Campus Calling: The Curious Case of the ‘Campus Novel’ in India

0 Posted by - November 23, 2012 - Non-Fiction

The literary sub-genre of the Indian campus novel has garnered quite a fan following in recent times. It all began, as we well remember, with Chetan Bhagat’s debut novel Five Point Someone (Rupa Publications) in 2004. Critics did not have much to say about Mr. Bhagat’s literary acumen back then and hardcore literature aficionados did turn up their noses at what seemed like a regular campus bromance of the run-of-the-mill kind.

The frenzy over campus novels began with Five Point Someone

But critics and literature snobs notwithstanding, the tale of three friends in IIT Delhi and their identity crisis, conflict and farfetched adventures took the reading audience by storm. There has been no dearth of campus novels ever since. After the IITs, IIMs debut into the campus novel scenario was imminent. JNU gradually crept in and Delhi University has also made its brief appearance.

It is raining campus novels these days and the market is being flooded by their cheesy, catchy titles and mostly repetitive content. Yet the audience doesn’t seem to mind and indeed welcomes them with open arms. Meanwhile Mr. Bhagat’s popularity has remained constant and his books are perennial best sellers and have even been adapted into Bollywood movies.

While there has been a steady trickle of campus novels in the Indian literary market, the Indian audience had not yet learnt to demarcate it as a sub-genre within itself. It was only in 2004, with the release and mass hysteria of Five Point Someone that the campus novel finally came into its own.

Campus Novels: A Brief History

Contrary to popular belief, Five Point Someone is not the first campus novel in India. The first novel in this subgenre was Long Long Days by P. M. Nityanandan (South Asia Books) in 1960. With nothing new published in the genre for the next ten years, the 1970s and early 80s saw renewed interest and a few campus novels such as The Farewell Party by M. V. Rama Sarma (Orient Academy), Onion Peel by T. K. Mahadevan (Arnold-Heinemann India) and Atom and the Serpent by Prema Nandakumar (Affiliated East-West Press). R. K. Narayanan’s Bachelor of Arts (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group) is also considered an early campus novel by many.

R.K Narayan's Bachelor of Arts chronicles a man's journey through college.

Then came the 90s and with them some breakthrough young adult novels such as Upmanyu Chatterjee’s English, August (Penguin), Anurag Mathur’s The Inscrutable Americans (BPI India Pvt Ltd) and the likes.

Theme And Content

The setting and the mood of earlier campus novels were relatively more serious than present novels and pertinent social and political issues regarding campus life were raised. Instead of concentrating on three or more than three protagonists, earlier novels consisted of one principal protagonist. Unlike campus novels of today, the early novels in the genre did not end with the completion of the protagonist’s term in college but sometimes exceeded it. In some novels the protagonists finished their terms in college and proceeded in their careers as lecturers and professors.

English August is a novel with a quirky touch

The content and theme of campus novels have undergone a gradual but pivotal shift. As the genre began to be defined, its contents and themes also grew strictly in relation to its genre. Earlier when the definitions of campus novels were loose, the different novels in the subgenre dealt with different themes and motifs. Novels such as the Atom and the Serpent and Campus go as far as make the Vice Chancellor the main protagonist.


An Indian boy tries to make sense of the American student culture

With the strengthening of the definitions of the campus novels, the content has also undergone a change. Campus novels today are usually considered light reads. Often the story of friends, their college conflict and their romances, these novels today steer clear of any serious issues and political stances. In other words, campus novels today mimic the psyche of and cater to a section of the audience that specifically concentrates on quick reads. Most campus novels ride high on the Indian public’s craze of the IITs and IIMs and a longing for a nostalgic aftertaste. It is therefore, no wonder, that every campus novel that hits the market sells at least 4,000 copies, making each an instant bestseller!  

1 Comment

  • manjulika pramod November 23, 2012 - 1:10 pm Reply

    Nice article.. I am glad.. have read 3 of the 4.. Campus tales have been on a high suddenly after Five point someone which was really cute.. But readers need more about campus than just mushy romantic tales… In fact The Inscrutable americans was more fun…

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