Saturday, 12 September 2009
Book Review: My Friend Sancho
Amit Varma is a blogger I admire a lot. Like many tens of thousands of Indians, I get withdrawal symptoms if I can’t check his blog Indiauncut at least once every day. The symptoms are equally bad if Varma doesn’t update his blog daily. Of late, Varma hasn’t been posting as regularly as he once used to. The culprit behind this disaster is Varma’s debut novel My Friend Sancho (MFS), published by Hachette India. I happened to read MFS recently
More a novella than a novel (since by my own reckoning it doesn’t exceed 40,000 words), MFS is the story of an ambitious reporter (not unlike Varma who once used to be a journalist till he turned to full-time blogging) named Abir Ganguly who also happens to be an Indiauncut fan. Using a simple, but very realistic, plot and uncluttered English that gets to the nub of the matter without prevarication, Varma tells us a tale that has shades of Love Story in it. MFS is a very good read and Varma easily held my attention effortlessly for the entire journey.
Varma makes no bones about the fact that his only objective is to entertain and that he has no lofty literary pretensions. In the beginning of the book, Abir has a conversation with his boss, which goes on as follows:
“So what kind of stories do you want to write for us, young man?”
“You tell me, sir.”
“No, you tell me. I want to see what you want to do first.”
“Sir, um, I want to do the kind of stories that reveal, um, what this city is all about.”
“What is this city all about?”
“Sir, um, this city, sir, has, um, lots of struggle, and life is hard, and...”
“Enough. Do you watch movies?”
“Do you watch sports?”
“I'll tell you why. Because you want drama. Our lives are boring, so we want drama everywhere. That is why we gossip. That is why we peek into our neighbour's houses. That is why we watch movies, watch sports. That is why readers buy The Afternoon Mail. Drama! Now, I want you to understand one thing.”
“Your job, as a reporter, is to find drama. People want story: conflict, love, action, violence, sadness, regret. Give them story. You know that old cliché of 'dog bites man' and 'man bites dog'? I want 'man bites dog'. Every story you write must be 'man bites dog'. Drama!”
Recently Varma posted an article giving blogging tips for aspiring bloggers. Value your reader’s time; Keep your English simple; Focus on the content rather than use ornamental language. These are some of Varma’s commandments. Varama is obviously one of those teachers who practice what they preach since MFS follows all these rules and is a lesson is English writing for all aspiring writers who are not native speakers of English.
However, the most outstanding feature of MFS is also its main drawback. Since Varma obviously believes that his reader’s time is very valuable and that readers are fickle creatures who will drop his book and wander away at the slightest slack in his writing and because Varma believes that his readers want pure unadulterated entertainment that doesn’t require the exercise of grey cells and nothing else, MFS is crammed with sarcasm, cynicism and WTFness that are so very familiar to Indiauncut readers. Such writing is, in my opinion, very much appropriate for blogging on the internet where readers have so many distractions and moving to a different web page is so very easy. However, when reading a book one has bought for a few hundred rupees, a reader can be expected to be a bit more faithful. At times I did find Varma’s attention grabbing tactics distracting. I believe that if Varma hadn’t been so worried about keeping his readers entertained by every word he wrote, if every word wasn’t expected to count, MFS would have been a much better read.
Another drawback (or flaw) in MFS is that Varma doesn’t do justice to Muneeza, Abir’s love interest in the story. Muneeza is shown as having had a traditional (Indian Muslim) upbringing, but displays streaks of rebellion and independence. If properly developed, Muneeza could have been a very interesting character. However, readers are given a hasty and one-dimensional view of Muneeza.
Varma’s writing can only get better, provided Varma stops worrying that his readers will run away if a single word in his work fails to entertain.