Interview with Ketan Bhagat

Ketan Bhagat is a zealous storyteller and a writer. A typical thirty-five year-old middle-class Indian living in Mumbai, storytelling is in his genes. He is bestselling writer Chetan Bhagat’s younger brother. His debut novel Complete/Convenient is proof of that with its success and the many hearts it has won.After graduating with an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute in 2001, Ketan had a year and a half long stint of trying to learn programming and Tamil when he joined an IT company,and then destiny took the young professional around the world – two years in Malaysia, nine months in New Zealand and four years in Australia. He moved back to India two years ago and now works at a multinational cororation in Mumbai. Creative at heart, Ketan worked in television (anchor, script writer) and print (articles in national dailies) during his college days. A few years ago, he helped his brother script a Bollywood movie.

 

writing a book is the easiest, most practical and cost effective. I lived my dreams – drove expensive cars, went skiing, bungee jumping, skydiving and scuba diving, partied all night and then drove to faraway beaches to watch the sunrise, earned in dollars, watched Sachin score centuries in the Sydney Cricket Ground, Roger Federer win the Australian Open and Michael Schumacher race

Ananya Dhawan: Tell us about your debut novel Complete/Convenient.

 Ketan Bhagat: Complete/Convenient is a coming-of-age story of a young, married IT professional who moves overseas for a better life. Realistic, fast-paced, humorous, entertaining and, most importantly, relevant for today’s generation, almost characters and situations in the story are inspired from real life events. An NRI’s life is not like the one shown in movies. Most Indians do not fly business class or get Ferrari keys the moment they land at an airport; they do not stay in opulent beach-facing resorts and have beautiful semi-naked blondes running after them on beaches. Of course, NRI life does have beaches, dollars, glamorous things and lots of convenience. But there are sacrifices and constraints too. Just like life in India is difficult but definitely better for most people than what was shown in Slumdog Millionaire. Life here is bumpy, choppy, irritating and jarring. But there is completeness to it. I feel that no movie or novel in recent times has given a real view of NRI life or Indian life, especially from a man’s point of view. This despite the fact that almost every Indian today has a choice to settle outside India and majority of them do consider doing so. My novel will help people make that decision. Another unique point of this book is that this is a story told from a man’s point of view. Usually stories show boys (not men) either as college boys chasing girls, pranks or college admissions or men as superheroes. Nobody talks about a man after marriage and in office, despite the fact that we have millions of Indian men in this category and a lot of interesting things happen to them on an everyday basis. Just for example, what a man feels when his wife and mother don’t get along. This happens to 90% of men. It also happens to Kabir, my protagonist.

 

AD: What does the title signify?

KB: The title signifies that life in India is complete while life outside India is usually convenient. However, neither the story nor I as an author are judgmental in terms of which is better or worse, right or wrong or any such thing. I have lived in Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia for many years. The book is based on my personal experiences. For example, Kabir, my protagonist, is a Punjabi and brought up in Delhi. His in-laws stay in Pitampura. This is my background too. Kabir’s account in Sydney is Westpac Bank. I used to sell to Westpac Bank when I was in Sydney.

AD: How was the journey in the process of penning this book?

KB: I had never planned to become a writer and sort of became one because this story kept haunting me. The transformational experience that Kabir goes through in the story is something I personally went through and have seen many of my friends experiencing. So the story came in easily. That said, I had never written even a proper email in my life. I spent two years in writing this book.

my only interest in [Chetan’s] writing and life was the number of Bollywood actresses he could make me meet whenever I visited India

The process involved rewriting chapters, getting them reviewed by various people (including avid book readers, people proficient in English) and then rewriting again. It is painful and time consuming. A fulltime regular job and a new baby at home made the task even more challenging. But the end result has made the effort more than worthwhile. Today, even before the book has released, I have started getting compliments for the book. For example, Rahul Sharma – the famous santoor maestro – said the book was “like a beautiful piece of music … Entertaining, gripping yet soul stirring aftertaste.”

 AD: Had you decided on the story before you started or did it take form while you wrote it down?

KB: I didn’t have a story in mind. In fact, like I said, I never planned to become a writer. It is hard, lonely and intelligent work which cannot be outsourced. I was happy doing more entertaining things like scuba diving, skiing, bungee jumping, snorkeling, driving from Sydney to Gold Coast. I was also very happy seeing Chetan as a writer. As his success and fame skyrocketed, my only interest in his writing and life was the number of Bollywood actresses he could make me meet whenever I visited India. However, about three years ago, I experienced something very different in my life. Intense, emotional and transformational this was an experience I was totally unprepared for. Surprisingly, friends around me were also going through similar experienced. With time as this wave of emotions (which I call a ‘peak’ that every NRI goes through) grew stronger totally enveloping my thinking and personality, I realized this was a phenomenon beyond me. Even after I moved back to India, the aftereffect of this transformational experience kept lingering within me. I realised I needed an outlet. This is how the writer in me was born.

After all, writing a book is the easiest, most practical and cost effective.

Just type, your boss thinks you are working and no one charges you for writing (laughs). That I was Chetan Bhagat’s brother was a further source of inspiration.

 

AD: What message does the book convey?

KB: I was a typical middle-class Delhi boy who dreamed of a better life, was eager to swap the chaos, corruption, crowds, constraints and competition of my Indian life with the clean, simple, free and luxurious life outside. By the grace of God, I got the opportunity and juiced it fully. For many years, I lived my dreams – drove expensive cars, went skiing, bungee jumping, skydiving and scuba diving, partied all night and then drove to faraway beaches to watch the sunrise, earned in dollars, watched Sachin score centuries in the Sydney Cricket Ground, Roger Federer win the Australian Open and Michael Schumacher race … I can never thank God enough for those experiences. But I willingly left everything and came back to India a couple of years ago. Even now, every month I get at least one offer to move out India and I politely decline. I am loving my complete Indian life. Yet, I have plenty of friends and relatives who are still living the same life. They do not get stuck in traffic jams, do not face beggars on streets, get most of their works done online and earn their salaries in dollars. They love their convenient life. My message to young people is that no choice – to remain in India or to move out of India – is right or wrong. Each life, even the one outside the country, comes with its share of struggles and sacrifices. It is up to the person to decide which life he or she prefers. So please read Complete/Convenient and decide for yourself!

 AD: How well was it accepted by the readers?

KB: People are just loving the book, so much that their reactions are overwhelming me every day, more so because it is not just readers but also book reviewers who are really appreciating the book.

 

 

AD: What are you currently working on?

KB: When I started writing Complete/Convenient I promised myself that I will not write after this book. But writing is addictive. I felt so light after completing the novel. Another story has been haunting me. I would love to write it. But given my laziness and speed, it is at least 2 years away. The story will be around how men behave within a family with a special focus on father-son relationship.

 

AD: How supportive is your family of your writing?

KB: They have been superb. My wife pushed (nagged) me into writing. For some strange reason, she feels I am supremely talented. She is an avid reader herself, and not only willingly gave up her time for my writing but was heavily involved in terms of reviewing my manuscript, getting her friends to review, promote the book, and guide on media relations. Even now she accompanies me to most of my book promotion events and talks. Her contribution has been priceless. My mother has also been very helpful. She kept encouraging me right through the struggle and continues to be my pillar of strength. I couldn’t have done this if it was not my wife and mother.

 

AD: If given the chance, would you like to be a full time author?

KB: Never really thought about it but why not? Life has taught me to refrain from using two words – never and forever. Fulltime or part time, as an author I want to write really good stories. That’s what I pray for every day.

 

AD: Which is that one book which has most influenced your life, and why?

KB: Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children. I have never liked or been inspired by a book as much as I have by this one.

 

AD: What message would you like to put forth for anyone who wants to be a writer?

KB: Just two messages. If someone like me can become a writer, anyone can become a writer. Imagine someone who is constantly reprimanded for writing erroneous emails and congratulated for being the brother of one of India’s bestselling writers. Then being warned by almost everyone this is suicidal as I would be compared with Chetan’s best works. Then being rejected by publishers. And nowadays by some readers even before the book has been released. Despite all this, if I can do it, so can you. Please read Complete/Convenient. We all need to encourage each other.

 

Some rapid-fire questions. Black or Gray?

Black. There is something about darkness. I am unable to resist it.

 

Corporate world or the literary world?

Literary world.

 

Venice or Rome?

Wherever they will allow maids to accompany me. A place somehow loses its beauty if you have to vacuum carpets and wash utensils there.

 

Your favourite gadget…

Have you ever come across a gadget that takes nine months to deliver, extremely difficult to take delivery off, the manufacturer never comes personally to deliver and when you finally see the delivered piece, it is useless, powerless, helpless and extremely demanding? It will take you decades of effort, money, struggle and luck to make this ‘piece’ useful, though no guarantees or warranties whatsoever. Seriously, humans are the best gadgets on earth. They may not dance at the swirl of a finger but are by far the best Operating System I have come across in all my years.

 

Your favourite pastime…

Playing with my son, Rian. Seriously, nothing compares to the effect he has on me. No machine, no technology, no praise… not even the best alcohol!

 

One person you could give up your life for.

Rian.

 

 

 

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