People: Q & A with Vikas Swarup
Diplomat and author Vikas Swarup (of Slumdog Millionaire fame) is the new spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Recently in Atlanta, he spoke to Khabar about his social thrillers, Slumdog’s reception in India, creativity and marketing, what he thinks of literary fiction, books vs. films, and India’s challenges.
“Weekend Writer” is what Vikas Swarup calls himself—for that’s when the busy diplomat finds enough time to pen his novels, which so far include the debut Q & A, Six Suspects, and The Accidental Apprentice. Another tag for him could be “Accidental Author.” Because Swarup, who never aspired to be a writer, didn’t know if his first novel, written in just two months, would ever see the light of day. Not only was Q & A snapped up for the silver screen even before it was published, but Slumdog Millionaire—in Danny Boyle’s razzle-dazzle film adaptation—was such a big success that it turned Swarup into a celebrity. And talk about life imitating art. Just as Jamal Malik in the film (named Ram Mohammad Thomas in Q & A) attains riches and fame overnight after winning a quiz show, Swarup’s fortunes changed the night after Slumdog Millionairebagged an astonishing eight Oscars.
Of course, Swarup’s life couldn’t be more different from that of his rags-to-raja protagonist, despite the empathetic portrayal in Q & A. While the illiterate yet street-smart Ram Mohammad Thomas graduated from the School of Hard Knocks, Swarup is an officer of the elite Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Educated in Allahabad, he has served in various countries (including the U.S.) over two decades and was India’s Consul-General in Osaka-Kobe, Japan, and the Joint Secretary in Delhi (United Nations – Political).
Does Swarup feel saddled by the label “Slumdog Millionaire author”—which is limiting, not to mention a little misleading, overshadowing his other accomplishments as a writer and diplomat? No. He knows it can be helpful even in his day job. Foreigners are more eager to listen to him, for instance. But Swarup tells his hosts that he’s there to talk about India, although he’d be glad to take questions about Slumdog Millionaire in the Q & A session. For Vikas Swarup, to put it another way, Jai Ho comes only after Jai Hind.
Salman Rushdie, when he was in Atlanta, said that the film adaptation of Midnight’s Children was more like a relative or first cousin of his novel. So, can we say the same about Slumdog Millionaire, which is somewhat different from your novel [Q & A]?
[Rushdie] wrote the screenplay, so why is it a first cousin? Actually it’s his son! Look, I’d put it this way. The USP [Unique Selling Point] of the book [Q & A] was really the narrative structure. It was a new way of telling a story. I am revealing the private life of my hero through the public spectacle of a quiz show. And the format was the Q & A format—there is a question and there is an answer. How does he answer that particular question because of the life experiences that he’s had? What [the filmmakers] changed was some of the individual stories. They took three or four stories and they added some new stories of their own. I had no big quarrel with that. Of course, I think a couple of things were lost in translation. One of the most important was that my hero was called Ram Mohammad Thomas. It became Jamal Malik [in the film]. He’s a very particular Muslim from a particular locality. Whereas Ram Mohammad Thomas is universal…he literally embodies the microcosm of India.
Well, that’s a great point, because [the name] is so representative of the ethos of India—which is multireligious, multicultural, multilingual. But these days—just switching a little—people are worried that some elements in India are trying to impose a monolithic identity. There’s some turmoil, minorities are worried…
Let’s not forget I’m here in my capacity as a writer. I’m also a civil servant and I will not be able to comment on these kinds of sensitive subjects. Suffice it to say, I think India is too vibrant a democracy for anything to be imposed upon it. I think all schools of thought will always coexist and contend with each other in India. And that’s the way India has always been, that’s the way India will always be.
Slumdog Millionaire was a hit in the West and it won eight Oscars, but in India the reception was more mixed. Even the term “slumdog” didn’t translate well, with some saying, ‘Why are you calling us dogs?’ And some scenes were controversial.
Initially in fact the reception was hostile, I’d say. But once it won all those Oscars, then the reception in India also changed completely. The [Indian] parliament felicitated the artistes, the President of India held a reception. The shit scene was controversial, and also the communal violence scene, which is not there in the book. But I think, largely, the controversy stems from the fact that Indians are sensitive about the way their country is portrayed by foreigners. If a Bollywood director comes along and does whatever, even worse things about India, nobody bats an eyelid. But because a foreigner is interpreting India for the world and also Indian audiences, Indians feel a bit sensitive about that. But I think Danny Boyle’s heart was in the right place—he had no intention of denigrating India or anything like that. And I always say it is not a documentary on slum life; the slums are mainly a backdrop for a compelling human story of courage and determination. And why do people focus only on the slumdog part? Why not also on the millionaire part?
In India you have this “IIT-IIM” school of writing—Chetan Bhagat, Amish Tripathi, Ravi Subramaniam, and so on. Then you have the “IFS-IAS” school of writing—like yourself, Upamanyu Chatterjee, and Pavan Varma. So what drove you—because you weren’t a writer for a long time? Did you want to comment on social issues?
I came to writing really very late in my life—in my forties, in fact. I was happy being a reader. It was only when I was posted in London that the writing bug bit me. It’s such a hub for English language publishing, and also, you mentioned this IFS school of writing. That acted as an inspiration to me because I said, if they can write, can I also write? I took it as a challenge, a top secret project that only I knew about. As I said, I call myself a very lucky writer in that I hit the bull’s-eye with the first novel.
And you finished it in two months. But it must have been gestating for a while, right?
No, I’d say the idea came to me maybe six months before I started writing. And you asked me whether the idea was to comment on social issues. No. I’m not a social reformer in the mold of Dayanand Saraswati or Raja Rammohan Roy or someone like that. At the same time I also feel it’s important that the novel should go under the surface and talk about some serious issues. [The protagonist] Ram Mohammad Thomas is a waiter, he is an orphan, he doesn’t have a family, he has not had a formal education. It is not a swanky five-star lifestyle. It is a lifestyle of misery, of drudgery, of poverty, of penury. I had to lead the narrative through these dark territories, but eventually the message of the novel is—there is light at the end of the tunnel, that somebody who has been given no chance in life can succeed. That’s an optimistic, uplifting message.
Your novels are fun, no doubt, but they are also fanciful. Have you ever been tempted to write literary fiction?
The genre that they fit in is called commercial thriller. I call it social thriller. If by literary fiction, you mean that I should describe a sunrise in three paragraphs—then no, I’m not interested in that kind of thing. I believe that literary fiction for the sake of literary…you know, some novels I read look like they are meant only to attract prizes! There is no storytelling intent behind those novels at all. I see myself not so much as a writer but as a storyteller. And for me, the story is supreme. When the reader is picking up my novel, then the reader is investing time and money into my novel. What’s the difference between an airport thriller and, let’s say, a social thriller of the kind I write? In an airport thriller, the plot is everything. Once the plot is revealed, you have no further need to engage with the novel and you throw it away. Whereas in a novel which has deeper characterization, the characters remain with you and that is the kind of novel that people want to keep on their bookshelf and want to return to. That’s the kind of novel I want to write. Of course, all three of my novels have been plot driven, but they are also character studies.
Does the story give rise to characters or do the characters come from people you have seen in real life or in the news?
People find some echoes of some personalities [but] I don’t need to base my characters on real life people because, as I said, I can create characters who are intrinsically interesting in themselves. You take a certain archetype and you invest that archetype with different characteristics. For instance, in Six Suspects there are six characters. There is a movie actress who is a sex bimbo but who is also a student of Nietzsche. There is a Munna Mobile who is a mobile phone thief but who is also capable of altruism. So it’s not just black and white; the whole idea of Six Suspects was that the world is grey. Q & A was more black and white. Ram Mohammad Thomas is the archetype of the good guy. Most of the other characters are archetypes of people who wear masks, who do not reveal their true selves.
Your most recent novel, The Accidental Apprentice—with Sapna Sinha—sometimes seems like a parody of management theories.
I wouldn’t call it a parody; it’s my own take on management jargon. It’s really a take on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The Four Keys to Success, and things like that. So I wanted to twist the genre a little. It’s a coming-of-age narrative where Sapna Sinha starts off thinking she wants this particular thing in life but by the end of the novel she has discovered herself and she has discovered that her joy lies in something else. Again, the idea through these seven tests that she undergoes is to range over a vast swath of Indian territory, to look at different facets of India. I was very influenced by the impact of reality television, for instance. How it’s corrupting our youth completely. How everybody is seduced by this 15 minutes of fame. Get on to a reality show, take off your clothes, or lose your morals or whatever, and you get instantly famous. The whole idea of there being some talent which gives you that limelight has been divorced from it. Talent has nothing to do with being famous any longer!
In one of your talks you said curiosity, confidence, and the computer made you a writer. In my thinking, you left out another “C,” which is creativity.
No, I say that the bedrock of creativity is formed by the three C’s. In order to be creative, you have to be curious. And in order to create, you have to have confidence in your product. And in order to be creative, you have to know the work of others, which means the computer comes in for the research. Creativity is the final product. The point I make in my talks is that everybody is creative. Because there is this philosophy and school of thought which says that creativity is a rarefied ability restricted only to artists, inventors, poets, and philosophers. The common man does not have creativity, the common man is too tied down with the mundane things of life in order to be creative. I say no, everybody has that talent—that latent talent is there. Only thing is, in some people it remains dormant all their lives. In some, it can surface. And in order to make it surface you have to reorient the antenna of your mind and channel creative impulses. Receive creative impulses and channel them. For that, the three C’s are necessary.
But at the same time—and I think you have mentioned this too—in the digital age, everybody is a content producer.
That’s what I’m saying. Earlier we were downloaders. Earlier we were only consumers. Now we can all be creators because those platforms are available. Earlier, supposing a writer has written 10 novels and all the novels were rejected—what does he do? He puts them in his drawer and either commits suicide or says, ‘Okay, I’m going to give up writing.’ Now he can send them straight to Amazon and do the 70/30 deal.
So you’re saying gatekeepers are less important?
Yes! Gatekeepers are less important. Marketing is still important.
I see your point, but at the same time, there are people who need curators. What about arbiters of taste? That’s why we read book reviews.
That’s a problem in India right now. So much is being published that all of it is not of consistent quality. And you need some filters. Eventually let the consumer be the final judge of that. At least content is available. Whether that content is good or bad, only readers would be able to judge. Those who have the discretion of learning from a large pool of literature, they can separate the good literature from the bad. But if you read only one kind of literature, then it’s the frog in the well syndrome, and you think that’s the universe. Look, I’m not saying that you self-publish. I’m saying you try to publish. And that’s why I say that peer review is important. Testing is important. And then, if you cannot get a publisher, go and do self-publishing. Put it on Amazon, put it on a blog. Put it on YouTube. I call it the democratization of culture.
“I don’t want people to feel that the work [as a diplomat] is now less important for me and this other career [as a writer] is more important,” noted Vikas Swarup in Atlanta, where he spoke at events hosted by Emory University and the Indian-American community. (Photo: Hakim’s Studio).
You have this day job [as a diplomat], so you are a weekend writer. How do you juggle these multiple commitments?
I have to make compromises because, for me, the work comes first. I receive about 25-30 invitations a year—from various IITs, international festivals. I accept only two or three. There also I have to give them caveats. You’re buying a ticket but please buy a refundable ticket because if at the last minute the Prime Minister is going somewhere and I need to travel with him, then I cannot say, ‘Sorry sir, I’m going to Emory.’ The government does not put any fetters on you in the sense that you don’t even need the government’s permission to publish a book. That’s the great thing. But at the same time, if you abuse that license—that liberty—then you are digging a hole for yourself, because tomorrow you will be discounted as a civil servant. People will feel, ‘Oh, this guy is now only interested in his writing, he is not interested in his work.’
You’ve been a big reader since your childhood. You’ve also mentioned that you like serious novels by writers like J. M. Coetzee and Munshi Premchand. But what about movies?
I watch a lot of movies. I’m a great fan of science fiction…Star Wars...because there also there’s so much creativity. For instance, The Truman Show. It was such a unique concept, to create a television show which follows this guy from his birth to adulthood, and this guy does not know he is a star in a sitcom! Such an incredibly beautiful premise on which to set a novel. Sometimes movies can also be inspiring. Of course, I’m not a great fan of movies in the sense they are one-way transmission. They are just beaming into you. Whereas in a book, you read the text and you create the image in your head and you imagine the hero in the likeness of yourself.
What about the two novels that have been optioned?
Six Suspects…well, it’s been a bit of a tragedy in the sense that they have extended the option six times and they want to extend it for a seventh time. I’m finally going to call time on that and say, ‘Look, maybe it’s time to walk away from that project and allow me to give it to someone else.’ And with The Accidental Apprentice, I’m in the happy situation of having both a Hollywood deal and a Bollywood deal. The Hollywood deal is with BBC Worldwide, who will do it in L.A. And the Bollywood deal is with Sriram Raghavan, the director who most recently did Badlapur. He has been wanting to do the Hindi version of Q & A, but the rights were not with me, so he couldn’t do it. I’m very happy that finally we’ll have a chance to work together.
You live in Delhi, which has become a global city. It’s arguably the most vibrant city in India, although Bombayites might disagree. But at the same time, it’s become known for other reasons. Sexual violence, pollution…and not just in Delhi. [Delhi is the world’s most polluted city, according to a 2014 WHO report.] India is progressing, it’s being noticed, a lot of people are prospering. But is India paying too high a price for this rapid modernization and urbanization?
You’re right. I think 90 percent of the pollution in Delhi is vehicular pollution. And the problem is Delhi has more cars than Mumbai, Calcutta, and Chennai combined. I believe 400-500 new cars enter Delhi every day! Now eventually where will these cars go? So I think the government will have to look seriously at some kind of a congestion tax or this kind of alternative numbers—one day odd numbers, one day even numbers—the kind of measures that London has taken, that Singapore has taken, that other cities have taken. I think the government is serious about that. The Supreme Court took a path-breaking decision to convert the entire fleet of Delhi buses to CNG, which is now the largest green fleet in the world. So it’s not as if these problems exist and we have buried our head in the sand and we are not conscious about it. I think now you have these monitors which tell you the air quality and when it is reaching the emergency level, etc. And the AAP government [in Delhi] is now very serious about tackling this. The genius of India has always lain in the fact that we have been able to find solutions to the most pressing problems.
Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar.