Sunday, 5 October 2014
Book Review: Half Girlfriend by Chetan Bhagat
Each of Chetan Bhagat’s novels addresses an issue and carries a message. Five Point Someone focuses on the unimaginative and monotonous curriculum which all Indian college students suffer and goes on to say that there’s more to life than academics and grades. One Night @ the Call Centre addresses the insecurities of the Indian middle class and calls on them to face their problems with courage. The 3 Mistakes of My Life is not very different from One Night @ The Call Centre in terms of the message it carries, but the setting, Ahmedabad towards the end of the last decade, seething with communal differences, is very different from the call centre. In Revolution 2020 Bhagat delves into the problems facing India’s education sector and tells his readers that corruption can be fought successfully. Bhagat’s only work of non-fiction, What Young India Wants, addresses many issues and carries a number of messages.
Like his earlier works of fiction, Bhagat’s Half Girlfriend digs into an issue and conveys a simple message. Do you remember all those Indian movies, so many of them, in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and many other languages, where a poor man, usually a cabbie, falls in love with a rich girl, the rich girl’s family objects to the match, makes life hell for the poor boy and his family before true love emerges victorious? Obviously, such movies struck a cord with all cabbies, not to mention other single men in similar circumstances. Half Girlfriend does not have a hero living below the poverty line - protagonist Madhav Jha is not particularly poor. Far from it, he is a prince from Dumraon, is well over six feet tall and plays basket-ball very well. Well enough to play for Bihar. However, he cannot speak English and to get admission to St. Stephens he has to rely on its quota for sportsmen. Madhav’s character is likely to strike a cord with every Indian struggling with English (the typical Chetan Bhagat reader) and aspiring to improve his/her diction, fluency and accent.
At St. Stephens Madhav makes friends with Riya Somani, rich, tall, slim, pretty and most importantly, has English dripping out of her mouth, in the right accent. Riya also plays basket-ball, she too gets her admission through the sports quota. Riya wants to be friends whilst Madhav wants a lot more than mere friendship. As a compromise, Riya offers to be Madhav’s half girlfriend.
When the story begins, Madhav meets Chetan Bhagat and we are given to understand that Riya is no more. Madhav has with him a stack of diaries written by Riya in English and these he gives to Bhagat to read (since he can’t read them himself even though he has put himself through 3 years of St. Stephens). With some reluctance, Bhagat agrees and starts reading them. The journey which follows takes us through their troubled and topsy-turvy romance and I was reminded me of a number of Indian movies I have seen. In particular, one scene where Madhav, on the advice of his friends, smuggles Riya into his hostel room and tries some crude stuff, only to have Riya leave, reminded me of a Malayalam movie I saw around 2 decades ago, whose name I can’t remember.
Chetan Bhagat’s English has improved ever more since What Young India Wants and Revolution 2020. I assume his publishers have put even more editors on the job. There are no grammatical errors and the narration is simple and even elegant. In the course of the story, as Madhav prepares to make a speech in English, Riya advises him, among other things, to read simple books in English such as those by Chetan Bhagat. Half Girlfriend would definitely fit the bill here for those learning the English language.
Just as in the case of Revolution 2020, Bhagat does a great job explaining the problems faced by poor Indians to those more fortunate. In Revolution 2020 Bhagat delved into the problems facing India’s education sector. Here, the focus is on villages and village schools. You see, Madhav’s mother runs a school in Dumraon and after finishing his degree at St. Stephens, Madhav forsakes a job offer from HSBC and goes to Dumraon where he helps his mother manage the school. Why don’t villagers send their kids to school, badly run though they might be, when school education is free? Bhagat’s explanation is simple and sensible. Please read this eminently readable book to find out the rationale offered by Bhagat through his characters.
There is one bit about Half Girlfriend which irked me no end. We are told on a number of occasions that Madhav has played basketball at the ‘state-level’, meaning he has represented Bihar in ‘state-level’ basket-ball competitions, which is supposed to be a big deal. When one plays in an inter-state tournament, which is what one does if one represents one’s state, one plays at the ‘national level’ and not the ‘state-level’. Playing at the national-level is really a big deal. Playing state-level would be playing in an intra-state tournament, such as an inter-district tournament, which is nothing to write home about.
Did you know that Somani is a Marwadi name and not a Sindhi name? I didn’t, till I read Half Girlfriend.
Have you watched The King’s Speech? George VI has a stammer and he needs to make his maiden speech after the start of the Second World War. He manages to do so with a speech therapist. In Half Girlfriend, Madhav Jha, the Raj Kumar of Dumraon who lives in a haveli that is falling apart, needs to make a speech in English if he is to get a grant for his village school from the Gates Foundation. He goes to Patna for lessons to brush up his English and fortunately runs into a divorced Riya, who had earlier broken up with him, married an even richer man and gone to England. Riya helps him with his English, which at that point seemed to be pretty basic for a man who studied Sociology at St. Stephens for three years and got a job offer from HSBC to be a personal banker. Never mind that, with Riya’s help, Madhav does make the speech successfully and the grant is in the bag, one even bigger than expected.
Since we are told at the beginning of the book that Riya died and left her diaries behind, one is all set for a tragic ending. However, Bhagat the story teller has a big ace up his sleeve and towards the end the reader is offered the delicious possibility that Riya might not be dead after all. Madhav’s search for Riya leads him to Manhattan where he has the enviable job of visiting each of its live music bars to look for a pretty female singer who could pass for a Spaniard or Greek and might not be singing under her real name. I will stop my review her and leave it to you to travel to the happy ending on your own.
On the whole, I found Half Girlfriend to be as entertaining as any good Bollywood movie might be. In any event, the script has been tailor made for a Bollywood adaptation - there are a number of scenes in the beginning where Madhav and Riya play basket-ball all by themselves, laying the ground for Kuch Kuch Hota Hai type basket-ball court scenes. Also since Riya Somani is five feet nine, I assume someone tall like Deepika Padukone would play Riya in the movie. Times of India has put its money on Kriti Sanon who at 5 feet 6 inches is just an inch below Deepika Padukone.