As he readies himself for the launch of his debut novel My Friend Sancho, Amit Varma has only one concern – he doesn’t want to be known as the blogger-turned-novelist.
‘It’s not like I’m a blogger who has suddenly decided to be a novelist because people read me online,’ he says. ‘I wanted to be a novelist since I could read. Everything else has happened along the way.’ My Friend Sancho is Varma’s attempt to get back on track with his childhood ambitions.
He isn’t hoping for any literary awards for his effort. The novel was written over a few months and Varma is hoping that it will earn him the tag of being an author of popular fiction, rather than of literary fiction. ‘I think that market [for popular fiction] is ill-served right now,’ he says. ‘There is scope for good popular fiction so I’d feel very happy to be spoken of in those terms, but not as something that’s just an airport novel.’
Varma, 35, is best known for his blog India Uncut and the columns he used to write for Indian business newspaper Mint and other publications till last year. (The libertarian views he enthusiastically espoused in his writings prompted the US magazine Business Week to put him on their list of India’s 50 most important people). Although he feels this background in journalism has helped his writing, from now on he wants to be known only as a novelist. He says he has given up journalism and the only reason he will continue to blog is that it is much more casual. ‘At one point I decided if I am going to do this [writing novels] and if I am going to be serious, then I should free up some mind space so that I can make it the first priority,’ he says.
He is hoping that the following he has garnered, particularly the fans of India Uncut, will translate into book sales. ‘The analogy I’d use is that of rock ‘n’ roll bands in the US,’ explains Varma. ‘Either you can be an unknown band and a label signs you up and spends tons of money or you can be the Dave Matthews Band. Spend three, four years touring and you’ve built up that live following so that when your album comes out, there are already people who want to listen to it.’ One of the ways that he tried to involve his blog readers in My Friend Sancho was announcing a contest to design the novel’s cover. ‘There were some amazing designs and I think Hachette [his publisher] is in touch with some of them for other book covers,’ reveals Varma.
The hunt for the Dave Matthews Band of Indian fiction has been on for the past few years, as traffic on Indian blogs has soared. But, so far, the transition from blog to book has not proved too successful. One of last year’s most hyped releases was blogger Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s You Are Here, which attempted to turn her confessional blog into a novel. Book sales have not matched up to the hits her blog gets.
Popular Indian fiction, on the other hand, has been a success story. The popularity of best-selling author Chetan Bhagat’s cheaply priced novels has shown publishers that there is a market for English-language writing. Last year, Karan Bajaj’s debut novel, Keep Off The Grass, sold more than 10,000 copies in its first few months. My Friend Sancho fits neatly into that category. The slim novel follows a young journalist as he tries to write an article about police crime in Mumbai and in the process finds himself in a love triangle between a Muslim girl and a lizard.
There are a wealth of issues in Varma’s novel, such as the tension between an event and the sensationalism with which it is reported, the naivety of non-governmental organisations, and the complications of a Hindu man having a Muslim girlfriend. Varma chooses to treat the serious themes of his novel lightly. This is not a magnum opus. On the contrary, it’s meant to be a snappy, engaging read that doesn’t demand too much of its reader. ‘I just wanted to tell a story simply,’ says Varma. But it remains to be seen whether Varma’s storytelling is gripping enough to earn him a place on the bestseller list of the bookstores that both the author and his protagonist haunt.
My Friend Sancho is published by Hachette India. Buy online at www.indiauncut.com.