Two States: An Initial Impression

Chetan Bhagat needs an editor.

I don’t say this because I currently occupy an editor’s seat, but quite honestly because even a three year old could catch the mistakes he – and his errant editor and his non-existent proofreader – haven’t. All right, confession – this might not be an entirely legit copy, so a few mistakes could be perfectly possible. But why is Bhagat allowed, and allowing his editors, to get away with “‘Ananya Swaminathan – the best girl in the fresher batch’, the seniors had already anointed her on the dorm board (bad sentence structure)“? Also, there’s the fact that there have been two or three instances of “is aid” instead of “I said”.

I’d already noticed grammatical fail-whales* in his Five Point Someone, but the story was good; straightforward, a little cocky, surprisingly free of a number of cliches, and quite funny. Two States, however, is nowhere near as winning.

My friend had already biased me slightly against this book yesterday, because it was (according to her) a badly written satire filled with racial slights against both North and South India. So far, nothing I’ve read seems to contradict that view.

When Ananya’s and Krish’s parents meet, ‘comical’ misunderstandings immediately ensue. His mother is loud and hates on South Indian girls who want North Indian boys (she later elaborates on her theory that this is because all those dark-complexioned South Indians have some kind of complex about, haha, their complexions). Her parents say “seri” and “illa” all the time (yes and no, respectively), and are snooty about his middle-class mother’s lack of knowledge.

A couple of barbs are marked out for the North, but the brunt of the battle is reserved for the South. The second Krish lands up in the backwater that is Chennai, he encounters women dripping with gold (but not gold as shiny as back home in Punjab, so that’s all right), swarthy looking men, and a population that is essentially drowning in hair oil. Krish then discovers that not all auto drivers know English and, when he gets into an argument with his driver, that Tamilian men aren’t nearly as cowardly as he’d expected them to be. And look! Every Indian film poster features a stunning woman and a pudgy male lead. Good lord, perhaps his mother was right.

The only thing right in this curd-rice-eating, Tamil-speaking, fashion-sense-less wasteland is his gorgeous Tam Brahm girlfriend. Who, incidentally, lives with him for two years, drinks like a fish, and eats chicken with joyful abandon. But of course, her parents pay no attention to the fact that she’s in love with Krish, and decide to marry her off to their ideal boy. Incidentally, Mr. Perfect Tam Brahm is the diametric opposite of Ananya – “He never drank or ate meat or smoked (or had fun, by extension) and had a good knowledge of Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam… he even had a telescope he used to see galaxies on the weekend (I told you he was no fun).”

Carnatic music is, of course, another agony that is inflicted upon Krish – it sounds like wailing and dear god they have awards for this!  And what the hell is a murukku? It looks like a fossilized snake!

I have never lived in Chennai, although I’ve visited for a month nearly every year of my life. But I’m still deeply offended. Wait, though – I am a Tamil Iyer girl, and my biases are coming through, aren’t they?

No. The end result of 147 out of 321 pages of near-complete swill is that Chetan Bhagat writes, thinks, and sniggers like a twelve-year old. He’s also veering perilously close to being labeled a bloody Amit.

To write satire – intelligent, thoughtful, purposeful satire – you need to be good. The problem with this is that satire which isn’t intelligent, thoughtful or purposeful is simply bad. You needn’t bother at all. Someone should’ve told Bhagat this before they jumped on his five-pointed-star-of-literature bandwagon.

It’s not simply the generalities, because if there’s one thing Indians are really good at (all Indians), it’s making fun of each other and then taking offence. It’s the sheer drudgery of the cliches, the petty offensiveness, the immaturity of his writing. The examples above should give you a pretty good idea of the sort of thing Bhagat is capable of, but just to drive the point home, look at the Love Interest. Ananya is a beautiful, intelligent, self-assured girl who’s at the top of the social pecking order. But this is standard fare for Bhagat (or any Indian story) – the real kicker is that she’s everything she’s not meant to be. I do, in fact, know Tamil Iyer girls who drink and eat meat, but here’s the thing: they wouldn’t be any less interesting if they didn’t. There are other, less pointless ways of rounding out a character.

Bhagat attempts to make some kind of sense out of this series of unfortunate scenes when Krish jokes to Ananya about bringing India together through their children. Yes, because that point hasn’t been beaten to death yet. And if Krish continues with his Tamil-hate, his children might just turn out to be as dysfunctional as he is.

I do understand that the South isn’t too forgiving of the North either. I had a conversation with someone who’d been living out of Tamil Nadu but spoke Tamil; his take was that Tamilians honestly can’t be bothered with learning someone else’s language when theirs serves them so well in their hometown. And yes, I’ll admit that many people I know (my mother included) think of North Indians as a foreign species altogether and can’t stop from making fun of them.

But why, Mr. Bhagat, does it not occur to you to step away from the norm? Slighted as you feel you are, why can’t you take your chances? If your protagonist has found a stunning non-practicing Tam Brahm, surely there are other pockets of respite in this city and amongst these people?

The next half of the book, of course, reveals the all-important climax: Ananya overhears the love of her life pacifying her future mother-in-law by telling her that this upstart, educated Tamilian girl will certainly be under her thumb. Ananya can’t believe her ears, breaks off the match, and plunges Krish into distress.

Eventually, after a thoroughly unbelievable reconciliation with his father, Bhagat wraps up this farce with his description of a South Indian wedding. Neither side comes out looking very good in this – the South Indians are tortuously boring and have invented early-morning wedding ceremonies to make sure the groom’s side is taking this seriously**; all Krish’s family can think of is getting presents from the girl’s side.

Why, Mr. Bhagat, are you insulting your reader’s intelligence? Do you really think the North doesn’t know that the South eats on banana leaves every now and then (not every day, and not always on the floor)? There’s a passing mention (about five words) of the beautiful temples, and a grudging admission that Delhi maybe should have more chutney and dosas. Is that really all you can come up with?

My eventual conclusion is that I’ve spent about three hours reading a book that was certainly not worth it. If Chetan Bhagat wanted to write an Amit tour guide for Northern grooms marrying Southern girls, then he’s done a decent job. If he meant to make any meaningful points about North-South integration, then they’re lost in the babble of bad writing.

*My favourite phrase right now
**I agree this is a little bit insane, 6.30 am for a ceremony isn’t fun

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2 thoughts on “Two States: An Initial Impression

  1. Some one should write a book featuring an Amit who writes dodgy prose about south Indians and blocks folks on twitter all the time. It should feature the protagonist on a crib-filled trip to Madras to research South Indian customs, and after a few arguments with auto drivers, non-Hindi speakers and spicy food, he just says – “Chal hat yaar” and decides to go back to Delhi and regurgitate all the usual cliches. That would make a wonderful MAD tv type skit

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