The Teller of Stories
n mid-2003, in a bar called The Bull and The Bear, in the financial district of Hongkong, Chetan Bhagat stared at the three tequila shots he’d ordered. He was miserable, messed up.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
He’d lived the dream. He’s started modestly: army kid, not much money in the family, strict upbringing, the kind where even television was frowned upon. His kid brother and he would make up stories for each other to amuse themselves. Well, okay, ‘strict’ was a euphemism: he says now he’d call it ‘almost oppressive.’ Plus his parents didn’t get along, so there were frequent tense periods. But, he adds, there was frequent laughter too; his mother could make people laugh, and he credits his sense of humour to her. (He also goes on to point out that all his stories have involved screwed up families; “I don’t know any other kind.”)
Getting a seat in an IIT was his ticket out. It was the place where he really started looking around, finding himself, observing people. His batchmates, he recalls, all seemed lost: “They didn’t want to be here, they were all escaping, they didn’t know who they were.” He got involved with theatre, wrote plays.
When it came to taking a summer project, he didn’t want to do “anything hardcore.” There was a placement at Cadburys that no one else wanted, and he leapt at it: “Two months in Lonavala! Chocolates!” His project, to fix a wrapping machine that was supposed to do 250 chocolate lollipops a minute, but was only doing 75. He puzzled over it, but didn’t crack it.
One night, he bumped into the foreman, a veteran of the place. Rather than go eat alone in the executive canteen, he went along with him to the worker’s canteen. They talked for three hours, about the man’s life, his children, his struggles. The next day, the wrapping machine was miraculously performing at full capacity. The foreman told him that he’d worked there ten years, he knew the machine inside-out. Until then, “No one heard me. You did. I had to make your project successful.”
That was Bhagat’s epiphany. No more machines, he decided, it would be people from now on. So, when he graduated from IIT, he decided to do an MBA, at IIM Ahmedabad. After which he’d work abroad, China for choice. “I thought it would be better to see what India would be like in ten years, then come back.”
He got a job in Hongkong, with Peregrine. That office folded in six months, a victim of the financial crisis, and he moved to Goldman Sachs. So far, so good.
But he was sure his boss hated him; the man seemed to think that Bhagat should have been glad to have a job, given the environment. He certainly didn’t have a good word to say about his work, his leadership qualities, heck, even his haircut.
He’d been working on a book — frequently during office hours, in a sort of I’ll-show-him kind of way —about life in IIT. He’d been sending it to publishers back in India, but had collected a pretty comprehensive set of rejection letters. Publishers asked questions like would this sell abroad, is it going to get a big foreign advance? And the answer was — rightly, he says now — no. With each rejection, he’d gone back to the story; he edited, did complete rewrites, trying to build in literary flourishes, make it more descriptive, colourful, attractive to agents, whatever.
And now he’d just heard that another publisher didn’t want the book.
He stared at the tequilas. That was rejection number eight.
He downed the tequilas. All three of them. He took some mints for his breath, and went back to the office, and somehow made it through the day. He asked himself what he was doing: he was supposed to be writing because he loved it, this book was supposed to be the raised middle finger to his boss. Instead, he was turning into an alcoholic, and, worse, that bastard would be proved right; he was really a failure.
Fortunately for him, a short while down the line, a little ray of sunshine peeped through the gloom.
Kapish Mehra, the son of the owner of Rupa & Co, was just getting into the family business. And he liked the book. He persuaded his father to take it on.
This was a time when a novel published in India would need to sell around 1000 copies for the publisher to break even. (For Indian writing in English at that time, 2000 sold would make the book a bestseller.) Bhagat said that thanks to IIT and IIM, he had around 200 people he could count on to buy copies. But Rupa was dubious, unsure it could sell the other 800.
Nevertheless, they bought the book. Bhagat worked on it some more; took out the flourishes — “I realised I can’t be Arundhathi Roy” — brought back more of the humour he was comfortable with — putting in “more Chetan” — and the book, Five Point Someone, went to press with a rather adventurous 4000-copy run.
It sold out in a day, says Kapish Mehra. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t hailed as a smash hit; and it got mixed reviews. But it did well enough to give Bhagat the chance to write another.
It was only when that second book, One Night @ the Call Center, came out, he says, that people seemed to suddenly recall that they’d read Five Point Someone.