|CURRENT ISSUE JUNE 06, 2004|
|society&the arts BOOKS|
Making the Grade
An IIT old boy returns to humanise the institute with his debut novel on the fun and friendships that characterise the campus
A relationships story by a male writer is always a welcome addition on the bookshelves of the world. And when the writer is an investment banker of Indian origin for an American bank in Hong Kong who wants to create art not just buy it, you got to bring out the red carpet. Undermining a stereotype is always a good thing and Chetan Bhagat's first novel does just that. Bridging the gap between "academic overachievers" and ordinary mortals, it is a story about three friends. Hari, Alok and Ryan, though obviously bright to have got into IIT, are just "five-point someones" trying to keep afloat in an institution where the average grade is 6.5 on a 10-point scale.
Hari, the narrator, is stuck between his two best friends in every way. Ryan is the bright, creative, rich and good-looking student whose wealthy parents give him lots of nice things but not enough love. He has nothing to lose and is continuously hatching plots to undermine the evil system of grading that "kills the best fun years of your life", not to mention creativity and originality. Which he has in plenty. "Fatso" Alok is poor, with a paralysed father, a sister to marry off and a mother who slogs at a badly paid job while continuously wiping away her tears with the edge of her sari. Though he once wanted to be an artist, Alok is now motivated by one thing-get the grades in the hope of a "US scholarship", a good job, and the release from his family's unremitting financial duress.
Needless to say, Alok and Ryan fall out and Hari is caught in the middle. A mirror to all that is wrong and especially to a work ethic that leaves one with little time for oneself and one's friendships, the novel is littered with all the fun stuff that "muggus" like Venkat forego-vodka, marijuana, sports, ragging, pranks, porn, raging hormones, cinema, love. Namely, Real Life.
"Girls are beautiful, let's face it ... life is quite, quite useless without them," says Hari. Neha, his paramour, is the toe-ring wearing, ice-cream slurping, pretty, artsy, faintly neurotic daughter of the terrifying Professor Cherian. Torn, as many are, about being a good girl who wants to do bad things, Neha's character is a sensitive portrayal of what it is like to be young and female in an overprotective, patriarchal world. Of course, just when Hari gains her trust (i.e. loses his virginity), he ends up losing her and on the wrong side of her father and the law thanks to one of Ryan's schemes. A threat of expulsion and a suicide attempt bring the book to a boil. Too much judgement, censure and expectation lead to acts of desperation, suggests the narrative: "gpas make a good student, not a good person."
Although the writing can be quite jarring and clumsy-this, however, could be intentional in an effort to create a narrative of authentic colloquial speech-it is a well-constructed book with great characters and a captivating plot. Definitely on the right side of five-point something on a 10-point scale.
Kamiya, who first travelled to India in 1976 and stood "awestruck" by the Sun Temple at Konark, crisscrossed the country, spotting temples, mosques and palaces, documenting their history and architectural style. It is not just the cupolas of the Taj or the mandapas of Meenakshi Temple that he details. There is a place for a sequestered wooden mosque in Kerala and an unheard-of Khadaran temple in the Himalayas. With about 1,800 photographs and 300 maps and illustrations, Kamiya provides the masterplan of India's grandeur.