You do not have to be an IIT graduate or an aspirant to that hallowed institution in order to enjoy Chetan Bhagat’s first novel Five Point Someone. Although the book is subtitled ‘What not to do at IIT’, the tag could have been applied to any college for that matter. Bhagat, an alumnus of IIT Delhi and IIM Ahmedabad, works as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs in Hong Kong. This novel came out in ’04 when he was 30 years old. This is one of the books I have most enjoyed reading in the last decade. No book has touched me so much since Ashok Banker’s Vertigo, another semi-autobiographical first book I picked up from a pavement bookseller in Bombay’s Churchgate. It was mid 90’s and I was a young marketing engineer in that city. I suppose it is the empathy factor that endears one to books so. Banker’s portrayal was the stuff of dark noir beyond my realm even. But the angst of youth with its attendant insecurities and also possibilities is what had me hooked. I have been following the reclusive writer’s fortunes ever since. One got to feel Bombay, raw and smelly yet strangely captivating in those mesmerizing pages.
Like Chetan Bhagat I too studied mechanical engineering, though not at IIT. I was among the golden jubilee year batch of students at CET (Govt College of Engineering, Trivandrum). We went through the rites of passage of freshmen and seniors. Our evenings were lightened by Remo and Chitra, Hawa Hawa and Guns N Roses. The campus had its share of the thrills and spills of any college – puppy loves, hardcore affairs, strikes, unrest and sabotages. Every festival from Holi to Onam provided occasions for riotous celebration. Picnics, jamborees and endless discussions at snack parlors over steaming tea and shared cigarettes complemented the clockwork routine of theory, labs, viva, university exams and supplementary retakes. We relished scrumptious five-rupee lunches with fried and curried specials at the college canteen. Internet had not caught on and mobile phone was unheard of. Our time at CET coincided with world events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and USSR, Rajiv Gandhi assassination, Ayodhya demolition, Mandela’s freeing and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Five Point Someone has its protagonists tuning in to the Gulf War which was televised like a soccer game, thanks to CNN. This book here is a tale of three friends who come together at IIT. It unfolds in the action-packed four year period from their entry to graduation. ‘Unputdownable’ is not a word, but I am sure this is how anybody who has been through the pains and pleasures of college life would want to describe the book on experiencing it. If you are out to slot it in a sub-genre, it would be yuppie fiction. Bhagat does to engineering college life what Anurag Mathur, another Delhi based writer, did ten years ago to Indians newly migrating to USA. That work, The Inscrutable Americans, is uproariously funny in the way only desis can write or enjoy reading. Much of the humor could be lost on a foreign reader however and that is perhaps its shortcoming. IAS officer Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel ‘English, August’, which was filmed by Dev Benegal, had a charm resembling Five Point Someone one thought. The former is about a probationary officer’s travails in small town MP and not a college drama though. If we go back to the eighties, it is a film and not a book that comes to mind for a parallel. Arundhati Roy scripted an award-winning screenplay for In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, the movie directed by the man who was to be her life partner, Pradip Kishen. That 1989 movie is incidentally the one in which a chirpy 24 year old answering to the name of Shah Rukh Khan made his celluloid baptism. The story revolves around a group of friends, all students of the Delhi School of Architecture, the alma mater of Roy herself. It is interesting to note that although there are many books in English and the vernacular languages by Indian writers of a top quality, there are not many centering on colleges and universities. R.K. Narayan and Ruskin Bond had set high benchmarks, but for tales around much younger denizens, of the school going kind. Swami and Friends retains its luster and importantly relevance, even after nearly three quarters of a century. One can think of Malayalam movies like Chillu and the Mohanlal starrers Sarvakalasala, Yuvajanotsavam and Sukhamo Devi from the eighties and Nirram and Classmates from recent times for depressingly sweet college nostalgia. Tamil, it is possible, has superior fare in this department. Towards the fag end of our time at CET, a movie called Sooryagayatri was shot there. It was a potentially good theme of a widower, a successful doctor played by Lal, sending his only son to study engineering and it turning out to be traumatic. But the plot was played havoc with through some unimaginative treatment of it. The first half scintillated, the second meandered to such a laughable travesty that the movie quite naturally hit the trash can of film lore, in spite of a lilting song or two. These thoughts naturally arose since the plot of Five Point Someone also gives easily for filming – in fact a director called Ritesh Sinha is already on the job. A blurb review lauds FPS as the book version of Dil Chahta Hai. The writer repeated his magic with his second book, One Night @ The Call Center, another smash hit. This one is being filmed as well, by Atul Agnihotri in Hindi as Hello. It will be out by December of this year. Another remote comparison of FPS would be to Eric Segal’s Love Story from the seventies, the evergreen college saga that broke many a reader’s heart the world over and also spawned many clones.
It is noteworthy that Chetan Bhagat practices yoga – the dexterity of his prose and the suppleness of his style are ample proof of his mental equipoise. In 270 pages this promising young writer-techie weaves for us a fine tale, simply told and yet bound to bewitch the reader into having more helpings of the same. It will be unfair to dub him a chronicler of an IIT saga for the reason that the book has a universal appeal that goes beyond the immediate plot. It reaches out to all generations, especially to the younger one. The title has to do with the grading that students aspire for at the ‘insti’. It can be an obsession, a steeple chase that could end up as a nightmare. The grade is a branding that one has to live with for the rest of one’s life and screwing it up is simply not an option. Read the book and you will know how ‘Disco’ need not always be a place to let your hair down and boogie. Here is a keeper: ‘Calling an IIT-ian a commerce student was one of the worst insults the profs could accord to us, like a prostitute calling her client a eunuch.’ Without giving away the story I would add that there is even a moral to be imbibed at the end of it. It has got to do with where the heroes end up for all their peccadilloes.