Forbes India: Tell us about the young Chetan Bhagat. The one before IIT.
Chetan Bhagat: I grew up in West Delhi, and went to The Army Public School. My father was in the army and my mother in a government job — a typical middle class setup. In school, I was a good student, though not extraordinary. In fact i see the scores required now and shudder on how one can get a good college. My class X score was 76% and class xii 85%.
Forbes India: You left a secure (though it isn’t as safe a field these days!) and lucrative career to pursue the writing dream, a life that is notoriously unpredictable. What helped you make the decision? How long did it take to make the break? Any regrets? Did it help that your wife is a successful professional in her own right?
Chetan Bhagat: I think the continued response to all my books, and the rising fan base made me feel that ultimately I meant to something other than working in the bank. I still kept working all the way until three books became bestsellers and two movies based on them went on the floor. A top psychiatrist in Delhi told me that my impact on young minds is tremendous, and I have the power to influence them on how they live their life, if I want to take it. Hence, I should stop positioning myself as just a funny author. That conversation had an impact.
The ‘safety’ was the main reason to stay on, as were the middle class upbringing values that you just don’t quit an MNC bank job. I think the final point came when I was able to overcome the lure of money. I worked for a long time internally on letting go of my attachment and identity to the amount of money I made. When that happened, the bank job seemed even more pointless. There were things I wanted to do apart from books (like the talks and columns) and the job was preventing me from doing it.
My wife’s job, ironically, was not a factor in favour of quitting but quite otherwise. My wife working creates even more pressure for me to remain successful. I would though say that one big reason for me to leave was our kids, as with both of us working and me having this extra-large extra curricular activity, the kids had not time from us.
I am far calmer and happier today after quitting, but yes, the end of the month salary is missed.
Forbes India: If things don’t stay as good as they have been thus far — if your next books doesn’t sell as much the previous ones, for instance — do you have a Plan B?
Chetan Bhagat: There is some sort of a plan B, but frankly life doesn’t work that way. I’ll just have to figure out plan-B if the need arises, but also only when the need arises. I have enough degrees to get me some employment. Dealing with the lack of writing success — well, I think I will devote myself to spiritual activity more.
Forbes India: What, in your opinion, are the ingredients of your personal success story? How much of your success do you attribute to having the right skills and instincts, to doing the hard grind, to being the right person with the right book at the right time, to very intelligent marketing and pricing?
Chetan Bhagat: It’s all of the above points you mentioned, and yes — luck and randomness are a big part of it. I think I have a talent to entertain, believe in what I do and I do try my best to care for people. The combination comes through in my writing or whatever else I do, and people have given me a chance. However, that still does not explain why I am read the most. That comes from luck, or if you want to be romantic about it, destiny. We also are in a winner takes all society, where the winner gets a lot more attention than the next guy, who may not be very different.
Forbes India: (We’re trying to go beyond the hoary old ‘where do you get your ideas?’ question.) What inspires you? And what helps you decide your subjects?
Chetan Bhagat: I think the Indian middle class life, or the so-called ‘Indian way’ inspires me. Indian values are a mixed bag. We are caring, loving, ambitious, proud people. At the same time we are prejudiced, live in the past and are cynical. The new generation is changing, and fast. It allows for very interesting stories. I get a lot of ideas on what I observe, but everything cannot be turned into a book. Whichever idea keeps knocking in my head hundred times over, wins.
Forbes India: Do you have several ideas in various stages of completion at any one point, or is it one book at a time?
Chetan Bhagat: Normally it is one book at a time. I may have many ideas, but it is difficult for me to ration my thoughts towards different ideas.
Forbes India: What’s a day in the life of Chetan Bhagat like? If, that is, there is a typical day?
Chetan Bhagat: When I was working, days were more typical, but now they are not. I travel 25 percent of the time, across the country giving talks. When home, I am now a house husband. I make sure the kids and wife go to school and office on time respectively, along with their lunchboxes. Then, I have the few hours of peace before the kids come back and I write.
Once the kids come back, I spend time with them over lunch. In the afternoons, I do work of lesser concentration such as emails. I am not a workaholic and do not like to work more than seven hours a day. In the evening, I’ll go with kids to the park or go for a walk. My wife returns in the evening and we all have dinner together. As you can see, it is pretty unremarkable. Of course, the normal day can easily be derailed if one of my directors needs me to come for script work or if my publisher calls for something else.
Forbes India: You speak of doing around 50 talks around the country every year. You write regular columns. You keep in touch with your fans via your site and social media. How the heck do you fit it all in and still get the books done?
Chetan Bhagat: Yes, it is a tough balance. I have limited myself to four talks a month, or roughly once a week, though mostly I combine a couple of them on one trip. I also write my column once in two weeks, as a weekly one would be difficult for me. When I am writing a book, I withdraw from my blog and networking sites – something my fans are not too happy about but ultimately understand. Right now, I am not writing anything as 2 States just came out, so I have time to tweet. I also plan to slow the pace of my book releases. Four books in five and a half years is quite fast.
Forbes India: Who are your icons? And specific to writing, who are the writers you seek to emulate?
Chetan Bhagat: There is three sides to me. There is Chetan the entertainer — and my icons there are from the entertainment industry — whether it is Aamir Khan, Farhan Akhtar, Woody Allen, Rob Reiner. Then there is Chetan the writer — Hemingway, Orwell, RK Narayan would be icons there. And then there is Chetan the reformer — Mahatma Gandhi to Obama, there is a long list there.
I think it is better to emulate different qualities from various icons, as it is rare that one person will have everything you aspire to be. At least that is the case for me
~ Narration of Chetan Bhagat’s interview in Forbes Magazine after release of book 2 States ~