I usually refrain from outright criticism, which is why you will hardly ever see 1 or 2 star reviews on here, as I do realize how much effort goes into a book, and believe me, I can appreciate that, but after going through a book like this and frying some of my precious brain cells, I feel like I am entitled to some therapeutic ranting, so that’s exactly what this post is.
Though I must mention something here, before any of you jump to conclusions about negative bias, and elitist tendencies, as I know this author elicits strong, yet contrasting feelings of admiration & hatred from diverse groups of people.
So here goes.. While it’s true that I’ve never been a Chetan Bhagat fan, I am not a hater either. For all these years, I was just a non-partisan observer. I had read a couple of his books in my teens, and vaguely remember liking 5 Point Someone. But after that, I never read anything by him for the last decade, though I was very curious about his writing as I had witnessed his rise to popularity.
So I went into this book with an open mind, and not with ginormous expectations either. But somehow this book managed to fall short of my already-low expectations.
In-fact, if I am really honest, I don’t even think of it as a real book. Because it’s more like an overly-detailed draft of a commercial Bollywood movie, which I believe is the author’s ultimate (if not the only) aim these days. And speaking of which, this time he has done one better – he has even managed to incorporate himself into the story-line (don’t ask, it’s all pretty lame, but what can we expect?), so he even gets to ‘act’ in the movie.
Which is fine (I mean the whole Bollywood sell-out thing), if that’s what he wants to do, but then why go through the whole charade of being an author? Why not just write the script and submit it directly? I am sure that will make him tons of money as well, because I believe most (if not all) his movie adaptations have been commercial successes. I personally have liked them all – from 3 Idiots to Kaipoche to 2 States.
But wait, I am getting ahead of myself here. Let’s back up a bit, and talk about the book first.
Half Girlfriend – Summary
Half Girlfriend revolves around the life of Madhav & Riya, who meet in St. Stephens College, Delhi, where they connect over their mutual love for the game of basketball, and become really good friends in-spite of their very diverse backgrounds (Madhav comes from a small town in Bihar, while Riya grew up in the posh Lutyens Delhi). The story then follows the many twists and turns in their tale of friendship, love, loss and redemption across Delhi, Bihar & New York.
Half Girlfriend – Review
Now, coming to my review, I am breaking it down in some parts…
My thoughts on the blurb & supposed main themes of the book
Once upon a time, there was a Bihari boy called Madhav. He fell in love with a girl from Delhi called Riya. Madhav didn’t speak English well. Riya did. Madhav wanted a relationship. Riya didn’t. Riya just wanted friendship. Madhav didn’t. Riya suggested a compromise. She agreed to be his half girlfriend.
Pasted above is the actual blurb. I don’t even want to get into the level of expertise displayed in writing this blurb, for now let’s only focus on the message.
So when I read this blurb, I felt the book’s main themes were the language divide in the country, and the concept of Half-Girlfriend. But boy was I mistaken!
The truth – the language divide is addressed, but isn’t a central issue between the protagonists. They had other demons to fight, ones which were rooted in their respective pasts, and the language thing was only a tiny hiccup on the way.
Sure, the male lead would constantly spout gyaan on how English is overrated, but his actions never backed this up. The book essentially chronicled his journey as he perfected his English, and tried to neutralize his accent, all while spouting the above-mentioned gyaan (the irony!).
Now as far as the concept of Half-Girlfriend is concerned, before I read the book, I assumed it was a ‘Friends with Benefits’ kind of situation. But of-course that would have been too mainstream for Mr. Bhagat. So what does he do instead?
He picks up a string of two words, which was mentioned all of ONCE by the female lead, that too in the form of a crazy convoluted arrangement, which did not make sense in the first place (but okay), and makes it the title. Done. Just like that.
I mean it does sound kinda cool and intriguing, and significance is overrated, right?
On the Story & Characters & Writing
As unbelievable as it might sound, the writing was the least of my issues. I don’t mind what the author labels as ‘easy English’, in fact I am all for it. But for me, an actual plot is non-negotiable. A non-lame plot that is, with non-lame characters.
Though I must say that when it comes to the characters, initially I did try to give the author the benefit of doubt, and thought that it was all possibly sounding lame, because this character was supposed to be lame. But nope, the writing was the issue, as you can write about a lame character in a non-lame way. And why should the protagonist be this lame in the first place? Lame and aggravating (but I’ll come to that later).
And like I was saying earlier, the plot was mostly non-existent and what little of it there was, was irredeemable. Well until the last 20-30 pages, when it finally did pick up, but by then my brain was fried, and I couldn’t care less about what happened to anything or anyone.
On Love & Consent
This is definitely by biggest grouse with the book, and the main reason I can’t bring myself to excuse the other small issues.
Firstly, I couldn’t get invested in the love story at all, because to me it never came across as love. The way I saw it, from Madhav’s end it was lust at first, then obsession, then stalking. And God only knows what it was from Riya’s end! My best guess would be – friendship at first, followed by a little flirtation, and some mind games. NOT love.
Then there was the issue of consent. And this doesn’t have anything to do with my feelings of the so-called love story. Whether love was in the equation or not, one thing was always clear – Riya was definitely not comfortable with Madhav’s physical advances, and she made it quite clear to him, on numerous occasions, and yet he persisted.
Here are some direct quotes…
"Madhav, please understand, I'm not comfortable with all this." "Control yourself Madhav."
"She tried to extricate herself. I didn't let go." "She stopped and glared at me until I let go." "Can you just let me go? You are hurting me." "Riya come on. I want you."
I can’t tell you how much this annoys me. I mean impressionable teens are reading this stuff – where a misguided notion of love overrides the real issue of consent!
Even more aggravating is the fact that the author claims to be the representative of the common folk, and the “real” India. So my question to him is, assuming he considers this to be a representation of the existing reality, what is the message he wants to give out? Is this book supposed to be a worthless mirror? Which by the way, it’s not just a worthless one, but a pretty dangerous one too.
Because in the book, even though the girl resists the guy, and the guy understands that he did not behave well – in his mind, the guy also justifies it by statements like (and I am paraphrasing here) – ‘but I love her’, ‘why doesn’t she understand?’, ‘but I want to’, and so on..
According to me, the message that came across, seemed to be that, consent is not that important, so long as the actions are the result of “true love”, which of-course is also open to interpretation in this case, as like I said, it never came across as love to me.
Though that’s not even the real issue here. Because love or not, Consent is always important, always. And if we ever are to tackle the much-talked-about ‘rape culture’, books like these are counter-productive. Sure they are seemingly harmless at first, but that’s how it all begins right? By blurring the lines between right & wrong, by cloaking lust with love, by trying to justify what can never be justified.
Recommendation: I clearly do not recommend you to read this book, but if you are the rebel type, and have too much time on your hands, here you go…
Half Girlfriend (Amazon)
Though if I may make some alternative suggestions for folks who like romances which are set in India and are reflective of Indian culture, without highlighting the negative stereotypes, here are some books I suggest you read instead –
That’s all from my end folks. I would love to hear from you guys. Did you guys read this book? Anything else by him? What do you think of the author? I feel like he has gone on a downward spiral from 5 Point Someone to Half Girlfriend. But I possibly picked the wrong book. Did you read anything else by him that you liked? Do share.
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