By Parisa Pichitmarn
Published: Dec 3, 2012
By Parisa Pichitmarn, Reporter
Reflecting home, from a distance
Two Indian writers, Amitav Ghosh and Vikas Swarup, were in town recently to participate in the Bharatasamay International Conference at Chulalongkorn University. Discussing the issues of language, history, movies and globalisation, the two literati talked to Life in exclusive interviews
Vikas Swarup is best known for his global hit novel Q&A, which became an even bigger hit in 2008 when Danny Boyle made it into an Oscar-winning film, Slumdog Millionaire.
Swarup, a full-time diplomat, has a possible best-seller up his sleeve as next year he’s releasing a new book in the genre he terms “social thriller”.
Also set in India, The Accidental Apprentice is about a 23-year-old sales clerk, Sapna Sinha, who’s approached by an elderly billionaire that wants to make her the next CEO of his company. She insists that she doesn’t have the qualifications, but there is something in her eye - a combination of determination and desperation - that has attracted one of India's wealthiest men. She will become the heir of his empire only on one condition: she has to pass seven tests.
Recently we sat down with Swarup and asked him about seven things that make up his life - from his writing technique, books being made into movies, to the English language as adopted by Indian writers.
What is it like to live the life of a writer as well as a diplomat?
Right now I am the Consul-General of India in Osaka, Japan. My day job keeps me busy, so writing is something I do in my spare time. I call myself a weekend writer - I only write on weekends. Regardless, I’m not a professional writer and I don’t have to rush for any deadlines - I write as a hobby.
My life changed a bit after Slumdog Millionaire came out. I guess for writers it’s a bad thing, because it’s a cross you have to bear forever - as the writer who wrote Slumdog Millionaire, and not Q&A.
There was this celebrity worshipping phase, which I’m happy is over with. I was actually mobbed in my hometown and people on the streets would recognise me. But the great thing about being a writer is you can have your anonymity.
Tom Cruise can’t go onto the streets without 10,000 people piling onto him. I can interact with my readers at literary gatherings and I can pass within 10 inches of others and they wouldn’t know who I am.
How do you write your novels, which are all about India, despite not physically being in India?
I am an Indian. I have an Indian passport and I am a representative of India living abroad. I will always feel connected to India. And with modern means of communication at our disposal, I get the daily news online and I can also watch the TV in real time or on the web. That's the best of both worlds - I have an immediate connection with India in a sense of real-time business and I'm a little removed, so I'm not overwhelmed by the passions of the moment. I believe it's the perfect distance.
I can see and feel what's happening and I can analyse it in a slightly more dispassionate manner.
The greatness of fiction is it allows you to appropriate characters you don't own yourself. I can write about a Thai woman who works as a journalist for the Bangkok Post, for instance. I may not do it very well - it depends on how much research I do - but nothing stops me. Secondly, it's the quality of empathy. Only our consciousness is what we know, and we can observe what others are doing, but we cannot become them.
I tried to become Ram Mohammed Thomas [the main character in Q&A] not by living in a slum, but by imagining that if I was living in a slum, if I had two rupees and did not know when I was going to get my next meal, how would I feel? There's no other way for me to bridge that big gap between me and my characters. The only way I can is to make that leap of faith into the quality of empathy.
What's your technique in writing your novels?
The best thing is to write from a sense of authenticity for your own audience. I write as an insider for insiders. Outsiders who pick up my book will be able to relate because you want to get a window into India. Otherwise, why else would you buy a book by an Indian writer? If I start writing for the whole world, then I won't be able to use this word or crack that joke because that reader in so-and-so country won't understand it.
I didn't even know I was giving people a window into India until I went to Australia where the readers came up to me and said it gave them a sense of the smells and sounds of India. It hit me because when I was writing, I was not thinking, 'I am going to give people an experience of what the smells, sounds and tastes are'. I was writing as an Indian for Indians.
How do Indian writers adopt, adapt and marshal the English language?
I got this question, too, when I was in Hong Kong, since their country was also a British colony like ours. From my limited perspective, the key is that in Hong Kong, people still think of English as a colonial language. They think of English as a language of the outsiders, which was imposed on them.
English was imposed on us Indians as well, but we thought of looking to it as our language. We don't think of English as a language of colonialism, but as a language of aspiration - one that can get us a better job and a better future. Because we have adopted it as our language, we have become comfortable within the skin of English. There's a sentence in my book saying, 'I'll give you a tight slap'. That doesn't exist in the Queen's English at all. [If] we think English is our language, we then feel that we are capable and have the right to mould it to as we want.
As with your recent success, do you hope your new books become movies?
No, I don't write with an eye on the camera that this will one day be a film. If I did, I wouldn't have written my second book Six Suspects, which is a whodunnit. It's difficult to film because in books you can disguise the murderer, but with a film, it's in your face. I was surprised when Six Suspects was auctioned for a film. The director is going to be Pablo Trapero from Argentina.
Were you happy with the way Q&A became Slumdog Millionaire?
Writers will always have quibbles with the cinematic adaptation of their work. I think it's a great film, the way the package has been put together. But my book is about luck. The film, right from the first frame, is about destiny. For me, destiny is pointless. Whatever the character had said would have been the correct answer, because it had been written. Where is his individual effort? Luck is something you create and that was the message of my book.
Secondly, my hero was called Ram Mohammed Thomas in the book, because I wanted him to represent every street kid in India. In India, the moment you tell your name, you can reveal four or five things about yourself - your religion, your region, and even whether you're vegetarian! The film changed the name and made it more uni-dimensional - Jamal Malik, a Muslim name. He's also using English and accessing Google without really explaining how. In my book, I had to explain that he worked with a priest for six years and learned English there. Movies are always a dumbed-down version of [the original] book.
What's the English-language literary scene like in India?
Twenty years ago, not too many genres existed. There were family sagas, village stories, then the usual thrillers. But now there is science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, college romance, campus novels... the consumer has a greater choice. After Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Things (1997), there has been an explosion for all new kinds of genres and voices. Fifteen years ago, 3,000 was considered a best-seller in a country of a billion. Now 10,000 is a best-seller and more book chains are opening. It's a very exciting phase for Indian fiction.