The Diplomatic Writer: A Conversation with Vikas Swarup
by Sankalita Shome, Daily News Egypt
16 November 2009
It is like stepping from a dark room into the arc lights,” says Vikas Swarup, the author of the book “Q& A” on which the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” is based, describing his two distinct and often contradictory worlds of a diplomat and an author.
Swarup’s life story reads much like the incredible plot of his novels. Born into a family of lawyers, he joined the Indian Foreign Service, then wrote his first novel at a frenetic pace in just two months to become a bestseller turned into an Oscar-award winning film by a British director.
Currently in Cairo, he is sharing the platform with eminent filmmakers as a member of the jury of the digital film competition at the 33rd Cairo International Film Festival.
A lifetime maybe insufficient to play these roles, but Swarup revels in the unbelievable path that his career has taken recently.
His spectacular debut novel opens in a jail cell in Mumbai, India, where Ram Mohammad Thomas is being held after correctly answering all 12 questions on India’s biggest quiz show, “Who Will Win a Billion?”
“Once I had the first line of the book, I had the voice of the narrative and the rest was easy,” says Swarup of the trials and tribulations of writing a first book.
“Q&A” has been translated into 42 languages now, including Arabic. “It is the classic underdog story that translates well across all cultures,” Swarup explains the stupendous success of the book. What works for the book is the unique manner in which Swarup tells the story about the episodes in Ram’s life that gave him the answer to each question.
The movie “Slumdog Millionaire” differs from the book in many aspects, starting with the title of the film. But Swarup is unperturbed with this divergence from the book. “If someone is converting a book into a film, they should have the right of bringing something of theirs to the table, as long as the book is being interpreted in a creative manner and with integrity.”
Prod him further about the one aspect that he would definitely like to have retained in the film version and he says it is the name of the main protagonist as Ram Mohammed Thomas, which borrows from the three main religions of India.
“Our names reveal so many things about us and I wanted my protagonist to represent each and every street kid in India and that is why I gave him this name. His name is emblematic of India and that is one important point that I was making that in this era of divisiveness and disharmony, you can have someone who coalesces in himself the deep diversity of India.”
However, he reiterates that he has no regrets on how the film turned out. “Who would have thought that the film would have been such a success?”
Though the book was much appreciated in India, its theatrical release was met with a lot of flak for its depiction of squalor and accused of peddling poverty to the west. Responding to the criticism, Sawarup says, “I don’t feel defensive about ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ at all; ultimately it is a story about hope and optimism. India is too vast a country for a book or film to seek to represent it in its entirety.”
“Eventually the image that this film leaves in the minds of the viewer is that India is a dynamic place. It is the passion, resilience and dynamism of the Indian psyche that leaves the lasting impact,” continues Swarup.
Books vs. films
While comparing books to films, Swarup says that a book is much richer; a writer has many devices at his disposal like the interior monologues, the ruminations, etc. He agrees with J.W Eagan who said, “Never judge a book by its movie.”
“A film can only reduce a book, never exceed it,” says Swarup.
Commenting on the increasing trend of adapting books into films, Swarup feels that filmmakers are attracted to a book because the whole plot is already there and they can choose what to take and what to leave.
But he also feels that this is the best possible solution for a writer. Since “Slumdog Millionaire” is not a frame by frame reproduction of the book, but at best creative interpretation of the book, people have actually enjoyed both the book and the movie.
His second book “Six Suspects” is a murder mystery and is a polyphonic narrative, where six people are talking in six different idioms and voices. All the six characters are flawed and for Swarup, the challenge is in making them endearing enough for the reader to want to read about them.
He is candid enough to say that he knew that “Six Suspects” would not be as commercially successful as “Q&A” and describes his debut novel as a “safe” book. He might be proved wrong with “Six Suspects,” which has already been translated into 21 languages and BBC has acquired the film rights.
While writing his first book, he took a calculated decision to write about society but at the same time placed his story in the thriller genre. He describes his books as a “socio-thrillers.”
Swarup rues the fact that sometimes people dismiss thriller writers as non literary, because “writing a book that has a plot and has a punch at the end is much more difficult than writing about a conversation between two people.”
Both his novels are set in India and Swarup admits to being inspired by “the billion stories of the billion Indian people.”
“If you pick up an Indian newspaper for a single day and read all the stories therein, they can lead to several subplots,” he says.
Daphne Du Maurier had said that “authors should be read, neither seen nor heard”. But Swarup disagrees. “Today the author has to be a performer for his publisher; he must talk about his work and be heard.”
He is enjoying his stint as a member of a film jury and feels that the digital era marks the democratization of movie making. But he has a word of caution about maintaining quality, since the lower cost of making a digital movie means that it can be attempted by all.
“More people know me as the writer than as the diplomat,” says Swarup and agrees that it opens certain doors for him. However, he is also unequivocal in his intention of continuing as a diplomat as he feels that this is the best time to represent India. “I will not give it up for the world,” he concludes.