Interview with Transworld
January 2005 Vikas Swarup Q & A Doubleday • Modern fiction What inspired you to write Q and A? Having been an avid quizzer, I wanted to tap into the global phenomenon of the syndicated, televised quiz show, but in an off-beat way. I had also come across this news report of slum children - who had never read a newspaper, never gone to school - using a mobile internet facility. This led me to juxtapose the quiz show format with the life story of a rather untypical contestant - an eighteen year old penniless waiter living in the biggest slum in Asia. I wanted to show that knowledge is not the preserve of the educated elite and that even a 'street-kid' can possess the wisdom to win a quiz show. Who or what has most influenced your writing? I have read many authors over the years. While I prefer mysteries and thrillers, my reading has been very eclectic - ranging from Albert Camus to Zadie Smith. I would not like to name any specific authors or their works, but, in general, I like stories with a well defined plot and characters that evoke empathy. Subconsciously, what you consider to be good writing does have an influence on you but in terms of writing style, but I don't think you will see echoes of any particular writer in my novel. I have written as only I can write. What do you love most about writing? I think one of the pleasures of writing is to see an entirely fictional character take shape and acquire a life of its own. I feel the biggest challenge for an author is to ensure that there is a degree of congruence between his subjective vision and the reaction of the objective reading public. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? All I can say is: always chase your dreams. If you want to be a writer, then don't get disheartened by the first couple of rejection slips. As I have discovered, it takes just one good agent to help you make your mark in the world. But the important thing is that your product must objectively be good. What are your hobbies or favourite pastimes? I love listening to music, both Indian and Western. My favourite artists are the ghazal singer Jagjit Singh, Pink Floyd, Yanni and Enigma. I also occasionally play table tennis, lawn tennis and cricket. I used to enjoy computer racing games, till my sons started beating me at them! Anyway, this is an academic question only. As Director in-charge of the Office of the Minister of External Affairs, I don't have any free time. Period. What made you start writing? My hyperactive imagination, perhaps. Even as a kid, I always tried to write creatively, specialising in quirky, unusual pieces. I remember, in Grade Six, our Hindi teacher had given us an assignment to write an essay on "Bad Luck." Most of my friends wrote the usual, run-of-the-mill, pieces about black cats crossing their paths. I chose to write about a trio of unlucky thieves in Japan, with names like Akimoto, Kawamata, and Hideyoshi, who finally manage to pull off a bank robbery, only to get trapped in a Tokyo earthquake! How often do you write? I didn't write anything beyond my schooldays, when my last published story was The Autobiography of a Donkey, way back in 1977! So Q and A got published after a gap of 28 years. Hopefully, the next novel won't take that long. Where do you write? Literally, I don't put my thoughts into paper. I type on the computer. So the writing is where the desktop or the laptop is. But I can get ideas anywhere, even in the toilet! What would you be doing if you couldn't be a writer? This is an easy one. I am already a diplomat, I will continue to remain a diplomat! Tell us about your family - what sort of atmosphere did you grow up in? I come from a family of lawyers. My mother and father are both lawyers. My grandfather was a lawyer (he eventually became Solicitor General of India), all my uncles are lawyers and even my aunts. I grew up in a joint family, and with so many lawyers around, conversations at our dinner table centred around two topics only - cases and judges. "Today, this happened in Chamber number 4..." "Tomorrow, that case is being listed before that Judge.." One advantage of growing up in this environment was that I probably became the only seven year old in Allahabad who could spell 'jurisprudence' and 'habeas corpus'! My grandfather had a magnificent library, full of leather bound, gold embossed, volumes of legal books. But he was a man of eclectic tastes and his interests embraced history, philosophy and art as well. Thus a first edition of Hitler's Mein Kampf would be nestling next to Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty. I learnt a lot from him, most importantly, a love of books. Since I grew up in an era without cable TV and the Internet, my favourite pastime was to read, and I devoured everything I could lay my hand on. What did you want to be when you were a boy? In the pre-MTV and pre-ESPN world I inhabited, it never occurred to me to aspire to become a singer or a Formula 1 racer. So, I suppose, like other kids, I must also have dreamt of becoming a pilot or an astronaut. The family profession was, unfortunately, ruled out by my mother who got so fed up with all the lawyers' talk in the house, she gave me and my two brothers an ultimatum: "If any one of my sons becomes a lawyer, I will throw him out of the house." Since I did not want to be hauled up for contempt of court, I decided to choose a career path which skirted clear of law. As Class 11 approached, I had to choose between the arts and science streams. For a while I toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in engineering, but I hated maths and thousand-page tomes such as "The Principles of Theoretical Physics" gave me the jitters. I considered becoming a doctor but unfortunately all the anaesthetised frogs I dissected in biology class tended to die rather ghastly deaths. I knew, then, that I wasn't cut out to be a science graduate. The powers that be in my house had also decided by then that they wanted me to be a civil servant. So I happily took up arts, and graduated with Modern History, Psychology and Philosophy as my subjects. I appeared for the Civil Service Exams and joined the Indian Foreign Service. Neither of my two younger brothers took up law either. The second one became an engineer and the youngest joined Indian Railways. Are you religious? Religion, for me, has always been a personal affair. I do not believe in the need to go to temples or follow any rituals. Being a good human being is what counts. However, never one to lose an opportunity when it presents itself, I dutifully took a dip in the Holy Sangam during the world famous Maha Kumbh Mela in 1977 (reportedly the holiest one in the last 2000 years; it is rarer than Haley's Comet - the next one of that level will come by only after 144 years) and washed off all my sins till then! What are you reading at the moment? I have just finished Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore.