Interview with Spot

Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup on his literary career and the Manila vibe

Published: Nov 23, 2010 slumdog millionaire If Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup were to win a million dollars, he would go on a five-star vacation in the Philippines, Swarup said at a recent book discussion at National Book Store in Glorietta 5. The eloquent and humorous Indian diplomat did not set out to become an author, but after a series of very fortunate events, his first novel (originally published as Q&A) was adapted into a blockbuster and award-winning movie. It has also been translated into 43 languages. He has not given up on being a diplomat to become a writer, and has chosen instead to straddle both professions. Now, he has released his second book, Six Suspects, which he wanted to be “as different from Q&A as possible.” Inspired by a true-to-life murder case, the book focuses on six individuals suspected of killing a minister’s son, who has been acquitted from charges of murdering a bartender that refused to serve him a drink. The book is currently being made into a movie co-produced by the BBC. In the book discussion facilitated by local author Jessica Zafra, Swarup talks about being a quiz show enthusiast, churning out the Slumdog Millionaire book in just two months, and rescuing foreign nationals in a war-ridden country. Why did you choose to write a story based on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I grew up in an era where we did not even have television. There was no Internet and no cable TV... I used to take part in quiz shows... To me, the thing about Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was how it changed the rules of the game, so to speak. When I was a quizzer, they asked me a question, and I gave an answer. If I did not know the answer, I tried to guess. But now, everything became about money. It’s not whether you know the answer or not. It’s whether you know the value of money or not. And you can sense that even in the reaction of the audience. If somebody’s sitting on, let’s say, P100,000 and (gets the next question wrong), people will say, 'What an idiot.' That’s what motivated me to write the story based on a quiz show but with a contestant who does not aspire to appear on the show for the money. In fact, he has not even gone to school. I thought that’s the best antidote to this kind of rampant commercialism promoted by this game show. If you were to join Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, do you think you would win? The first questions would definitely be about popular culture in India, which I would not be able to answer. What would be your first big purchase? Probably a nice five-star vacation on a Philippine island. It's your first time in Manila; what do you think of the city? The architecture looks very similar to Delhi. The temperature is very similar to Delhi. The people--I do not feel like I am a stranger. That, I think, is the test of every foreign country you visit. There are some countries where people stare at you like you landed from Mars. Here, I just blended in with the locals... This is one of the advantages of being in an English-speaking country... I would love to have the opportunity to be posted here as a diplomat. You were very fortunate as a writer. Sometimes, it really seems like a fairy tale. In Britain in 2003, I wrote (Q&A) in two months (because my wife) had gone back to India with my children. I was all alone. I did not have the comfort of my lovely wife and my children when I came home from work. But it also meant I had no distractions. I wrote mainly on weekends and researched during weekdays... I was the main officer reporting on the Iraq war at the time so I could not take a leave of absence to write a novel... One weekend, believe it or not, I wrote 20,000 words. Were there any negative reactions when the book came out? Surprisingly, no. When the book came out, there were no criticisms at all; people, in fact, related to the story. They realized that the book was not a documentary on slum life. The slumdogs are the backdrop to a compelling human drama of a luckless orphan who battles insurmountable odds and emerges a winner... It was only when the film came out in 2008 that the criticism started. It started with the name, Slumdog Millionaire. I asked Simon Beaufoy, the screenplay writer, what made him choose the word slumdog. He said, "I was walking in a slum in Mumbai, just trying to research and soak in the atmosphere. I saw a dog and, of course, I was in a slum. I remembered the word 'underdog' because you mentioned it, and I combined the two." But people in India took it the other way; many of them did not know the word "underdog." They said, "We live in a slum, this movie is called Slumdog, so that's why we’re dogs." They even filed a case against Simon and (the director Danny Boyle) in the courts in India, saying that by calling the movie Slumdog, they have denigrated everybody living in a slum, and they have called us all dogs. Obviously the judge dismissed the case. But these people didn’t give up; they bought two dogs and called them "Simon" and "Danny." (Laughs)   There were some changes when the book was turned into a movie. A friend of mine living in America, whom I’ve not spoken to in, like, 15 years, called me up almost at midnight and said, "Something interesting has happened and you need to take action. I just saw a movie and they’ve lifted the entire plot from your novel. I’m telling you. They’ve lifted it frame by frame and it’s exactly the same. You’d better file a case, man, or you’re going to lose.” He obviously didn’t stay 'til the credits. So you see, the strength of this novel is not the story so much as the structure. This was a new way of telling a story in which the private life of my protagonist is revealed through a public spectacle… Simon was very clear from the beginning that he wanted a story of two brothers. Ram Mohammad Thomas is one, but you can't have two brothers who have three religions in their names... (The film people) felt it would be more politically correct to have a Muslim rather than a Hindu name. For me, that was unfortunate. In a time of ethnic and religious conflict, Ram's name stands for tolerance and harmony… He is very Indian and he combines the microcosm of India in his name… I accepted the change because I realized that every medium has its own vocabulary and texture. Were you compensated well for the movie's success? The film people approached me in 2004, when the book was not even published yet. They took a huge gamble on the book; they had no idea if it will sell at all... This movie was made with a budget of $15 million. As of last Saturday (November 13), it has made like $400 million. I will not see those $400 million. But for me, the important thing is the book got a second life. It was able to reach a much wider readership. That has added to my royalties from the book sales so I’m not complaining. The only thing is, Q&A will be forever known as Slumdog Millionaire but I suppose that’s the cross I have to bear. Tell us about your new book, Six Suspects. Q&A is a safe book, in which there is a hero who is a very lovable and goody-goody person you can fall in love with and follow from the beginning to the end. At the end of the book, the reader gets a sense of satisfaction. Six Suspects is not a safe book; it is a subversive book in the sense that there is no one character you can fall in love with. The challenge for me as a writer was how to make these characters interesting enough for you to turn the page. I wanted to experiment with the narrative voice and structure… Six people are discovered with guns at the place of a murder. They are arrested and become the six suspects. The book is really about the back story of these suspects. I wanted the back stories to sort of represent the complex reality in which we live in. The stories are told in first person and third person; some through a diary entry or a telephone call transcript. I had to write within the framework of a murder investigation so the headings of the sections in my book are "Murder," "Suspects, "Motives," "Evidence," "Solution," and finally "Confession." How different was the writing process between Q&A and Six Suspects? You get lucky only once so this did not take two months; it took more like two years. The second book is always the most difficult to write--there's the "second book syndrome"--especially when the first book has become such a big success. The pressure on the second book is much more. Vikas Swarup If you were to choose between being a diplomat and being a writer, which one would you pick? Well, right now, I call myself a diplomat who writes. And that’s really the best way, I think, for me to continue. First of all, I’ve only written two novels, not 20. I’m not an established writer. More importantly, I enjoy my job. I think it’s a great time to be an Indian diplomat when the whole world is courting India. We are having eight to nine percent growth rate even during the global recession. Being in this day job (means) I don’t have to worry about my bread and butter coming from my next novel. Would you ever write about your diplomatic career? Some say diplomacy is 30 percent protocol and 70 percent alcohol. (Laughs) Some people think diplomats just kiss the hands of the queens. No, diplomats also have very interesting experiences. I was posted in Ethiopia when a war was going on between Ethiopia and Eritrea. I was sent down to Eritrea to rescue the foreign nationals stranded there. I had to find a plane in the heart of Africa--next to impossible. I managed to find an airline from Somalia. There were a lot of negotiations; they wanted $250,000 in a steel bag at the airport. I have had these kinds of experiences that could go into a novel but I think the world of fiction that I create is probably more interesting than the diplomatic trivia of my day job. I would rather stick to this completely invented world. But look, even if I write fiction, it is inspired by things that are happening in real life. No writer writes in a vacuum.