The Asahi Shimbun Interview
Vikas Swarup's Novel Offers Deeper Look at Slumdog's India By Hiroshi Matsubara, Asahi Weekly Published in Asahi Weekly, March 22, 2009 While "Slumdog Millionaire" spotlighted one of the world's most rapidly developing countries, Indian novelist Vikas Swarup said his book "Q&A," the basis of the Oscar-winning film, offers deeper insights into today's India and the mentality of its 1.1 billion people. For example, the 47-year-old writer, who visited Japan earlier this month to promote the Japanese version of "Q&A," pointed out that the film's protagonist, Jamal Malik, an orphan from a Mumbai slum, succeeds on India's biggest quiz show by "destiny," which is a rather sentimental device. "But the book is about the luck, and there is a big difference between destiny and luck, and a point I was trying to make (in the book) is that you create your own luck," Swarup said during an interview with Asahi Weekly. In today's India, "even the people at the very bottom of the social ladder are striving to make a better life for themselves, and that is why they cannot be sentimental, because sentimentalism means that you have accepted your situation in life and you cannot get out of it," Swarup said. The 2005 book, the first novel by Swarup, a career diplomat, has become a worldwide bestseller, being translated into 41 languages. The Japanese paperback edition, "Boku to Ichi-rupi no Kamisama" (Me and the God of 1-Rupee Coin), was published in February. "To be very honest, I was very apprehensive about this novel, because so far novels about India are novels about exotic India. And here is the novel, which is really about the underbelly of India," said Swarup, who currently serves as India's deputy high commissioner to South Africa. "I only thought when I was writing that this is a novel which can only appeal to people in India. This has been the biggest surprise that now this book has gone into so many different translations." During his six-day visit in Japan, Swarup got the surprising news that he had been appointed to be consul general of the Consulate General of India in Osaka, starting this summer. The author said that he hopes to find some time in Japan to write, "if Osaka does not keep me very busy." In "Q&A," the protagonist's name is not Jamal but Ram Mohammad Thomas. Narrated in the first person, the novel follows Ram's life as he explains to his sympathetic lawyer, just how he managed to answer 12 random questions in the quiz show by "luck." He goes on to tell how he could answer the recondite questions by drawing from the experiences of his own turbulent and sometimes cruel life as a penniless orphan. The author said that he was partly inspired by the Hole in the Wall project, which provided an Internet-accessible computer to children in an Indian slum. Researchers later found that they had started logging onto the Web without first-hand knowledge of information technology, Swarup said. "I think partly the motivation was I wanted to show that the knowledge is not the preserve of the educated elite, and to explore that God gives the same mental makeup to everyone," the author said. "I wanted my protagonist to be an ultimate underdog," who is "really from the bottom of social ladder and not expected to win at all." And despite his extreme luck, Ram is "not a unique character," in the minds of residents of Mumbai, India's largest commercial city and the book's primary setting, Swarup said. "We all know that achievers are few and underachievers are many more, and that is a rule of life everywhere," he said. "But the important thing is that (some) people have made it from the bottommost level, and Mumbai is full of these kinds of stories." One uniqueness that audience may notice in Ram and his film counterpart, Jamal, is their neutral observations and often detached perspectives into rapidly developing Indian society and its abundant social problems, such as the widening economic disparity. It may be this "outsider" perspective that allows the book to help foreigners grasp the complexity of Indian society. At the same time, it raises the question if someone like the author, an educated elite with plentiful overseas experience, could write this kind of novel. But Swarup said that it is diversity within India that gave him and the protagonist a neutral perspective, saying that it is a "within-India phenomenon" to have an objective mindset. "In India, no man is an island. The life of the rich and poor is constantly intersecting every day, and as long as you have quality of empathy, you can try to understand things from (others') perspective," he said. "I have been asked ---- since you are living outside India, do you write from the perspective of an outsider ---- but I really write from the perspective of an insider." The protagonist's name, Ram Mohammad Thomas, is also the product of India's diversity and its "genius of syncretism," Swarup said. "He is Muslim, he is Hindu, he is Christian, and yet he is an Indian. He really represents the whole India, and that is incredible."