Sunday, November 1, 2009

What is wrong with William and Chetan?

A post by fellow-blogger Shubhadeep Sarkar, titled 'Bhagat-ism et al' is what prompted me to write this. "Bhagat-ism et al" is Sarkar's impression of Chetan Bhagat, probably after reading his "3 Mistakes of My Life". I am picking a few sentences from the post to show you what exactly nudged me to write this.

Sarkar writes: "I have never been a big fan of Chetan. His style of writing is one of the worst ones for a freak like me who prefers Shakespeare to Sheldon on any given day. ..... I hate reading books and watching movies that contain slangs (especially the 4-lettered words). They are not "Literature" and books that are not a part of "Literature" come in the domain of "Trash". Five point someone, One Night @ The Call Center and The 3 Mistakes of my Life; all come in the latter one."
The post reflects a general tendency among many of us to write off popular fiction as 'trash' for one reason or  the other. Sarkar just points a finger at one among them - use of language. He seems not to like the idea of writers using swear words or taboo words when they write. He is of the opinion that such books do not qualify to be literature. I disagree!

Shakespeare is considered to be the epitome of all that qualifies to be English Literature. He is, for most of us, even for people who have not read him at least once, a perfect example of all that literature needs to be. However, I consider Shakespeare as a profitable business. Anything with the name of Shakespeare sells. Britain considers him as one of her successful exports, since people love to adorn their home libraries with things that are even remotely connected with Shakespeare.In India, English Literature begins with Shakespeare. That is what Shakespeare is, a best selling name! Jonathan Bate, British Scholar says: "There was a strong sense that if Britain was a great modern state, as Rome was in ancient times, it must have a canon of classic British literature, as the Romans had their Horace, Ovid and Virgil. As part of establishing high culture in Britain, Shakespeare became the national poet." If Shakespeare is a literary giant today, that is simply because Britain could discover the selling point in Shakespeare.

I am not trying to undermine the literary contributions of Shakespeare when I say this. He was just a successful playwright of his time and nothing more. His scripts sold and they sold because of the very same reason that makes Chetan the most successful Indian Writer of our times. As Sarkar accepts, Chetan sells because he knows his audience and writes in a language many can relate to. Shakespeare ran his shows houseful for the same reason. He knew his audience and wrote in a language even the commonest among them could relate to.

In fact, Shakespeare was nationally accepted as a great poet in Britain only 100 years after his death. During the times of Shakespeare, like in Bollywood or Hollywood today, a writer never enjoyed any popularity. The script, after it was written, belonged to the Theater Company that bought it. Sometimes, a script would be written and rewritten by several different writers to make it suitable to the stage. Experts believe that the reason why Shakespeare survived was because he allowed Theater Companies to alter his work at their will. In other words, writing was a business where Shakespare was concerned. He survived and made money as long as he wrote and the Theater Companies were willing to buy what he wrote. After they bought it, it did not belong to Shakespeare. Any one who understands the way script writing happens Bollywood or Hollywood would understand the way things worked in Elizabethan Theater.

Anglo-Indian writer Sam Sterling said once: "I think if Shakespeare was alive he would be writing for Bollywood films." And I think, if Shakespeare was alive today none of us would have considered him as a literary giant. We would have written him off as someone who writes "trash." if we think using taboo words when one writes disqualifies his work from being considered literature. If you ever get a chance to buy "A dictionary of Shakespeare's sexual puns and their significance" by Frankie Rubinstein, never miss it. It is a reference guide to the hundreds of taboo words Shakespeare used in his plays. It is a 350 page book.

Let me give you a few examples from the dictionary:

In The Merry Wives of Windsor Act II, Scene ii, Line 285, we read "I will use her as the key of the cuckoldly rogue's coffer; and there's my harvest-home". Now, the word key is not the key as in Key and Lock. It is a lewd reference to Crossed Keys, a famous 15 Century brothel.  To turn the key meant to have sex. There is another reference to the same word in Henry VI. Henry VI is cuckolded by Margret and is described as "Poor key-cold figure of a holy king!".

In Cymbeline, Act III, Scene v, Line 148, Cloten says "I'll knock her back, foot her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly, and I'll be merry in my revenge." The word knock is not the knock as in beat up. It is Colten's lecherous way of saying he will have his lustful revenge on the lady.

In Troilus and Cressida, Act I, Scene iii, Line 162, Agamemnon says: " At this fusty stuff The large Achilles, on his press'd bed lolling" Here lolling means to engage in sexually dubious activity.

Now, these are just three words Shakespeare used in some of his plays with explicit sexual connotations. Why did he use them? The same reason why Bhagat uses his 'fucks' and 'shits'.  Shakespeare used them to give his audience an idea about the character in a way they would comprehend.

In Chetan Bhagat's novels we are talking about 21st Century Indian Kids. 'Fucks' and 'Shits' are words they extensively use. When you write about them and when they speak in your novels, you cannot help but use the language that they use to be realistic. For Chetan to be considered 'trash' for using 'four-letter words' extensively in his novels, Shakespeare must  be considered 'trash' first as his plays overflow with the use of slangs and sexual puns. Which ever way, Shakespeare wrote in the language of the common people of his time. The reason why it sounds great to us is because we have no clue about the language of the common people of those days.

I think we must overcome this general notion of canonized literature to appreciate a work of art in all its glory. Anything that is canonized and taught in Universities and their Language Departments is not the only Literature. Novels and Poems get canonized more for political reasons than literary.

I also think that we Indians must break free of this idea that anything that cannot be understood is great! This is beautifully reflected in our choice of 'great literature' as well as 'great films'. This is exactly the reason why we have two streams of creativity in our country. We have one group of creative people who are 'award winners', who make stuff that not many Indians can relate to. We have another group of people who are considered to be disgraceful by the intelligentsia because they write or make things that people love to read or watch. Chetan belongs to the second category.

However, I don't think writers like Chetan requires the approval of the intelligentsia to be a great writer. Contrary to what our academic world tries to impress up on us, literature is a business. As Gray Taylor, the American English Professor puts it:  "If you believe that Shakespeare's words have survived because they were written by a great poet and playwright, you're wrong. His words have survived because someone put them into pieces of type, set those into forms, pressed those inked forms into sheets of paper and sewed those sheets together in a particular order. And because someone else bought them." In spite of the idealism we attach to the profession of writing, writers are in the business of entertaining people. They are as successful as their ability to relate to their audience. They are successful as long as people buy them.

In short, there is nothing wrong with William and Chetan. If there is something wrong, it is in the way we perceive literature and art.

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  1. i love chethan baghat for one reason he is just too realistic.never read Shakespeare so no comments ;)

  2. thanks djd for the comment :)

    Chetan talks in a language people of his time can relate to. So does Shakespeare!

  3. Chetan bhagat, I like him for the simplified writings! I loved 5point someone than 2states and one night at call center
    Whereas Shakespeare, his works got a separate dictionary containing the words he used in his plays! I love, Hamlet, tempest, merchant of Venice and many more!
    Good writing sojo :)

  4. Thanks for reading and the comment Shruthi.

    We need a dictionary to read SKP because we are not his contemporaries. Think about it this way - if his audience had to go to his show with a dictionary, SKP would have never become a popular playwright.

  5. Yeah u are correct! Nobody could be compared with Shakespeare in the way he takes around his plays! Simply, truly awesome. But we have so many simplified versions for his work these days. But if we wanna get the essence of the original write up's, still we have the difficulty na?!

  6. You are right Shruti. We find it difficult to understand SKP. However, it is not because he has purposefully made language incomprehensible. It is because his way of using language do not match with our way of using language. I am pretty sure, if SKP lived and wrote today people would have written him off saying his language is shallow.We would have treated him as another Sheldon :)

    Thanks for coming back buddy :)

  7. Hey sojo, I would like to hear ur views on my new post..

  8. I really have problem with people saying something is inferior because it is a slang. Writing is all about breaking the grammar of how it is written. All these writers were different because they have done something different than other. I really like the way Chetan writes. I tried my hand at Shakespeare but went bonkers, I couldn't comprehend anything. For even the references you made in the post i didn't have any clue.

  9. Thanks for reading Venky. It is no fault that u couldn't follow shakespeare. His plays use a language and culture we are not familiar with. Chetan sound simple to us because he uses a language and culture we are familiar with. I am sure skp sounded simple to the ears of his audience. Otherwise he would never have become a 'blockbuster' playwright of his time :)