English, Our Second First Language

English has finally been added to that list of languages already being mourned by the purists.

4 min read
English, Our Second First Language

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So Chetan Bhagat is out with his new book.

And while his sales are good news for the publishing industry in the same way that a formulaic pot-boiler is good for the health of the film industry, there is a section that will be aghast over the writing (yet again) that it peddles, which is similar to the filmmaking that Bollywood has standardised.


Bollywoodisation of English fiction writing is what he is accused of (which means making money through simplistic storytelling).

But has Chetan Bhagat suddenly created these readers of Indian English fiction out of thin air or has this ever swelling, young population of English language speakers and the need for more accessible fiction in English created Chetan Bhagat?

I have read one Chetan Bhagat book and I have watched one Rajnikanth movie; mildly enjoyed both, but never repeated either.

Poster of superstar Rajnikanth’s new film Kabali. (Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

That said, I do wonder why it is that the “high-art” consumer seems to be more tolerating of a Rajnikanth movie, however ridiculous it might be, than a Chetan Bhagat book, which comparatively is always less ridiculous?

Is it because one has been around for some time and the other one is new? Or is it because cinema is more of a popular culture entertainment, hence low-brow, than reading, which is relatively niche, hence high-brow?

I am not so sure. There is arthouse cinema and there are penny-dreadful’s. Clearly, content is high or low brow, not the medium.


His most recent one this time around will not only be scrutinised for its literary merit (or the lack of it), but also for its feminism quotient.

What’s interesting is that how in this country – where a mother fighting against female foeticide, a small-town daughter working night shift at a call centre uncaring of the neighbours, and a modern woman reporting sexism in jokes, are all feminist calls and running parallel at once – can anyone really own the discourse of feminism?

But let’s get back to Chetan Bhagat.

If it were simply about high-brow art VS low-brow art, it’s understandable that there’d be people who would dismiss the popular for being simplistic. After all, most of the population lives inside the bell curve, so most accessible art is going to be mediocre art.

Different strokes for different folks, no big deal. But I suspect it’s something else.


There is a line in the film Blue Umbrella – based on a Ruskin Bond story – that explains it. While listening to an English radio program, Pankaj Kapoor’s character shushes a sceptic with “angrezi mein bhi bhala koi jhooth bolta hai!” Or something to that effect. (Translation: Why would someone lie in English!)

We are Indian, and traditionally we have revered English.

We’d rather pedestrianism in the English language be a thing only of the countries where English is a first language. We must only do great things in the language.

Now as a writer, I am not in the favour of mutilating any language, but I have to say that the truly decolonised Indian is the one who speaks it poorly and plainly and is not even ashamed of it.

This is a good chunk of the new first generation English-speaking population. They don’t have the same baggage as of the previous first generation English speakers. Now this could be bad news for the language, but good news for the Indian.

(Photo: The Quint)

In my memory, for decades Hindi language B-grade books have sold alongside their literary counterparts on Indian railway platforms.

The same is now happening with English fiction, and high time it did!

English has really become an Indian language. We don’t seem to be afraid of it anymore; we constantly speak it badly, write it badly, and it’s getting the same treatment as Hindi or other regional languages do.

English has finally been added to that list of languages already being mourned by the purists.

Wishing away this new English fiction is not going to make these new readers (who have admitted that Chetan Bhagat titles are the only books they have ever read) move over to literary fiction, but reading itself might prod some to try other writings. I’d say more power to the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon.

I may not consume it, but I do not condemn it.

As long as popular culture is not legitimising any bizarre ideas like cannibalism and child abuse, I don’t see why we need to wear the elitist cap. Not all literature in English can (or should) be literary.

Hence, every time you lament the bestseller list, take a deep breath and remember the bell curve.

(The writer is based in Mumbai/Jackson, MS. You can find her work on

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Topics:  Books   literature   Chetan Bhagat 

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