Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
While I was on my MFS book tour, the same questions about the book and me kept cropping up in all the cities I went to, from journos and from the audiences at the launches. I thought it would make sense for IU and MFS readers if I collected some of them and answered them here as well. These frequently asked questions are collected on this page, which will be expanded as more questions come in. You can also check out my bio page, and this interview. Meanwhile, here on the IU Blog as well, here’s the first set of questions:
On Indian writing in English, and where MFS fits in
There is an unfortunate gap in India between popular fiction and literary fiction. Readers of literary fiction look down on popular fiction and think of it as infra dig; and readers of popular fiction are intimidated by literary fiction, by any indication of heft or gravitas or self-indulgence. An Amitav Ghosh reader won’t read Chetan Bhagat; and vice versa.
I’d like my work to appeal to both kinds of readers. Plenty of Japanese writers manage to bridge this gap in their country, and writers like Banana Yoshimoto, Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa are both critically acclaimed as well as wildly popular. There aren’t any writers like that in India writing in English, creating compelling narratives that are both entertaining and thought-provoking. I hope to fill that space with my novels. Whether or not MFS lives up to that is for readers to judge.
On whether I am a blogger or a novelist
I’ve wanted to be a novelist all my life—since I began to read, I wanted to tell stories, and I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else. I did various other things along the way, procrastinating furiously. In 2001, I took some time off and tried writing a book, but after 10,000 words, realised that it wasn’t working, and that I wasn’t ready for it yet, either in terms of craft or maturity. I bided my time till I was ready, and then eventually did get down to it. My Friend Sancho is my first baby-step in my career as a novelist. I don’t see myself doing anything else, ever.
Some readers of IU see me as a blogger-turned-novelist, as if I became successful as a blogger, found that I had a readership, and then decided to write a book. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve wanted nothing else in my life but to write novels, and blogging was just something that happened along the way.
Two of the four publishers who wanted MFS didn’t even know I blogged. The blog was irrelevant in that scheme of things, and my book found its way into the world on its own merit. I hope that is also how readers evaluate it.
On how blogging made me a better writer
I think of the facility to write as akin to a muscle. Just as working out daily in the gym increases one’s fitness, regular writing makes one a better writer. Blogging amounted to exercising my ‘writing muscle’ every day. I used to be a frequent blogger, and for much of my time as a blogger, have averaged about five posts a day. (I once put up 22 posts in a day; yes, I needed to get a life.) That’s a lot of working out.
Blogging also taught me one of the most important lessons of writing: Respect your reader’s time. When someone is online reading your blog, there are a thousand other things they can do with their time. The whole world is just a click away. If you’re self-indulgent, if you waffle, if you use 10 words where five will do, boom, they’re gone. To build a readership, you have to keep giving your readers value for their time. Blogging made my writing crisper, more economical, and less self-conscious. I’d like to think that these values reflect in the other writing I do.
On why I gave up journalism
I felt that writing a novel needed me to devote myself to the fictional world I was creating, and weekly deadlines for columns and suchlike got in the way. I had to make a choice, and so I chose to give up journalism. The process of writing MFS confirmed to me that writing fiction was my natural domain, and I don’t intend to return to journalism now.
Also, writing columns and op-eds require a different mindset from tackling literature. In opinion pieces, one is expected to pass judgments on things, to paint the world in black and white. Literature gives us more scope to acknowledge the real world’s complexities, and to explore its ambiguities. I rather prefer the latter—you won’t find me passing judgement on any of my characters in MFS, or in future books. No matter who the character is, there but for the grace of the FSM go we.
On why my blogging and journalistic concerns are not reflected in my novel
I blog a lot about economics and politics, and my columns were also on those subjects. But you will not find me talking about these subjects in MFS. Indeed, reading MFS will tell you nothing about my ideology or my political leanings, which is as it should be. Literature is about human beings, and, to use a much-abused phrase with a pomposity alert, the human condition. A book that pushes an ideology is, in my view, not literature but propaganda. You won’t find any of that coming from me.
On whether MFS is autobiographical
My Friend Sancho is not autobiographical, and Abir Ganguly isn’t me. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, or as a crime reporter, and none of the events in the book have happened to me. As a person, Abir is quite different from me, though his sense of humour is a bit like mine.
Writers are often wisely told, ‘Write about what you know.’ I’ve lived in Mumbai since 1995, and love this city and know it well, so obviously I set the novel here. And I know a fair bit about journalism as well, so that was also a natural choice for Abir. That said, Abir has no more in common with me than with any Mumbai journalist.
It could be argued, though, that the character of the lizard is based on me. To begin with, we’re both unnoticed observers of the world with an unusual perspective. And then there’s the reptilian looks. Also… ok, I’ll stop here.
On the voice of the book
The book is a first-person narrative from the point of view of Abir Ganguly, this immature, 23-year-old, smart-alecky reporter given to glib wisecracks. The voice of the book, thus, is his voice. As the story proceeds, and he is taken out of his comfort zone by his attraction to a girl he would not have noticed in normal circumstances, he changes in subtle ways, and begins to see the world slightly differently. This change in Abir is at the heart of this book—it is a coming-of-age story.
Every book has its own voice depending on what it’s about, and pov. My second novel is a third-person narrative starring an IAS officer in his late 40s living in a city in Central India, and will read quite differently.
More Q&A will follow on the FAQ page. If you have any questions of your own, send ‘em in. I can’t promise to answer all the questions I get, but will do so for any that haven’t already been addressed, and that seem to be of interest to many of my readers.
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