It was with a sceptical intrigue that I picked up Chetan Bhagat's first non-fiction, What Young India Wants, to read. What intrigued me was whether Young India is a homogeneous entity in terms of its thought- processes, especially if one considers the huge divide between the rural youth belonging to 'Bharat' and their urban Indian cousins.
The book is a compilation of Chetan Bhagat's essays and speeches, which he has knitted together and segregated them into three distinct parts viz. 'Our Society', 'Politics' and 'Our Youth'. The author takes off directly addressing his readers by way of a letter titled 'My Journey', in which he summarizes his life so far. He relives a typical, upper middle class childhood and college life, fairly uneventful except for a short-lived suicide plan. Eventually he flowered into a highly successful investment banker at Hong Kong until he gave it all up on discovering his passion in writing and never looked back.
Theme of Chetan Bhagat's What Young India Wants
The underlying theme of Chetan Bhagat's What Young India Wants is righteous indignation at the perceptibly sorry state of Indian affairs, especially 'Corruption'. The author concludes that corruption is a way of life in India. He says:
Our Society respects power, not excellence or integrity. Power-driven systems resemble the jungle. The lion is always right and the lion's friends have a good life. Everyone else's place in life is dependent on their power. Sure, such societies can function, but do not progress much.
Exploring further on how we can change, he says:
Deep down we all are sceptical and ashamed of ourselves. We all want to be honest, but we don't want to be the only ones honest, for then we will suffer. This paradox prevents change.
In this context, Chetan cites the example of everyone pushing and shoving to get into a bus even as every one of them knows that if all of them queue up, it will be far more comfortable for everybody.
The author acknowledges that India has major problems and also believes, in a highly simplistic and Obama-like conclusion that 'they can be fixed'.' To me, this confidence truly represents Young India, which hates the old world intellectual mumbo-jumbo that complicates simple matters and rationalizes selfish inaction.
In the section 'Our Society', Bhagat laments the lack of definable values in the Indian society. He compares our abstract values with definite American values like Wealth, competition, Individualism and religion. However, he rationalizes absence of concrete set of Indian values to the fact that the concept of Indian state itself is relatively new. The phenomenon is further typified by the existence of different sets of values for various subsets of Indian society. The author exhibits wide-eyed acclamation of American society and almost ignores its own weaknesses. The typical American concepts like 'greed is good' are repeatedly used in the book. At the same time, he differentiates between the concepts of Lakshmi (The goddess of Wealth) and 'mere accumulation of money' He takes potshots at Indian society which worships the goddess but is being merely money-minded instead of understanding the true meaning of 'Lakshmi' (wealth accumulated through honest means).
The author also argues that 'being rich does not mean being bad'. It is driven into our psyche from childhood that we Indians are good, god-fearing people and everything western is bad and decadent. But in that case, why are we so miserable? Bhagat's reaction to this has to be quoted in his own words:
"What happened? Weren't we supposed to be the good ones? And yet, it is the greedy, Western 'baddies' who seem to be doing a better job at being just, truthful and equal. They are not only richer; they seem better, too. It is disheartening to face this ugly truth. After all, poor person is supposed to be the better person- at least that's what they show in the movies"
Bhagat also attempts an analysis of the three main traits of Indian psyche acquired from three distinct sources. The traits are Servility (school is the source), numbness to injustice (environment) and divisiveness (Home is the source!). After fortifying his theory with simple examples, he prescribes mass self-psychotherapy for curing the said traits and advocates conscious change of our mindsets to break the cycle so that we don't pass on these traits to the next generation.
In the 2nd section i.e. 'Politics', the author advocates a fairly radical economic idea of en masse unlocking of the value of state-held real estate in our Metros by moving out government offices to the suburbs and using the proceeds for infrastructure-building. He says "To sit on assets at the expense of the common people is called feudalism, and we were supposed to have ended that sixty-five years ago."
Further, he talks about how new-age politicians are bolder than before. He brings both sides in the Lokpal agitation (Civil society and the Government) together on the 'same page.' He frankly admits that Indian Politics is a jigsaw puzzle that can take decades to understand. And that shows. Bhagat has just scratched the surface as far as Indian Politics is concerned. He offers altruistic and naïve solutions like 'Politician-Industrialist socialization should not be encouraged' and cliques like 'Just as a terrorist has no religion, a corrupt politician has no political party.'
In the final section called 'Our Youth' the author explains why he chose to write this particular book in the following words:
"I have been described as one of the voices for the youth of the nation. I am not sure it that is correct, but I do try to speak about youth issues wherever possible. Young people read my books, mostly, and I want to do something for them."
In What Young India Wants, Chetan Bhagat sees a spark in the young Indians which is 'difficult to find in the older lot. As we age, the spark fades. People whose spark has faded too much are dull, dejected, aimless and bitter'. However, astonishingly, his prescription for nurturing the spark is 'not to take life seriously'. I can see the danger inherent in this prescription as the Indian youth, who are already accused of lacking direction in life, may lap up this prescription.
The author castigates the Indian primary education system but says again that 'this can be fixed'. Bhagat delivers another idealistic exhortation on the need for the primary education to be vast enough in scale and scope and on the need for it to be seen as a utility such as power or telecom. He says that ideally, just as with a few power utilities, the effort should be privatized (as if it is not already!) may be on a subsidized basis. He adds that if the education is worth it, people pay for it. This particular idea is symptomatic of the author's incapacity to understand the real needs/compulsions of rural children which is the crux of the matter as far as primary education is concerned. On higher education Bhagat is on much firmer ground when he lampoons the institutes of higher learning as 'Indian Institute of Idiots' and 'The Bootlegging of Education'.
In a hilarious debate on Nerds Vs Lerds (Educated in Technology Vs Educated in Liberal Arts), Bhagat unabashedly takes the side of the Nerds and exposes the hypocrisy of the so called Lerds. However, I being a lerd did not stop me from thoroughly enjoying his jibes.
Chetan Bhagat sums up his book with two short stories and an open declaration of what he calls 'the Great Indian Dream' should be. The dream is that every citizen should work hard, prosper and succeed through innovation and hard work and once successful, every citizen should give back to the society that made her or him what he or she is. He emotionally appeals to Indians to live this dream. He also links what he has embarked upon now to the said dream.
To summarize this review, Chetan Bhagat's What Young India Wants is a good reading for those youngsters (especially nerds!) who have been too bogged down in the rat race of exams and ranks to care for and form opinions about the issues concerning contemporary India. For others who have already applied their minds to the said issues continuously, the book will add no value but still will make interesting reading from the point of view of understanding the psyche of the urban young Indian populace.
About the Author: Chetan Bhagat
Chetan Bhagat is an Investment-banker turned novelist. He has so far written 5 blockbuster novels, some of which have been adapted into major Bollywood films. Apart from being a writer, Bhagat is also a motivational speaker and columnist. He is known for the simplicity of his expressions which has endeared him to millions of readers but, admittedly, he doesn't get literary praise from critics. This book represents his first foray into non-fiction literary territory.