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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Business School Wives Book Club – Part Four (India)

When it comes to the great Anglo-Indian novel, I have to put my hand up and say that I am a fan. I love A Passage to India and all four books of the Raj Quartet. In fact, I even own the complete DVD box set of the 1980s classic TV serial The Jewel in the Crown. But then I am British, so maybe it is only natural that I should buy into a romantic idea of India – a literary notion of a country that is hopelessly outdated and was never quite true in the first place.

India’s representative in the Business School Wives Book Club must have faced quite a dilemma. Does she choose a book that conforms to the pattern set by the sweeping, cinematic novels of the past? Does she choose something that represents India today? And if she chooses the latter – which India should be represented for there are many Indias and not all of them can be distilled within the covers of a single book. Quite rightly she chose to introduce a book which is extremely popular in the India of today and which represents accurately an iconic corner of modern Indian life. So it was that we came to be reading Five Point Somebody by Chetan Bhagat.

Five Point Somebody is a short and easy read which accompanies three hapless mechanical engineering students at the Institute of Information Technology in Delhi – an institution so famous in India that in the book it is invariably referred to simply as IIT. IIT is shorthand for the iconic universities in India which are effectively regarded as gateways for their students into the economy. A good degree from IIT basically assures the holder of a job in a fiercely competitive market. The heroes of Five Point Somebody however, are not ideal students. Our narrator Hari and his two friends Ryan and Alok are pretty near the bottom of the class. Their natural lack of genius is compounded by lack of application, personal distractions and downright stupidity. This book tells the tale of their IIT years – and the myriad scrapes that they get themselves into before finally getting out. If you want to know whether they get out with degrees, you will have to have a read yourself.

This is not a brilliant book in a literary sense. It is written in an extremely straightforward way but it is not spare or particularly moving. In many respects its resolution is a little trite and unbelievable. However, it is short, fast moving and it can be funny. What is more, despite its shortcomings – it was a perfect choice for the Business School Wives Book Club for two main reasons.

Firstly it is an authentic view of modern middle class India. You know how people say of Jane Austen that her novels are like “six inches of ivory” – that is they show a tiny section of a society at a certain point in time, but show it in its true colour as it was? Well, I think that Chetan Bhagat does something similar here. In his jokey way he criticises an education system that crushes creativity, he shows the colossal pressure that economic desperation can bring to young and old shoulders. The society that he represents is deeply stratified, desperate for success and in many respects lacking in compassion.

Secondly, given that all of our husbands are at Business School, Five Point Somebody has been a much welcome window onto the world of “GPAs” (Grade Point Averages – the marking system) and the relentless competition that accompanies international business of any flavour. This is a world where a few marks here and there could change a person’s income for the rest of their life. It is a little scary, but on the other hand, it is also a realistic representation of a lot of lives, so thank you Business School Wives Book Club for yet another eye opener.

14 comments:

  1. I read and posted on his One Night in a Call Center not too long ago-as you said it is not great literature but it is good entertainment and teaches gives us an inside look at the world it depicts-I would read another of his books-thanks for your very perceptive post

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  2. What a coincidence to read your post today. I saw someone reading this book on the tube yeaterday and the front cover intrigued me. now I know what it was.

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  3. I too love a Passage to India. Five point somebody as a modern day equivalent of Jane Austen's society sounds fascinating. It sounds like such a grim view of education.

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  4. I'm not a Chetan Bhagat fan, but I'm glad this book suited your book club!

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  5. I love Indian fiction, and as a matter of fact, our book club chose an Indian title this month as well. The book was called The Mistress of Spices, and I can't say that it was all that great. I am looking forward to hearing what the other girls thought of it tonight. This book sounds like it really presents a thoughtful view on the economy of India, and though the prose is a little lackluster, I do think it would be a book I'd like. If you are looking for a really good Indian fiction selection, I can recommend two. The first is A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. It is very, very sad, but I think it deals with the idea of a modern and sometimes wayward India. The other is The Palave of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which tells the age old story of the Mahabharata with touches of magical realism. Both great book, but both very different. I really liked this review, Hannah, and will be taking a closer look at the book!

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  6. Thank you all for your visitations and comments!

    Mel - thanks indeed - yes I think that this is the kind of literature which is useful for learning about a particular culture rather than for being enjoyed for its own sake....

    Joan - glad to be of service!

    Elisabeth - isn't A Passage to India wonderful? I love the film as well. The comparison between Chetan Bhagat starts and ends with the idea that he is an authentic voice within a particular society - his writing sadly does not compare to that of the mighty Jane... but then again, he certainly doesn't claim that it does.

    Kals - it seems a strange thing to say - but everyone acknowledged that it wasn't especially good writing - but I think that we were very interested in what it was saying.

    Zibilee - I have read A Fine Balance and was so upset for weeks afterwards - I thought it was brilliant, really brilliant but emotionally, almost more than I could take! thanks very much for recommending The Palave of Illusions - I love magical realism so that sounds right in my line....

    Enjoy your wednesday evenings all!

    Hannah

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  7. I *think* this book was made into a movie very recently called 3 Idiots. As most Bollywood movies are, it's fairly melodramatic (and involves men WAY over the age range playing college students), but it was also one of the better Bollywood movies I've seen and I highly recommend checking it out!

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  8. Hi Aarti - thanks so much for your comment. I have just been doing some googling and yes, it looks like there is a film and there has been a lot of controversy about to what extent the film is based on the book. We did a book and movie double bill with Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca - so thanks so much for the tip!

    Happy reading

    Hannah

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  9. Interesting review--I've been wanting to branch out a bit from my usual fare, and this sounds like a good possibility.

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  10. Jane - thanks so much for visiting and commenting. This is am easy read if you are looking for a change of pace/style in your reading. Again - I emphasise that it is not brilliant technically if you know what i mean - but it is totally different.
    Happy reading!
    Hannah

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  11. Wow, this book sounds really great. i like novels that capture an idiosyncratic corner of a society *just so* and tell me something new. Wonderful.

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  12. I enjoy reading Indian fiction but have still yet to experience its many facets. This does sound like an interesting book, even with it's flaws.

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  13. Marie - Thanks for your visit and comment - that is exactly the kind of book that this is!

    Literary feline - thank you for your visit and comment too... there is certainly a lot to choose from in Indian fiction - I have quite a few in my TBR and will blog on them (hopefully!) in the near future.

    Happy Monday all

    Hannah

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  14. I don't like Chetan Bhagat's books all that much but they have spread here like wild fire. I am glad the book suited your club! His more recent "Two States" has become a best seller as well.

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