Famously known as a blogger, Amit Varma's debut novel My Friend Sancho is about unlikely friendships
What is My Friend Sancho about?
My Friend Sancho is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai. It follows Abir Ganguly, a young, cynical crime reporter who is asked by his editor to do a profile on the victim of an alleged police encounter, Mohammad Iqbal. In the course of doing so, he meets Muneeza, the dead man's daughter. The book is about the unlikely friendship that forms between them, and how it changes Abir.
Who is Sancho?
Sancho is Muneeza's nickname. You'll have to read the book to see how she happened to get that nickname!
How much of Abir Ganguly is Amit Varma?
Abir Ganguly is a smart-alec, wisecracking reporter in his early 20s. Amit Varma is a jaded 35-year-old writer. Abir is full Bong; Amit is half-Bong. Amit would like to believe that Abir is rather immature, and hasn't seen as much of the world as he has. Abir wisecracks like the younger Amit used to. Abir is much cuter than Amit, also, which the author finds a great pity.
How many readers does your blog India Uncut have?
I'd estimate about 30,000 to 40,000. I get about 10,000 pageviews a day, and most of my regular readers visit once or twice a week. I also have over 7,000 readers of my RSS feed.
With that many readers, why did you go to the trouble of getting a book published?
I've wanted to be a novelist since I started reading. The urge to tell stories drives me to be a writer, not the urge to have readers or acquire fame. I would write even if nobody read me. I am not a blogger-turned novelist, but a novelist who happened to blog before he actually wrote his first book.
How different has it been writing the novel and writing your blog?
Very different. Blogging takes byte-sized chunks of time, while writing a novel requires concentrated energy over a period of time, and loads of discipline. Also, writing fiction makes entirely different demands from the kind of blogging I do.
Please tell us about how you got your book cover design.
I decided that my blog gave me a great opportunity to go beyond the usual book designers in publishing, so I spoke to my publishers, Hachette, and we had a cover design contest for my book. Many India Uncut readers entered, most of them designers in other fields who took this chance to give book designing a shot. As a result, we got some terrific, fresh entries, and had a problem of plenty while choosing. My editor at Hachette, Shivmeet Deol, commented: "Never has any book had so many great covers to choose from." While we could pick only one design in the end, my publishers are in touch with some of the contest entrants for future work, and we regard the contest as a grand success.
In your blog you use humour to make your readers aware of serious issues and start thinking seriously about them and the chapter I read of your novel indicates that you've done this in your novel too. What are the issues you addressed in your novel?
The novel is focussed on the unlikely love story between Abir and Muneeza, and everything else is backdrop. But in passing, it does look at a host of other issues, such as the religious and class divides around us, and the way law and order functions in India. But none of these are the focus of the book.
As for humour, when the world around us is so sordid, and so full of all kinds of sorrows, I find it helpful to use humour while examining it. Sometimes, if we cannot laugh, we cannot see.
Tell us about the Bastiat Prize and what you won it for.
The Bastiat Prize for Journalism is a prize awarded every year to a journalist "whose writings wittily and eloquently explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society" (in their words).
I used to be a weekly edit page columnist for the newspaper Mint in 2007, and was the only Asian nominated for the prize that year. To my great surprise, I ended up winning it. The prize money, US$ 10,000, later enabled me to give up freelance journalism and concentrate on my novel.
Are you working on another novel or is it just the blog now?
I've started work on another novel, and have written around 10,000 words of it so far. My protagonist in this one is an IAS officer in his late 40s, an '80's man forced to come to terms, by a series of circumstances, with the 21st century. It's a bigger and more ambitious book than My Friend Sancho, and I'm enjoying writing it thoroughly.
Do you have advice for young writers?
Do not look at writing as a profession that will make you money. In India, it won't. Do it only if you can see yourself doing nothing else, if all you want to do is write, and you will write and write regardless of whether people acclaim you or readers read you. If you have that kind of passion, it's worth it. Otherwise, do something else.
One of my favourite writers, Georges Simenon, once said, "Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness." I wouldn't go as far as that â my writing gives me great joy but being a full-time writer in India involves many sacrifices, which are only worth it if, for you, writing is its own reward.