German Press Agency
Feb 20, 2009 Pretoria - With his pin-striped suit and neatly-parted greying hair, Vikas Swarup, author of the novel that spawned the wildly successful Slumdog Millionaire film, makes for an unlikely scribe, much less a chronicler of slum life in India. Reclining in an ox-blood, button-leather sofa in his spacious office in South Africa's capital Pretoria, he admits as much. 'I'm first and foremost a civil servant. Government's interests come first over my personal interests,' India's deputy high commissioner to South Africa says, flashing an even smile. It was late January and Swarup had just returned from the Indian premiere of Slumdog in Mumbai, where Q & A, his best-selling first novel about a boy from a slum who wins a billion rupees on a TV game show, is set and the film was shot. Before that he had been to Britain to watch what one British critic described as 'the first film of the Obama era' cart off seven Baftas - the local Oscar equivalent. And on Saturday he's off to Los Angeles, where Slumdog is gunning 10 more prizes at the 81st Academy Awards, including best picture and best director for Danny Boyle. The runaway success of the film, whose message about the power of individuals to triumph over adversity is being received like manna in the current climate of doom and gloom, has sparked renewed interest in Q & A and its two-hatted author. By day, Swarup, 47, is a diplomat, charged with promoting the burgeoning Asian powerhouse as a desirable place to invest, trade and travel. By night, and at weekends, he delves into a very different but equally 'Incredible India' - an India, where slum kids navigate a perilous world of crooked cops, paedophile priests and men who mutilate kids to increase their begging potential. The sort of stuff, you might say, that could scare tourists and investors. In fact, apart from the protagonist's name - Ram Mohammed Thomas - a name that draws on each of India's three major religions, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity, but was changed in the film to the Muslim- sounding Jamal Malik - there's little 'diplomatic' about Q & A. But that's not to say, says Swarup, that the book is bleak. On the contrary, 'it's a celebration of life, it's about the humanity of these people' he says. And, he notes, 'in the end he (Ram) gets his billion rupees'. The fact that a diplomat can write with impunity about Indian police torturing children is a further reason to fete the world's largest democracy, according to Swarup. But when it came to the film, not everyone agreed that the overriding message was a positive one. The film's title particularly raised the hackles of some in India, who felt 'slumdog', which screenwriter Simon Beaufoy said he intended as a conflation of 'slum' and 'underdog', was a pejorative characterization. Swarup will only say he was consulted about the screenplay, not the title. 'I want to keep my distance from that controversy,' he says, ever the diplomat. He was, he admits, surprised at the intensity of the reaction to the film, for which he is fulsome in praise. 'That's inevitable when something succeeds in the way Slumdog has,' he says. For fans of India's authors, like Salman Rushdie or Arundhati Roy, renowned for their rich, evocative prose, one of the most striking things about Q & A is its much more prosaic style. The simple language, almost devoid of metaphor, is deliberate, says Swarup. Because the book is Ram's retelling of his experiences that provided the answers to 12, billion-dollar quiz questions, it had to have the immediacy of an oral account, he says. As a slum boy, he also cannot speak in a very educated voice - a point made by some Indian viewers of the film, who found the British lead actor's English 'too English.' With two novels behind him (the second is a whodunnit called Six Suspects), a third in the making and requests pouring in from Bollywood for film scripts, Swarup could think about giving up the day job. At present, the father of two teenagers tries to squeeze in two hours of writing, from 6 am to 8 am, after seeing his children off on the schoolbus to Johannesburg. He also writes at the weekends. Q & A was produced in that way - in two months flat, in London. But 22 years in the diplomatic service have a way of making a man cautious. 'Writing is a hobby, it's not a career for me,' says Swarup. 'I prefer the security of my day job.'