It`s ok to fail: Chetan Bhagat

Jaipur, Feb 07: By day he`s an investment banker, by night he`s India`s biggest-selling English-language novelist -- even though most people outside the country have never heard of him.

Chetan Bhagat`s witty "Five Point Someone" about three academically flailing students; "One Night @ the Call Centre," about the love lives of youngsters in the call centre industry; and "The 3 Mistakes of My Life," a story about suicide, business and friendship, have sold more than two million copies in India.

Bhagat, 35, is the first to admit he`s no Arundhati Roy, the Indian Booker Prize-winning author, and says he knows critics feel his books are shallow.

But Bhagat, who enjoys a rock star-like popularity among his readers, aged mainly 13 to 30, said he has the ultimate riposte -- "my books sell".

Bhaghat says he writes for "ordinary young people" who feel suffocated by their parents` desire for them to become doctors, lawyers or engineers.

"Indian youngsters live under pressure-cooker conditions to succeed," Bhagat, clad in jeans and a T-shirt and looking as young as many of the characters in his novels, said.

There`s cut-throat competition to win places in India`s elite universities with youngsters compelled to score highly from primary to high school. Entrance to top universities often require 90 percent-plus averages and most children have after-school tutoring to attain such marks.

"Every cousin of mine is becoming a doctor or engineer," remarks the hero of his novel "One Night @ The Call Centre," who answers phone calls from clueless Americans about their cooking appliances.

"You can say I am the black sheep of my family," he said.

Bhagat believes India needs to have an academic and social revolution to prevent young people simply regurgitating what they learn without thinking.

"I tell them even if they don`t get stratospheric marks, they`re still entitled to a happy life -- and it`s not the end of the world if they fail," he said at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival in northern India.

"I talk about youngsters` worries, their anxieties -- all the things that preoccupy them," he said.

Those subjects include parental academic pressure along with pre-marital sex, drinking and other topics taboo in socially conservative India.

At any public appearance, he`s mobbed by young people seeking his autograph.

"He`s talking to my generation, we connect to him," said college student Poorvi Mathur, 18, who lined up for his signature at the festival.

Bhagat, who attended one of India`s elite management schools, began writing in his spare time while an investment banker for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong.

He is now employed in Mumbai by Deutsche Bank where he deals in "distressed assets" -- a growth area with the global economic downturn -- and said he tries to keep the two parts of his life separate.

"It`s a different me," he said, referring to his button-down banker role.

At night and on weekends, he honed his first manuscript about the academically stress-filled life on campus to get the breezy, fast-paced tone right. The tale, published when he was 29, was an instant hit.

"The secret to his success is he writes in ordinary English -- and it`s reassuring for young people to know someone knows what they`re going through," said Rashmi Menon, senior editor at Bhagat`s publisher Rupa.

"If you want to know what many young people in India are thinking about, read Chetan Bhagat," she said.

Part of his success may lie in the cost. His books retail for 95 rupees or two dollars, a pocket-friendly price that he calls a marketing "master-stroke" because it was cheap enough to allow youngsters to buy them.

With his third book published last October, Bhagat says he could now afford to live on his writing but likes his day job and has no plans to quit.

The book has been selling at the unheard of rate of one copy every 17 seconds in India, according to his publishers.

"Chetan`s sales are enormous -- God has been good to both of us," said Rupa publisher and owner R.K. Mehra, who added that an English-language book that sold 10,000 copies would be considered a success in India.

Initially Bhagat feared he might be a one- or two-book wonder and fretted about how he would support his family: He has a wife and twin boys.

The financial payback is the bonus to the personal feedback he gets from his many fans who email him regularly with ideas and tales about their own lives.

"Only I know how much of a feeling of reward I get from my readers," he said.

Bureau Report