Updated: August 16, 2009 16:17 IST

Lizard on the wall

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Another story about a story, but a technique that works well this time.

My Friend Sancho; Amit Varma, Hachette India, Rs. 195.

In Darjeeling, where I taught in a college that stood beside a cemetery, I discovered a Nepali proverb about the lizard. Like all proverbs, and like the lizard in Amit Varmas debut novel, My Friend Sancho, this one too is a great moraliser: those who eavesdropped, especially on forbidden conversations, were born as lizards in their next birth. If that be true, then readers of Sancho are quite likely to be reborn as lizards!

Not that we would mind and that wouldnt be only because of the cheeky-looking lizard on the cover, its words in a pink heart-shaped balloon, the colour and language of love; alright, unexpressed love (the shade of nervous Valentines Day proposals and wannabe lovers blush!).

Brilliant ploy

We wouldnt mind because it is an adventure and, after the overdose of psychological realism freebies in our books, a relief too to be the lizard on the wall: an outsider-insider figure with no reverence for human-manicured dimensions, with the privilege of gazing without being noticed, and in the novel, to comment and criticise without the threat of losing its tail, or tales.

Its a brilliant ploy by Varma, to make the lizard a figure of the subconscious, but theres humour and irony (and there is much of that in this book) in the writers choice of the animal. Varma, like Abir Ganguly, the central protagonist in his novel, would perhaps have been aware that tiktiki, the Bangla word for the lizard, is a code word used for the police informer.

Varma gives the reader a role and we happily become the lizard for who doesnt like watching men make mistakes (mistakes, mind you, Varma wont let you think of them as errors) and clicking their tongues like lizards?

Abir Ganguly, 23, works in a Bombay tabloid called The Afternoon Mail. One night, called by the police to cover an arrest, he hears the sound of bullets and then the scream of a girl. Asked by his editor to turn this bare report into a human interest story, he meets the young daughter of the victim, a Muslim who is falsely implicated by the police. This book, in spite of the babble of journalists and policemen and the sounds of computers and bullets, is the touching story of this young man and woman. And theirs is a love story, one that begins, significantly, without the visual semantics of the body; it is a story of sounds, beginning with Muneeza, the young girls screaming, and ending with another sound, again in her voice: Hello. The first is a shout against a terrifying closure, a fathers death; the last is the sound of possibility, of a beginning, and for Abir the word comes to have greater resonance than even, say, the word love.

Structured in short, crisp sections that take care of the attention span of the generation that he writes about, with titles that have the same quotient of curiosity as the second-last frame of a comic strip, and in a language that is fresh off-the-shelf, this is a book that moves neither to the rhythms of clock time nor real time but print-media time. I remembered my deadline ?; I simply had to finish the piece now ?; and occasionally, as if that wasnt enough, someone asks, Youve written your story?

This turns the novel into a story about a story, and it is a technique that works well: the notebook, the dictaphone and the tape recorder, all props in the drama about story-making, are, of course, technologys versions of the lizard on the wall. But they are also, like the lizard, emblems of the human urge to record, and of the human potential to turn facts into fiction and fiction to facts, both a part of the story-telling process. Here Varma hits the Pause key: isnt this what News has become today?

Dont ask for a free bookmark when you buy this book. You wont need any. For you will read it one breath, like you do a tabloid!

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