Madhav Jha, a young basketball player from Dumraon, a remote town in Bihar lands up in Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College, seeking admission in Sociology through sports quota. Rich, tall and beautiful Riya Somani from Delhi too comes to the same college seeking admission in English Literature, as providence goes, through sports quota. Madhav, though hailing from an erstwhile royal family in Bihar suffers from English Complex; he just cannot speak in English. At the basketball court Madhav and Riya meet. They could not have missed each other. Despite the English barrier and class difference, they become thick friends. Madhav falls in love with Riya and she in turn wants only to be his half girl friend, that also after much coaxing. Goaded by English complex and persuaded by his Bhojpuri speaking immature friends, Madhav finds to win her forever through forcing himself on her. It puts her off. She drops out marries her childhood friend, Rohan, now a successful hotelier living in London, and leaves India. Heartbroken and crestfallen, more than driven by a sense of guilt, Madhav after finishing his graduation, goes back to Dumraon in order to assist his mother in running their dilapidated school.
That is the first part of Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, Half Girlfriend, for you. But the story does not end there in that moody note. As Bhagat says in the preface of the book, he writes for facilitating a change in our country, at least a change in the general mindset of the people regarding relationships, notions of success and failure, and also about pursuing a dream. Bhagat has done it in his previous novels too. In his first novel he spoke of life taking a turn at the face of a fatal accident. In the novels that followed he wrote profusely about how the contemporary youngsters think of their lives, politics and love. Bhagat always insists that it is not politicians and policy makers who decide the life of the youngsters in any country. The youth all over the world give a new direction and dynamics to the societies that they live in and what policy makers could do is to know their pulse and catch up with the change. Bhagat’s novels though they do not belong to the classical zone of literature, narrate the story of young people whose aspirations are often deemed as trivial. In their pursuits that apparently look jovial and trivial, there exists an ideal; an ideal that is realizable in our limited lives.
Many readers ‘trash’ Bhagat’s novels and they say that they would rather see them as they are also now staple stories for Bollywood flicks. True, most of the commercially successful novels in the world today are written in the multiple possibilities of the text; the text that could be made into moving visuals. Novels today share an interesting relationship with movies. At times, when you read Dan Brown’s novels you feel that his novels are written in consultation with the most daring and imaginative script writers in Hollywood who could cook up the most intriguing plots in the genre of literature. Dan Brown’s novels read like a film script with extra details thrown into it. Bhagat’s though not intricate like Brown’s also read like film scripts. If readers feel that they would see his novels when they are made into movies, we cannot discount the truth in that view. Here literature moves into business with extravagant further plans to franchise it and merchandise it. Perhaps, this is where good literature differs from not so good ones. Good literature is always readerly. They cannot be converted into a visual form without damaging sensibility of the original text. But the new literary attempts are made always keeping a possible movie coming up as a visual translation.
Bhagat’s novels are translatable and they are widely translated in Indian languages. But they are not widely read all over the world because it is typically India centric and the issues and problems discussed in them are not universal per se. Though love and pursuit of happiness are two themes that are universal, one reader from Russia need not be particularly interested in what is going on in the mind of a Bihari youth. However, the same could be shared by a Malayali sitting in South or a Manipuri sitting in East. Interestingly, Bhagat could be called the novelist of the café coffee day generation or the starbucks generation. When you go to one of these outlets for a cup of coffee you see young people like Madhav Jha and Riya Somani engaged in animated talks, doing most trivial things like clicking selfies, typing words furiously into their laptops or simply looking into each other’s eyes and living eternity over a cup of coffee. Bhagat writes, not for this generation but about this generation.
In ‘Half Girlfriend’ too, like in his other novels, Bhagat writes about the young generation. The novelist is at once inside and outside the novel; he is the listener as well as part narrator of the story, the main story teller being, Madhav Jha, the protagonist himself. Like in some other inspirational novels of our times, the story comes to the writer and he begins as an unwilling receiver of the story. In this case, Bhagat evens dumps the manuscript, a bunch of old diaries written by Riya Somani, brought to him by Madhav Jha, in his hotel room in Patna, while the narrator is on a visit there. Madhav has not read the diaries of Riya because he believes that she is dead and gone. But the unwilling reader who is the writer himself finds out that Riya is still alive. Passing of this message of Madhav sets the second part of the novel on.
Madhav gets a grant from the Bill Gates Foundation to build toilets in his mother’s school. In one of his visits in Patna, he chances upon Riya who has now come back to India after divorcing Rohan. She is currently working with the Nestle company as a marketing manager. Riya once again becomes Madhav’s half girl friend. Madhav’s mother disapproves their friendship; anyway not a great reason for her to abscond. But still she absconds and through the diary left intentionally by her in the apartment where she was living in Patna, she lets Madhav know that she has been suffering from a fatal lung cancer. She disappears into thin air and Madhav lives on bereaving her death every moment in his life. It was then he comes to know through Bhagat that Riya must be still alive and the death story was all a hogwash.
Riya had told Madhav that she wanted to pursue her happiness by becoming a Jazz singer at some bar in New York. Madhav had laughed it off. But the diary entry now sets him work. He has to find out Riya. He goes to New York with the help of the Bill Gates Foundation. He scouts through every music joint and pub in New York, even to the extent that his friend suggests him that he needs psychiatric assistance. A day before Madhav is supposed to leave for India, through a messenger (such angels are seen only in films and stories) he comes to know a Riya like singer is found in a pub. The music program closes at 12.00 night. Madhav on a snowing night runs around six kilometers only to find his love on stage. This is a cinematic climax, the long lost beloved on stage and a thoroughly tired lover in front of her. As the camera revolves and the onlookers cheer on, they fall in a deep embrace and kiss (a kiss that he has been wanting from her all his life).
The novel closes when Bhagat comes as a guest to their school. Now Riya is also a teacher and the Madhav’s mother has taken the role of a supportive mother-in-law looking after their two year old son. The last scene is the young child trying to basket a ball. Madhav tells him keep trying for they are not quitters. One could hear the sighs of relief from the readers as well as the future film viewers. It could be heart wrenching love story, but at the same time it is a story about two Indias; one that speaks English and the other does not. It is a story during the time of honor killings. It is a story narrated during the times when love is short tripped for flimsy reasons. Bhagat gets it right but I do not know how the readers have taken it, though the film people have already started finding actors for the lead roles. ‘Half Girlfriend’ is a page turner. I am sure the intellectuals amongst would, however read it hiding.