Technically, I should tag this post as “Literature”, but I don’t think I can bring myself to do that.
So the other day, a book landed in the vicinity of my desk. It is titled That’s The Way We Met… Kya Life Hogi Set?, which translates to “That’s the way we met… are our lives now sorted?” This paperback novel is by Sudeep Nagarkar, author of Few Things Left Unsaid, which was, I’m told, a bestseller. Now, I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m a snob and that I’ve no business trashing these local paperback authors because dammit all, they’re writing what the country loves reading. And the reason the country loves what they write is that they use English in the way that the bulk of India speaks it and because the situations they describe are rooted in people’s everyday reality. As a friend’s husband who likes Chetan Bhagat told me, and I quote, “It’s real and it’s real the way India is, which makes me want to read it. How do you expect me to be interested in life the way someone on another continent sees it? Why should I make that effort?”
I will not bore you with the blistering lecture I delivered to this friend’s husband. Instead, I’ve decided to make an effort and read That’s The Way We Met… Kya Life Hogi Set? It’s a 233-paged novel that took me about 20 minutes to speed read. I would like to share some samples and when you read those samples, I would like you to keep two questions in mind. These two questions have been plaguing me ever since the aforementioned 20 minutes of my life came to a close.
1. Is this really how India talks, by which I’m referring to both the vocabulary and sentence construction?
2. Is this really what happens among the Indian youth, by which I’m referring to the actions of the characters?
A few basics before I present the quotes — Aditya, a.k.a. Aadi, and Riya are a couple who started dating in college. They set up Aadi’s friend Mohit with Riya’s friend Sonam. The peak of romance in That’s The Way We Met… Kya Life Hogi Set? involves the two couples going to Manali, a hill station in Himachal Pradesh which is particularly famous for good weed. The novel is narrated by Aadi.
After a splendid lunch, we decided to go for a short walk near Taj Hotel.
‘Just looking at the hotel reminds me of the horrifying incident of the 26/11 terror attacks here. It was indeed a black day!’ said Mohit, looking at the Taj.
‘You know, I had a close brush with death that day. I was in Café Mondegar with Sameer at around 7 pm the day the terrorists struck the city. I had received my first paycheck and we had decided to go to the café to celebrate. [Details of beers drunk and how they dined near the Taj.]… Suddenly, we saw a group of police officers enter the restaurant. They told us the hotel was under siege due to a terrorist threat and warned us not to leave the restaurant without permission. … That day we saw death with our very eyes. It was just terrible.’
I took the cue and came and sat right next to her. I wanted to feel this magical moment together. The grey sea and the long black land, the yellow half-moon and the startled waves added to the romance. As the moon shone upon us, bathing us in its glowing light. I glanced at Riya’s eyes and kissed them. Then we engaged in a long, passionate kiss.
Babe, I was just thinking about our college days and how much fun we had together. Remember how you used to force me to write long messages even though I could barely write a sentence? I used to send you the same forwarded messages over and over again. But it’s different today. Now words aren’t enough to tell you how wonderful you are. Although this is just a small attempt to do so, the fact that will remain constant is that I will love you forever. Here’s a love message that was in my inbox which I had saved to send you at the apt moment. ‘I wish I was your blanket, I wish I was your bed; I wish I was your pillow underneath your head. I want to be around you, I want to hold you tight and be the lucky person who kisses you good night.’
Aadi, I don’t need fancy love messages to assure me of your love. You are a blessing in disguise to me. I cherish every second I spend with you. I find myself loving you more with each passing day. You are the reason for my being. You are my Mr. Perfect and I love you.
I slept with a smile on my face that night.
‘Let’s get naughty tonight. I want to be in your arms, hold you and feel you all over me,’ said Riya softly so that Mohit and Sonam could not overhear us.
I gave her a wicked wink.
Riya came close to me and moved her finger on my back and then on my thighs. This made me drowsier. She tried to arouse me, but I was too high to respond to her yearnings.
‘My bachhu, you came into my life like a beautiful dream and it seems like I have never woken up from it. I bless the day we met,’ said Riya.
Hearing her confess her love to me so earnestly, I was reminded of the day when I first laid my eyes on her. I was scheduled to attend a lecture but as usual, I was wiling away time checking out the girls in my class. Five minutes into the lecture, I heard a girl’s voice:
‘May I come in sir?’
One look at her and my heart skipped a beat. It was so beautiful, almost like watching a dream. … Our eyes met and in that fleeting second, it was like our souls came together too. We couldn’t stop looking at each other. … It was me who had proposed to her a few years back. The memory of that day is still clearly etched in my mind like it all happened yesterday.
We had planned it all out. Swapnil and Sameer were standing in one corner in the garden, ready with what they had been instructed to do. Even I was prepared. As soon as Riya entered, I bent down on my knees, kept the rose in my hand, and said, ‘You are my best friend. A friend like you is hard to get. However, a life partner like you for a person like me is impossible.’
I paused for a moment and said, ‘Really, I don’t deserve a girl like you. I am a flirt. I have the worst image, but still I want to change. I want a girl who can change me. And it’s you, my bachha. You are everything to me. You are the love of my life. I love you babe. … I will never leave you alone in this relationship. Love you. Do you wish to be my beloved?’
She had tears in her eyes — tears of happiness. She just nodded and said, ‘I love you too my bachha…love you a lot. Thanks for this moment.’ She accepted the rose. I stood up and we hugged one another. As soon as we did that, Sameer and Swapnil blew the ribbon and snow spray.
And now she was proposing to me! … She continued, ‘It was you who made me realise that I am beautiful … I know you were probably expecting me to pop up the question in a grand fashion, but I am too shy to propose to you in public. I have seen you as a perfect boyfriend and now I wish to see you as my perfect husband. So Aditya, WILL YOU MARRY ME?’
I was benumbed. Words failed me. A nervous ‘yes’ was all I could say at that moment, as she came over to give me a tight hug.
I touched her back with my fingertips and heard her moan. My hands reached for her knot and untied it to let her dress fall on the floor. I lifted her up in my arms and laid her gently on the bed. She worked her way across my chest, swiftly unbuttoning my shirt and pulling it over my head. As I unzipped my trousers, I took out from its pocket the wooden key ring having our names carved on it. She took it in her hands and kissed it as a drop of tear fell from her. I kissed those tears away and gave her a deep kiss on the lips. She moaned in pleasure, returning my kisses with ardour. I took a strawberry and rolled it all over her. She could no longer hold herself, her body rocked with the sensation of pure ecstasy. We ate chocolates while kissing each other and fondled one another for a very long time. I rolled another strawberry in the melted chocolate and passed it on to her. She devoured it instantly, giving me the next piece.
‘You are a wild cat in bed,’ I whispered in her ear.
(All the spellings are as printed in the book, as are the use of punctuation marks and capitals.)
I could go on, but I won’t. The entire novel is a series of quotable quotes, but never mind what I think is quote-worthy. My question is, who the hell speaks like this? Is “bachhu”, which is presumably meant to be “bachchu” (a colloquial Hindi word that is derived from “bachcha”, which means “kid”), really a term of endearment? Does the bulk of English-speaking India really throw in words and phrases like “indeed”, “love messages”, “a drop of tear” and “due to” while chatting with friends?
More frighteningly, is this really what India’s youth do? Do people write and send one another rhyming couplets like, “I wish I was your blanket, I wish I was your bed; I wish I was your pillow underneath your head”? This is what wins girls over these days? Crap poems, a rose “kept” in a hand and “ribbon and snow spray”? And what in the name of all that is sacred and raunchy is that sex scene? He rolls a strawberry on her — who does that and why would you do that? — and it has her bucking towards orgasm? She “works” her way across his chest? How small is this woman? How do you pull an unbuttoned shirt over someone’s head? We are the land of the Kama Sutra and we kiss lovers on their foreheads? Understandably, given their astounding sexual technique, both seem more excited about eating chocolate than having sex. Also, why does she cry over a keyring that he keeps in his pocket (which is carving names on itself while being taken out of said pocket)? How is this the kind of thing we want as romance and foreplay?
Never mind the fact that That’s The Way We Met… Life Hogi Kya Set? has no arc to speak of. I’m not going to start on idiotic usage of words and phrases, like ‘popping up a question’. Let’s also ignore the fact that the conflict appears at the end of the novel and is solved in the most ridiculous way possible (SPOILER: Riya’s father dies and leaves the family in debt. Riya’s mother wants Riya to marry a rich family friend’s son. Aadi is not a candidate because he’s not rich enough. Out of the blue, Riya and her mother disappear off the face of the earth one day. Or at the very least Mumbai. This book is what the heartbroken Aadi writes in hope of finding Riya.) What I’m trying and failing to understand is who speaks or behaves like this? Who buys this stuff and is satisfied with it? In short, how is this sort of sub-standard fiction the stuff of bestsellers?
When Bhagat first became a familiar name in India, the rumour was that he had bought his own books by the cartload so that he would be considered a bestselling author. Similarly, Amish, who wrote The Immortals of Meluha and The Secret of the Nagas, is believed to have lied about figures initially. He was published by a famous Delhi bookseller who is also one of the people to whom one turns when looking for sales figures. He claimed Amish’s The Immortals of Meluha was a bestseller. If the rumours are to be believed, then the success of most of these pop fiction authors is a result of good propaganda. These authors created a buzz about themselves, which ended up becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Since only publishers and book sellers have the figures, there’s no way to verify these rumours. Obviously, no bookseller or publisher will admit that they inflate numbers.) A few months ago, one Indian author was exposed for having created false user ids to post glowing reviews of his own works. It’s worked out fine for him — like Bhagat and gang, he’s a bestselling author and he apparently has a film deal for one of his novels — but he is the first Indian author that I can think of who has been caught in the act of lying about the popularity of his book. I’m sure he’s not the only one and let’s be fair, posting reviews of your own book is significantly different from buying copies of your own book. But the bottom line is the same: the popularity of the home-grown writers isn’t necessarily as substantial as it seems. Frankly, if That’s The Way We Met…Life Hogi Kya Set? is any indication, then it’s easy to believe this whole Indian pop-fiction shebang is as poofy as the stories belonging to the genre.
So much more that I could go on and on about — the basic storytelling, for instance, or the disease of using words and phrases without knowing their actual meaning (for instance, how is Aadi a “blessing in disguise”? What is he disguised as? Since when did Riya become a holy figure that she was blessing the day?) But I’m going to leave it at that and go and read a Mills & Boon now to remind myself how comforting good trash can be.
Good night and may good fiction be with you.