I spent practically my entire Sunday reading Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, One Indian Girl. I am not Bhagat’s target audience, which is made up of young, impressionable minds between the ages of 16 and 25 I would say. Neither am I a fan of Bhagat’s writing. But I am an Indian girl (okay, woman).
So I had to read the novel – because I was to interview him and also because this has been touted as a first. Because Bhagat – a man – has written the novel in first person as a woman. To do so, he has done extensive research. Speaking to close to 125 women, across various age groups and careers. He has even got waxed – his entire body as he told me – to understand what being a woman is all about.
My trepidation and eye-roll about the book, before reading it, had to do with the fact that it had been built up to be a novel move by an author writing in a different gender to theirs’.
Sadly, this is not a new literary technique. Virginia Woolf wrote Flush, which was a dog’s biography as Elisabeth Barett’s spaniel. (And did so, without joining a kennel before writing her book.) All three Brontë sisters wrote under male/androgynous pseudonyms, because they didn’t want people to think their writing was too feminine. These are just a few examples. Which is why I find it more than a little absurd that Bhagat got waxed to understand how women feel, because it’s like getting circumcised to write in the voice of a Muslim character – unnecessary.
To be fair though, despite my trepidation, the 272-page book in very small font, was far better than I expected it to be. The first 50 pages when he's building up the characters, are very tedious. But channel your inner woman, be strong and soldier forward. It does get better.
The book is about Radhika Mehta, a 26-year-old investment banker with Goldman Sachs who, according to the book blurb, is opinionated (although you don’t see any real examples of this), earns a lot of money, has had sex before marriage and is now going to have an arranged marriage. We are introduced to her past lovers and her current fiancé, and the book is about who she ends up with.
I won’t give away who she chooses, but both ex-loves land up at her wedding and fight for her heart and hand. So there’s a lot to aspire to, for us Indian girls. Who doesn’t want to earn a $ 350,000 salary, live in London-New York-Hong Kong, have at least two very dishy exes, who then show up to fight for you while you’re on the way to the altar with a third, while you also have a super successful career?
This could well be our answer to Bridget Jones, other than for the fact that Radhika seems to be far more canny, a lot more psychotic (especially her reaction to being dumped or when she threatens her boss-cum-lover by telling him she’ll mail the entire company about their affair), and far more successful in her career than Jones is.
The three men in her life fall into clear stereotypes. Debashish Sen is the creative Bengali Commie who works at BBDO. Neel Gupta is the Capitalist older man who leads the Distressed Debt Team at Goldman Sachs, and then there’s Brijesh Gulati who is the good boy and average Joe Punjabi who works at Facebook in Menlo Park, but is from the same locality as Radhika’s in Delhi.
The parts which worked for me were when Bhagat describes work and life and clients at Goldman Sachs. It’s obviously a terrain he’s familiar with, and it comes across in his detailing of the kind of projects Radhika’s team handles and bonuses and so on.
The same knowledge is not present when he describes Debashish’s work at BBDO. All we are told is that he is working on an Under Armour campaign and that there’s lots of “politics” at work. The life of ad guys sounds utterly boring, as does Gulati’s life.
Although, Facebook gets some great PR when he writes about why no one leaves the company. This is the first time that investment banking has sounded like a more thrilling and exciting proposition than any other profession. This is one of the good services Bhagat does through this book. He has ensured that investment bankers who have only been able to charm women by the size of their bank balance till date, now feel that they have far more to offer. Women, remember, this is a fiction book.
The second yeoman service that Bhagat does, and this is an important one, is to introduce his young readers to the wonder of cunnilingus. And the fact that it may just be the most fool-proof way to get a woman to orgasm.
He also busts the myth that sex for women is great from get go, and describes how the first time could well be very forgettable. It’s also good to see a female character demand what she wants in bed. But – and this is where Bhagat’s gender gives him away – in the quite explicitly described sex scenes, there is no mention of Radhika giving or being asked to return the favour and give her lovers a spot of fellatio a.k.a. a blow job.
Because only a woman would know the hesitation when faced with the prospect of fellatio for the first time. Few men will even consider this possibility. This is when research really comes in handy. But full points to Bhagat for bringing cunnilingus out of the closet.
Where the book hiccups is when Bhagat starts speaking about feminism. Because it feels shoved in unnecessarily. No woman I know at least – I could well be wrong – gives a lecture on feminism to men she’d long broken up with. Quoting from Naomi Woolf’s The Beauty Myth while doing so.
Also, the repeated assertions about a woman’s right to be herself, earn a fat salary, choose her own partner seems like the lectures which we hear in Hindi films. Where everything is spelt out for you – in case you miss the point. It’s not just feminism, we also learn about Japanese culture and what dim sum is. Much like a finishing school.
The book is feminist in the sense that if you changed Radhika’s gender, you’d not need to change anything in her character or life. Other than make her stop getting a Brazilian wax, or maybe not since Bhagat implied he got one too.
You can hear Bhagat speak to us about the book, why cunnilingus won out over fellatio, his research on the book and other tid-bits here.
The book seems to have been written for cinema. It cuts across continents, there’s a desi destination wedding and even a sangeet with Bollywood choreographed dances thrown in for good measure, a breakup meltdown on Brooklyn Bridge, holidays in exotic islands.
And let’s not forget, Kangana Ranaut launched the book and also said the male characters are just like the men she’s been involved with. Which seems very far-fetched. I think Hrithik Roshan should immediately buy the book, although I’m guessing he’s the older man who loves his kids and won’t leave his wife for his younger colleague and lover.
I must mention that this is one of the best edited books I’ve read, and I’ve read extracts of Bhagat’s earlier works, and Rupa Publications’ editors deserve a round of applause for getting all their punctuation right this time around. Practice does make perfect. It’s definitely not a bad read and has some interesting bits.
Is it a feminist book? Well, it does tick many boxes. It’s about a woman who lives on her own, chooses who she wants to take as a lover and is highly successful in her career. The only hitch? She seems a highly unhappy, insecure and cantankerous sort, without a friend to her name or a light-hearted moment in her life. But hey, you can’t have it all.
Read it. If just to know how cold-hearted the Debt Distress teams in investment banking can be and to introduce yourself to the wonders of oral sex. Who knew Chetan Bhagat would turn out to be our Dr Ruth!
One Indian Girl is written by Chetan Bhagat and published by Rupa Publications. Rs 176