It was a newspaper headline—one of those bizarre, somewhat sordid, it-can-happen-only-in-India headlines—that led to Chetan Bhagat’s latest novel, One Arranged Murder.
"Gurugram man pushes wife to death on Karva Chauth"—having once dipped toes into the world of crime writing, no self-respecting author even mildly interested in writing crime fiction could ignore the opportunity presented by that lurid headline, and Bhagat is after all a prolific one. His previous book, The Girl In Room 105 (2018), was also a murder mystery of sorts, but this time, Bhagat set himself the task of writing a locked-room mystery, one of the absolute classic formats of a genre that authors the world over have done remarkable things with.
As murder mysteries stand, Bhagat has delivered on the promise of creating a very satisfying locked room murder, where the reader—even a sophisticated reader who has devoured everything from Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to Ian Rankin and Tana French—might be left guessing the identity of the killer. “Spreadsheets, spreadsheets and more spreadsheets,” is how the author describes the process of writing this plot-heavy novel in a Zoom call from Singapore, which he has called home for several months now. “There were so many timings and alibis that had to be mapped exactly because it wouldn’t make sense otherwise,” says Bhagat.
Without giving anything away—the writer implored me to not reveal anything that could be a potential spoiler—the story revolves around a young woman who keeps a Karva Chauth fast for her fiancé. She dies after she falls off the terrace of her family home in south Delhi, while she’s keeping a vigil for the moon that will signal the breaking of the fast.
What follows is a classic murder investigation that has often been described as “cosy” when done by the likes of Christie—with a house full of suspects and motives and bodies piling up decorously—but in Bhagat’s hands is anything but, as family secrets tumble out and a complicated web of relationships creates a darker, murkier and very Indian story.
If the tale loses something in Bhagat’s often simple-to-the-point-of simplistic language and at times awkward writing, the author, as always, is not bothered by it. “The people I am writing for are not the ones who have read a lot of murder mysteries or are even big readers. I have to grab their attention from their smartphones and streaming shows and for that, that story has to be complex but easy to read. And it is a Chetan Bhagat murder mystery—others might be able to do better on the forensics and technical aspects but I am better at the human aspect of the crime…that is my strength,” says the man whose books have sold at least seven million copies, as reported by his current publisher Westland (owned by Amazon) in 2014. Bhagat says the current book is also “doing very well”—it is at present No.2 in the Amazon best-seller list for India.
Since the publication of this book, Bhagat has often been asked if the plot was “inspired” by the investigation into actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June. Although he does not hesitate to draw a parallel with the case—at one point during our conversation, he says that the investigation of a murder in India is made more challenging by what he calls the “human aspect”, and refers to a “certain case in Bollywood” where this has happened—he makes it clear that the case was not an inspiration for this novel. It’s just that the timing feels deliberate.
“It’s not even possible because the book was ready to be published in May and got pushed because of the pandemic. The name, cover, book trailer, everything was decided by that time,” says Bhagat. “That said, the timing was uncanny. This happens to me fairly often—when I wrote a book on call centres, call centres were the rage, when I wrote Revolution 2020 in 2011, the Anna Hazare movement happened…it’s very bizarre,” he adds. “My books manage to capture the pulse of society at that point, but it is also my job to write stories that capture the Indian imagination.”
Bhagat had a personal connection with the Rajput case as well. “I knew Sushant. It’s not that he was my best friend, but we knew each other quite well from the Kai Po Che! days. I co-wrote the screenplay of that book so I was closely involved and worked with Sushant… I was very proud of him. He had an engineering background like me, came to Bollywood—so his death was a very big shock,” he says.
But that’s not the only aspect of the death that disturbed him. At one point in One Arranged Murder, one of the main characters tells another: “There you go. Welcome to entertainment from death. It’s already content for them,” referring to TV news channels sensationalising the crime at the heart of the book. Knowing what we now do about the way Rajput’s suicide and its investigation played out, this feels almost prescient. “The kind of conspiracy theories that were floated around by the media—it’s not right. It was a big story, no doubt—Bollywood sells very well so I don’t blame TV channels that ran with it. Media is doing what it can to get an audience. But I think this time it went too far. When you drag a story for three-four months, you have to make up things. And that was unfortunate.”
He says the next bit thoughtfully, choosing his words with precision: “Fake news is bad, but there are layers to how fake news works. There is fake news that’s fake but is harmless. Imagine a headline that says ‘Chetan Bhagat claims he saw aliens’. You might run the story. It’s bad and unethical, but it’s one level of unethical. The next level of unethical fake news, which is what happened this time, is when you start harming innocent people just to make a better-sounding story. When you take a victim and prey on them by targeting them so that your story has real consequences, which happened with the Tablighis as well, as the court later pointed out,” he says, referring to the vilification of a Muslim religious gathering in Delhi during the early days of the covid-19 pandemic in India. “This is especially easy to do when there is already a bias towards that innocent victim—say, Muslims, or a very free and independent woman. To make it like a reality show or a gladiator contest and feast on innocent victims—that is crossing a line.”
This feels like a new, more mature, mellow Bhagat who weighs his words—not the somewhat brash commentator of 2015 who said liberals have “no clue” and “no solutions” about what India should be like. He has since often called himself a “centrist” and panned both the “loony left wing and the loony right wing”, but he seems less eager today to give offence and more willing to pay attention to nuance and contrary points of view. From being a supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at one point, there seems to be a deliberate moving away from both the right and left wings of political thought—or at least, the way they are understood in India—when he says, with a laugh, that he believes in “social distancing from both the left and the right”.
“I don’t want to be left wing or right wing, I want to be the engine of the plane,” he says. “Someday I will say something that the liberals want to hear and they will try to co-opt me and welcome me to their club, and the next day I will praise something the government did, and they will be like, oh my God he has betrayed us. I don’t want to be part of that drama.”
Has he seen an evolution in his own thinking about social justice, caste, class and feminism? “I think it’s age. I am 46 now and I was 30 when my first book came out, so yes some ideas have changed. But there has been a consistent ideology—of trying to make India rich. And that requires social harmony, without which it cannot happen. The economy grows and jobs happen in a calm, peaceful, harmonious environment.”
Bringing up the recent controversy over an ad that shows a Hindu woman in a Muslim household, he questions whether those who protested the ad as "publicity" for love-jihad know how this kind of targeted campaign at a company can harm India’s economic prospects, deter investment and even cause stock prices to fall, as they did for Tanishq, the brand in this instance. “Did Hindu stockholders not lose money? So who are you harming, really?” he asks. “The problem with liberals is they appeal to morality—you should be good, you should be moral, you should love those who are not like you. But the thing is, all these ‘shoulds’ don’t work. You have to appeal to people’s self-interest.”
Earlier in our conversation about his latest, plucked-from-the-headlines novel, Bhagat had mentioned that it almost got called 'The Karva Chauth Murder' (probably a catchier title than the current one with its somewhat gimmicky design choice of having the word 'marriage' struck out and replaced with 'murder' on the book cover). Did it not fit Bhagat’s preferred nomenclature of having a number in all his book titles? The author quickly corrects me, pointing out that the word chauth refers to the fourth day in the month of Kartika according to the Hindu calendar, the date on which married and engaged women keep the Karva Chauth fast, so the title would have worked. “But I realized that the festival isn’t celebrated in south India, and even in Bengal, so I changed it.”
Bhagat's own position on things is often imbued with the same pragmatism. He is nothing if not consistent.