A Book Review
By Kevin Stoda
In the wake of two sets of events in India this past month, it is appropriate to review Chetan Bhagat’s recent novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life.
The first occasion in August 2008 that I am referring to was the rise of youthful and sometimes violent protest once again in Srinagar, with the greatest call in years for Jammu-Kashmir to separate from India. This renewed manifestation of protests has occurred in response to the June and July boycotts of Jammu-Kashmir by Hindu groups who were upset at the loss of a land grant which had been awarded to them under shady circumstances some months ago.
The second event in August 2008, which dealt with the same problems of intra-religious and intercultural infighting in India, was the rise of Hindu attacks on Christians in Orissa. In this case a Christian orphanage was attacked after a Maoist murder of a Hindu leader. The number of Hindu nationalists seeking to attack Christians, especially Christian delist, in recent years in that eastern India state have increased greatly in recent years—as the leaders of Orissan government refuse to intervene and truly protect religious minorities.
In the context of modern India, Chetan Bhagat has been reported to be the biggest-selling English-language novelist in India’s history. Baghat is still in his 30s and lives much of the time outside of India. Bhagat’s first three novels have been called block busters. Currently, both of his first two books, one night @ the call center and Five Point Someone, are being made into Bollywood films. For the non-Indian reader, the works o Bhagat provide great insight into 21st century experiences of Indian youth.
In 3 Mistakes, Bhagat takes on the topics of intra-religious hate and political warfare in India. He does it by handling very youthful genres of love, i.e. (a) one’s first love, (b) love of mathematics, and (c) love of the game of cricket.
3 Mistakes is set mostly in Ahmadabad, Gujarat where the author spent many of his formative year. (Incidentally, it is also the home of Mohandas Gandhi’s ashram.) This tale mostly takes place in the year leading up to the Great Gujarat Earthquake of 2001 and the period then leading up to the terrible ethnic communal riots and violence of the following year.
Five of the six main characters are of Hindu descent. (Only one is Muslim.) However, the first person narrator for most of the tale, Govind Patel, considers himself more of an atheist than religious. Similarly, one of his best friends and cricket coach, Ishaan (known as Ish), is not interested in religion either--and is even less interest in combining religion and politics.
This is a common theme of moderation and secularization among five of the six main character’s personalities in some ways is the call of modern India—not just a call of its youth. Particularly, Ish is much more interested in promoting his youthful cricket prodigy, Ali, than he is in the world of nationalist politics, socialization, and education.
Only Ish and Govind’s friend and business partner, Omi, is a fairly religious figure among the three closest friends in the novel. However, Omi’s father, Mama, is interested in Hindu nationalism and promoting the status of Hindus in modern India.
Furthermore , Mama wants to be seen as leader in the Ahmadabad Hindu political scene and strives to increase his status throughout the novel. In short he is a Hindu nationalist temple priest with ambition.
The sixth of the six main characters in Bhagat’s 3 Mistakes is Ish’s sister, Vidya, whom Govind tutors in math and science throughout most of the novel.
LOVE OF CRICKET
India is a cricket crazy land. One of Bollywood’s greatest blockbusters of the last decade, Lagan, was based on the game of cricket. In 3 Mistakes, cricket plays a central role as well.
First, cricket is a business. Govind, Ish and Omi open a cricket shop in the corner across from a Hindu temple run by Omi’s family for generations. In this way, the three young men attempt to make a living without directly following in the path that their parents would like to have seen them go.
Ish is the number one fan of cricket among the three. The successes and failures of the national Indian cricket team constantly affect success in their sales of cricket equipment and cricket clients for training on the pitch. For example, after the Indian team makes a historic upset over the Australian team, not only does the country go bonkers over cricket, but the cricket business in Ahmadabad booms.
Likewise, in the phenomena of the young cricketer, Ali, Ish (as the cricket shop trainer) finds his true passion in life, which goes beyond just overseeing young Indians learning to play cricket better. He desires to improve cricket education for all in the schools of Ahmadabad.
In the meantime, Ish becomes extremely concerned with Ali’s welfare and sees the gifted young man and his success on the playing field as a symbol of national hope for all of India. Ish often calls Ali a national gift to all Indians—regardless of race, faith or gender.
Eventually, this desire to see Ali succeed pushes Govind, Ish and Omi to first travel to Goa to meet with Australian cricket players and to get an expert opinion on the future of their young cricket prodigy. These experts then agree to bring Ali and his friends to Australia to train a week with a club in Sydney.
Ish and his friends are in awe of the fact that a country with Australia’s population can constantly put together world class cricket teams. In contrast, India with 60 times the talent pool cannot do nearly as well. Therefore, one rationale for taking the foursome out of India on this journey to Australia is meant to show Indian readers how they need to reorganize their sports education better in the future. In short, Australia is portrayed as an alternative world of sports training and education, which author Bhagat uses as a foil to educate his readers about one possible future India could have if it determined to use its human resources and educational system in a more productive and nationally supportive fashion.
LOVE OF MATH
Over the years, I have known many Indian math tutors who love cricket. They love the science and strategy involved. They support their national team but fairly even-handedly criticize national stars who fail to support good team ideals.
Mathematics is a way of bringing order to a world that might otherwise appear to be the domain of randomness and surprise. In short, conquering on the cricket pitch is equivalent to ordering one’s universe most productively.
As noted above, Govind is the business savvy partner of the three cricket shop owners. At times, Govind is also a bit arrogant and often disregards his friends advice, especially Omi’s warnings that Govind should stop trying to tutor Ish’s sister.
Nonetheless, no one can deny that Govind is bright and he could likely be anything that he chose to be.
Govind’s father died when he was young. He helped turn around his mother’s small ailing business when he was still in high school, i.e. through his introduction of clear management and accounting practices.
Govind is also the only one of the three friends who had attended university—although he bailed out early to realize his dream of running his own business.. Like many Indians talented in math and science, Govind found a calling early on as a tutor in his neighborhood.
Even after the cricket shop opens on Omi’s family land, rented to the threesome by the temple family, Govind continues to love tutoring, especially the subject of mathematics. He is fascinated by numbers, probability, risk taking, etc. However, he strives to have order in his world and, like Ish, tries to stay out of the fray of the rising Hindu nationalism around them.
Govind, in his first-person narration in 3 Mistakes, reveals this love for numbers. He can calculate costs and benefits at great speed. It is these very skills and overall wisdom and logic which partially endears him to his friends and their families
On the other hand, it is this very same respect for both Govind’s math and tutoring skills that imperils his relationship with Ish. In a turning point in Govind’s life, Ish begs Govind to tutor his sister Vidya, who is just getting ready to turn 18 and has plans to go off to college in Mumbai.
According to both Bhagat and first-person narrator, Govind, Vidya is different than many other young Indian women. (Indian guidebooks relate that the gender roles in South Asian society are historically much distinguishable--more evidentially different--from one another than they are in the West.)
Near the end of the novel, Baghat indicates several times that would-be mother-in-laws would find Vidya as a bride-to-be quite daunting. She approaches the world with a character and drive uncommon for women in India. She almost always speaks what is on her mind and advocates a strong recognition of right for youth to make their own individual choices in how to live their lives.
Although she is Govind’s tutor, she quickly becomes his tutor in courting and thinking critically about some facets of own life which he has heretofore tried to ignore.
On the other hand, as the novel unfolds this courtship is fairly slow as public distance among the sexes is promoted in Indian tradition (and how societal norms continue to function in India to this very day). For example, although Govind is several years older than Vidya, he does everything he can throughout the book to maintain the illusion that he is simply tutoring Vidya in maths—nothing more.
Vidya is the one who normally has to set up dates, even if it is under the guise of shopping for a new science book. This is the way it still is for most Indians today. Dating is just not done by most in India—even now in the 3rd millennium. Dating could affect a woman’s virtue in the eyes of family, friends or society in much of India.
On the other hand, there is another pressure for secrecy in the relationship between Vidya and Govind that even westerners can comprehend. This is because, even in the West, there are certain commonly accepted concepts or codes of trust in any friendship. One of these codes is simply: Do not try and date your best friend’s sister, especially behind his or her back.
I am referring here to Ish’s love and trust for Govind.
In fact, both Ish and his family have placed great trust in Govind. Govind is seen as part of the family—so to speak—helping to raise their daughter to succeed in the competitive entrance exams of India’s university system.
In short, Govind constantly feels bad and conflicted for his deceit, and he is ashamed when Omi first confronts him with his indiscretion while on their trip to Australia. (This occurs when Omi discovers Govind has spent much of their meal money for that day on a long phone call back to Vidya in India.)
It appears clear that the storyteller Bhagat and his first-person narrator Govind, believe the first of the three big mistakes in Govind’s life has to do with falling in love with his best friend’s sister.
SOLUTIONS AND CRISES
The first big historical crisis to intervene in the lives of the protagonists in this novel by Bhagat is the Great Gujarati Earthquake—the first major natural catastrophe of this decade, a decade which has seen the Great Tsunami of Christmas 2004 in the Indian Ocean, Hurricane Katrina in the USA and the Kashmiri Earthquakes of 2005, and the floods in India and Bangladesh of recent days.
In the weeks preceding the natural calamity in Gujarat, the cricket shop, under Govind’s management, had been preparing to move into a new popular mall. Just prior to the tremors, Govind and partners put down an expensive deposit on the new store.
Serendipitously, neither Govind nor his partners were in the mall at the time of the quake. The mall and all of the newer buildings in the area were flattened. Readers are educated by Bhagat to the fact that the older parts of Ahmadabad survived the quake quite well. We are told that shoddy and illegal construction are partially to blame for many of the other collapsed structures which left hundreds of thousands of Gujaratis homeless.
Govind is terribly distraught—having lost a great deal of savings and loaned monies through the collapse of the mall. His friends console him and the business continues at the small shop, located on the ground’s of Omi’s family-run temple.
Meanwhile, we are shown a world of rising Hindu nationalism in this same period. This is because Mama, Omi’s father, sympathizes with the cricket shop’s losses and seeks to recruit all three owners to join him in his religious Hindu and political workshops, study camps, and demonstrations. Mama lets them rent the shop without payment for many months while the trio get back on their feel
Due to the fact that they have accepted Mama’s generosity in taking on shop space and loans, Govind, Ish and Omi end up being more active than they desire at such Hindu events—including being asked to spy on Muslim and non-sectarian political groups & speakers over subsequent months.
The next national crisis was a fully man-made one.
This crisis involved the great Gujarati riots of 2002—led mostly by Hindu groups attacking Muslim communities in the state—as revenge for an attack on a trainload of Hindu youth returning to their hometown from a weekend conference and proselytizing. (By the way, Mama sees himself as responsible for recruiting Hindu youths to be on that ill-fated train.)
These attacks on Muslims immediately hit home for Ish, Omi, and Govind as their star athlete, Ali, is a Muslim. As a matter of fact, Ali’s father and mother are some of the first attacked by Hindu gangs in Ahmadabad as the rioting in that city begins.
The trio set out to save Ali from a similar fate of blind anger and revenge.
WAKE UP INDIA!!
In short, a love story, a sports story, and a mathematics’ lovers tale is transformed by the location in time an space it is embedded—namely in a Hindu dominated state (Gujarat) in India during some of the most disruptive episodes in India’s recent memory. The events in Gujarat of the past 8 years ago continue to effect most of India today. For example, in July of 2008 there were a series of 16 bombings in a singled day in Ahmadabad alone.
In some ways, every time Gujarat sneezes, the rest of India gets a cold. Lack of press freedom in the name of fighting terrorism took on a particularly distasteful form in Gujarat this past year when the governor of the state had an local editorialist arrested in January simply because the writer had criticized the government in a series pieces. (The good news is that this past summer the India’s national courts threw out the Gujarati governors charges and severely criticized the state’s governorships when doing so.)
With the Bhagat’s choice of situating his story of youthful passions in Gujarat, the author has made The 3 Mistakes of My Life a must read, especially for non-Indians looking into the world of modern South Asia and attempting to comprehend what sort of existence is lived out by 1.2 billion people each and every day.
In this tale, none of the protagonists are wealthy, but most have greater aspirations for themselves and their own country or family. This focus on family and “we Indians” hits home when the young Ali snubs an offer from Australian officials, who have kindly offered to help both him and his impoverished family to resettle in Australia on a sporting scholarship, whereby the young prodigy would have a much better chance to grow in the athletic potential and stardom he was born to demonstrate.
Ali, his coach, and older friends instead return to their poverty and struggles in Gujarat, situated on the cusp of horrible racial, religious and ethnic violence.
This violence would not only cripple this star athlete but would lead to the death of one of the partners of the cricket shop along with the deaths of other members of their families.
Albeit a short novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life hits home with many young Indians who cry out that they did not build the world they were born in—and yet must struggle through and inhabit the nation of their forefather’s making.
There is pride and hope for India’s future revealed in the tale, but in the representations of the main characters, youth of India are portrayed as disconcerted individuals who have to pick up the pieces of messes that others have made. Young people question the historical solutions to date. These solutions have been to join cadres of political parties or cadres of thugs who benefit from social division and strife in India—while not allowing society to develop in a much more positive manner.
Chetan Bhagat’s Official Website, http://chetanbhagat.com/index.html
Review: Chetan Bhagat’s recent novel, The 3 Mistakes of My Life ,