend is a feeble attempt in this direction: But he is sure to do much better if he starts writing in Hindi or in Punjabi.