The Cult of the IIT Novel

New Indian authors are using the name and reputation of  India’s greatest institutions in a wave of new literature that targets the youth.

Six years ago, a little known banker published a 270 page book about three ‘five-point-somethings’ and their booze and grass-fuelled  escapades in one of the country’s greatest institutions. Five years later, that novel went on to be a Bollywood blockbuster, coining it’s very own ‘All Izz Well’ mantra and spawning a fashion line. That banker not only lit a spark among young Indian readers with his Rs. 95 creation, but fuelled a fire that changed the course of young Indian fiction.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Chetan Bhagat should be one happy man. Following ‘Five Point Someone’,  came a slew of IIT novels which may or may not have had anything to do with the great institution but used, in bold font, its name and its campus life as fodder for mediocre literature. Ryan, Alok and Hari, the cheerful, never-say-die protagonists of  Bhagat’s debut were quickly cut-copied-pasted into manuscripts that found their way to bookshelves all over the country.

Tushar Raheja’s 2006 novel, ‘Anything for You Ma’am- an IITan’s love story’ is an ode to bad grammar, stilted emotions, and oddly two-dimensional characters. IIT boy meets girl. IIT boy falls in love with girl and must bunk IIT Industrial Tour to meet beloved in Chennai. Borrowing liberally from Bollywood movies and capitalising on the Indian public’s love for the railways, Raheja spins a complicated tale, only about 20 percent of which takes place in IIT. It seems from this IIT-D graduate’s tale, that young India has not found its voice yet. How else can Raheja explain his use of  ‘ye olde English’ from the Wodehouse era for his Nike-wearing, Pepsi-drinking protagonist? Reviews of the book when it first came out said that Raheja had ‘very cleverly localised the Wooster persona.’ The quintessentially English Wooster persona, however, is not meant to be localised. Nor can new generation India which quotes Bollywood at the drop of a hat, and carries on conversations in ‘Hinglish’ relate to the use of ‘blighter’, ‘bloke’ and ‘bally’, even if it is in regarded to fossilised IIT professors.

Neeraj Chhibba’s innovatively titled ‘Zero Percentile: Missed IIT, Kissed Russia’   falls into the same category of a novel which relies heavily on its title without developing the characters fully. It has little to do with IIT, but focuses on the protagonist’s attempt to get there, cut short by a tragic accident. A tedious narrative of the author’s life starting with his narrative of his family tree before he was born, all the way to his attempts to ace school quizzes, Chhibba doesn’t leave out anything, except a good storyline, snappy writing and a reason for the novel’s existence. Apart from an eye-opening narrative on college life in Russia, his relationships with his friends and girlfriends are utterly uninspiring.

Amitabha Bagchi, a professor at IIT Delhi churned out ‘Above Average’ ,published in 2006. While it was definitely more palatable than the bland fare the other authors served up to their audience, it only truly differed in its short story format. The story of a to be engineer who is actually a wannabe rock star doesn’t really tug at the heartstrings..

These novels all have the same thing in common: the guilty- but- good-at-heart protagonist, the evil professor whose sole mission in life seems to be to make the life of aforementioned protagonist miserable, piles and piles of notes and assignments,  alcohol, weed and the bunch of oddball friends. Oh, and of course, the good looking girl. While every Indian loves a good filmy love story, IIT novelists-Bhagat included- can’t seem to handle the subject of intimacy without embarrassment. Yet, young India can’t get its hands on them  fast enough. Five Point  Someone remains a constant on bestseller lists even today, while Bagchi has sold 15,000 copies of Above Average. Raheja’s next book on cricket will hit the stands soon.

In the light of strangely chirpy reviews  ,bookshops have started lining up campus novels with their brightly coloured covers and snappy blurbs. Attractively priced – who can’t afford a 100 rupee book?-  and seductively titled,  new authors’ latest offerings are up for grabs. “I thought that the books were cheap, so buying them wouldn’t really be a risk,” says Shramana Sengupta, a Bangalore teenager  whose love affair with Indian fiction starts and ends with Chetan Bhagat. “I don’t really like them, but always grab a copy while travelling.”

We know they won’t match up to the calibre of an Archer or a Sheldon. We know now that the grammar won’t be perfect and that the boy will get the girl in the end. However, we buy them because we can relate to them, maybe because  after years of reading Enid Blyton and feeling at home with Mallory Towers, we had nothing to graduate to.

Vrinda Manocha

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