Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Review: Amit Varma's "My Friend Sancho"

The mighty Bombay blogger Amit Varma's first novel, My Friend Sancho, is a quick and entertaining summer read, which also manages to make some serious points along the way. It does not aspire to be "serious" literature, but it is certainly several significant notches above One Night @ the Call Center. Indeed, I would not even put the two books in the same blog post, except Manish planted the damn meme in my head before I got around to reading Amit's novel.

(Before I get much further, I should mention that, while My Friend Sancho has not been published in the U.S. yet, you can still get it in the U.S. from here.)

I gather that Manish's comparison, in the post I linked to above, had more to do with the new market for books like these -- books that are primarily directed at a growing popular market for English language books within India, rather than the western "literary fiction" market to which most diasporic writers really aspire (even those who say they are writing with Indian readers in mind).

But still, do we really have to go there? Bhagat's Call Center was a mind-numbing collection of topical cliches, juvenile crushes, and predictable silliness. I gather that Amit would not be averse to selling a few copies of his book, but My Friend Sancho is a much smarter and more provocative book, which gets into the ethics of journalism, police encounters, and even, to some extent, cross-religious romance. Admittedly, Amit's book does have some blemishes, such as the bits where his fictional character references Varma's real-life blog, for instance. Also, the romance between Abir and Muneeza has a kind of innocence to it that doesn't fit Abir's otherwise jaded persona that well. But neither of these are fatal, and perhaps Varma will iron out some of the kinks in his next one.

You don't have to take my word for it; below are a few paragraphs I liked in particular in My Friend Sancho. If you like them, you'll probably like the novel. If not, perhaps not.

First, my favorite passage in My Friend Sancho is where Abir, the slacker, procrastinating journalist, puts forward his credo with regards to writing:

I worked on the story till about four in the morning. One of the problems while writing a piece like this, I've since realized, is that you get too ambitious. You read your New Journalism pieces from the books where they are collected, you read the features in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and you tell yourself you want to write like that, and you paralyze yourself. The trick is just to tell the story simply, the best you can, without thinking of how impressed people will be when they read it. So I wrote and wrote.

Spoken like a blogger, except here is one blogger (Amit Varma, not Abir Ganguly, his character) who stopped procrastinating his novel and actually wrote the thing out. I also think he's exactly right about telling the story you have to tell simply and straightforwardly, without worrying whether you'll impress others.

[Note: another Indian blogger who has recently published a novel is Chandrahas Choudhury, of The Middle Stage. Chandrahas' Arzee the Dwarf just came out on HarperCollins India; an excerpt from it is here]

There's some great stuff about procrastination in My Friend Sancho, which resonates particularly well for me since I am a world-class procrastinator myself:

I went to office late in the morning. I worked for a couple of hours. That is to say, I tried to work. My mind kept wandering, and the internet gave it places to wander to. Every three minutes I told myself, Just two minutes more, let me just check out this page, then I will work. But I'd check out that page, and click on a link there, or think of something because of what I was reading and go somewhere else, and so on and on until it was almost lunchtime and I was better informed about the world but less so about my own piece.

I have been there. I have been exactly there, more often than I would really like to admit. (And I suspect Abir Ganguly and I are not alone in this!)

Another aspect of the novel I found provocative relates to Abir's attempt to cope with a police officer in his acquaintance named Thombre who has done something questionable. Rather than demonize Thombre as a clear villain, Abir finds himself sympathizing with the officer, who has risen up from a working class background:

Yes, yes, self-loathing is fashionable and I cultivate it well. But really, had I been born in Thombre's place, with his background, his parents, his circumstances, I have no doubt that I'd have turned out worse. Yes, worse: I would have been the lazy schmuck who failed to clear his MPSC and ended up as a mechanic somewhere, or maybe tired for a lower grade of government job, and was miserable--genuinely miserable, not just down because angst is fashionable. I'd have looked at a career path like Thombre's with envy. He had made the best of what life had thrown his way. I couldn't bring myself to condemn him on moral grounds--the world around him, the real world as he put it, had not place for morality. He did what he had to.

I am not sure I agree with Abir's act of sympathy here; what Thombre has done is not really forgivable in my book, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. Still, I find the moral quandary Abir has found himself in intriguing, and it's intelligible given where he is going as a character in this novel.

The writing in all three of the passages I've quoted is functional and unadorned. Excerpts like those above probably won't give anyone Grand Mal seizures as Great Writing. But the voice Varma has invented is interesting and the insights are honest; they resonated with me, giving me a reason to keep turning pages.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

More Vikram Chandra Media Fun

On News.google.com, if you search for "Mild-mannered Author Delves Deeply Into India's Underworld," you'll get about 25 newspapers that printed an AP article by Marcus Wohlsen on Vikram Chandra.

I have a bite-size quote in this article too -- all 25 printings of it.

[UPDATE: Another 25 newspapers have titled the story "Author Delves Into India's Underworld." So the real number of newspapers that have carried the story is about 52.]

"This is a great novel, perhaps the greatest book on Bombay ever written. Certainly a contender for the Great Indian Novel," wrote one reviewer in the Hindustan Times.

Whatever the book's standing as literature, the popularity of "Sacred Games" is undeniable. It has remained on India's top-10 best seller list since its release.

Younger Indian readers have embraced the novel's rowdy social panorama of criminals, cops and slum-dwellers in a country still saddled with the class tensions of the caste system, says Amardeep Singh, a professor of world literature at Lehigh University who keeps a blog about new South Asian fiction. They also find its encyclopedic use of Indian obscenities "thrilling."

"It's a breaking of a certain unwritten set of taboos of what you can and can't talk about and the language you can use," Singh says.

"Sacred Games" has also sold well in England, where it was named a top book of 2006 by several British critics, and has been translated into 14 languages, from Hindi to French to Croatian.

HarperCollins beat out five other publishers to buy the U.S. rights to "Sacred Games" for $1 million, and has reportedly pushed the novel with a $300,000 marketing budget - a rare sum for a single book. There are 75,000 hardcover copies in print in the United States so far, with the book already in its fifth U.S. printing.

Ah well, not the greatest quote. But I do think there's an almost refreshing rudeness in books like Sacred Games and Maximum City.

UPDATE: Also check out this piece by Josh Getlin in the L.A. Times.

(Next week, I promise -- no more Vikram Chandra propaganda!)

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

In the Washington Post: Vikram Chandra, and a little from me

I'm quoted in an article in this past Monday's Washington Post, on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games:

The seminal event of Chandra's 45 years, by contrast, has been the transformation, beginning in the early 1990s, of India's sleepy socialist economy into a dynamic engine of internationalization and growth.

"We're living through this precarious time when great changes are happening," Chandra says. The India he grew up in felt like "a little bubble at a far distance from the rest of the world." But in the India his 7-year-old nephew has inherited, "the West as a presence is completely available every day -- and his expectations of his place in the world are very changed."

This new India is a place where the middle class is growing in size and confidence. It's also a place, as Chandra points out, where there's still "this huge mass of people who have nothing" but who can now see what they lack.

And it's a place, according to Lehigh University professor Amardeep Singh, where "the stories people want to tell" aren't so much about colonialism anymore.

Singh teaches courses with titles such as "Post-Colonial Literature in English," using texts from regions as diverse as Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean. He notes that Chandra's first novel was replete with colonial themes, but he sees "Sacred Games" as something quite different.

"I would use the phrase 'novel of globalization,' " Singh says. In "Sacred Games," he points out, the English language Chandra's upwardly mobile gangster struggles to learn is associated less with India's former colonizers than with the broader international economy that dictates its use.

Not surprisingly, the notion of a globalized Indian literature has sparked a backlash. Indian authors writing in English, especially those living overseas, have been charged by some critics with distorting Indian reality to cater to Western audiences. Chandra took some hits on this front himself, even before "Sacred Games," and was irritated enough to lash back in a Boston Review essay titled "The Cult of Authenticity."

His advice to any writer similarly attacked: "Do what it takes to get the job done. Use whatever you need. Swagger confidently through all the world, because it all belongs to you."

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