From street to CEO seat with ‘Slumdog’ author
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 September, 2014, 1:28pm
The opening line of The Accidental Apprentice, the third and latest novel by Vikas Swarup, reads: “In life you never get what you deserve: you get what you negotiate.” Through the world of corporate business, Swarup tells the coming-of-age story of the novel’s narrator – a 21st-century version of the Cinderella story in which, he says, “instead of Prince Charming, Cinderella is offered the CEO-ship of a US$10 billion company”. Swarup, who has worked as a diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for 28 years, shot to international acclaim after his debut novel, Q&A , was made into the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire . His latest book questions the stereotype that to be successful in the corporate world, an executive must have a formal education. Swarup spoke to Ajay Singh about his writing career and why he believes the qualities required to become a top CEO aren’t very different from what it takes to succeed in everyday life.
What’s the background to ?
When I was looking for a subject for my third book, it struck me that old books such as The Prince by Machiavelli and Arthashastra, the ancient Indian treatise on statecraft, talked about the attributes of a good king. Today, most business books talk about the attributes of a good CEO. In fact, CEOs have become the equivalents of kings. So I thought it would be an interesting premise to set a story in the world of business – but with a total greenhorn as the protagonist who gets a tantalising offer to become the CEO of a company.
What do you think are some of the qualities required to become a good CEO?
The point I am trying to make in the book is that the qualities you need to succeed in business are the same qualities you need to succeed in life – resourcefulness, decisiveness, integrity, courage.
How did you get the idea for Q&A?
The basic idea was to show that the best teacher in the world is life itself. We have this latent conceit that only those who go to schools, universities and read English have the tools to crack life. But I have always been tremendously impressed by the knowledge and wisdom of ordinary people – those who have not gone to school but have opinions about everything and know what is right and wrong. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have a school education; I’m saying don’t deride people who have had an education from the school of hard knocks.
Why do you think has been accused of pandering to Western audiences by highlighting India’s poverty and misery?
These criticisms were levelled against the film, not the book, which came out in 2005 under the title Q&A and had a fairly successful run. Indians are sensitive about how they are depicted, especially by foreigners. A lot of people got agitated by the [foreign-made] film, whose very title had the words “slum” and “dog” built into it. There was even a court case against the film, saying the Slumdog Millionaire title labelled everybody living in a slum as a dog. I personally think all the criticism was misplaced. Neither the book nor the film is a documentary on slum life. If anything, they tell a story of courage and human determination.
Was there something about contemporary India that inspired your book?
One of my inspirations was a project by a group of computer scientists called “The Hole in the Wall”. They wanted to see if people could learn just from curiosity. The scientists worked at the National Institute of Information Technology in New Delhi, and next to their campus was the sprawling Kalkaji slum. They literally carved a hole in the wall that separated the campus from the slum and put a freely accessible computer with a touch screen facing the slum. They discovered that within three months, children living in the slum had started using the computer. When I read about this I was amazed. These were kids who never went to school, didn’t know a word of English. So I thought that if a slum kid could start using a computer, a slum kid could also participate in a quiz and win. The issue was how do I execute the idea – I had no training as a writer. I was primarily a reader. I asked myself what kind of writing would I like to read. And I found that I wanted to write a thriller, but that I also wanted to touch aspects of society in my writing. That’s why I call my books social thrillers.
Do you have much spare time to write in the foreign service?
No. I would go to the office every day and do my normal work until 5.30 or 6pm. Then I would come home and do my research because I was writing about subjects I had no personal knowledge of – betting on cricket matches, life in a juvenile home, young tribal girls sold into prostitution. So from Monday to Friday, I would do my research and on the weekends I would write. I only wrote this novel [ Q&A] on weekends. Believe it or not, I wrote it in just two months.