The Deccan Herald Interview
Sunday, March 20, 2005 Vikas Swarup Q & A Million dollar interview K S NARAYANAN speaks with Vikas Swarup, author of ‘Q and A’ that will be published in 16 languages, and has made its author a millionaire. All us were glued to the idiot box when Bollywood star Amitabh Bachhan anchored the show ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’? But now, Vikas Swarup, 44, an IFS officer has penned a novel, ‘Q and A’ around a quiz show that makes the contestant who can correctly answer 12 questions a billionaire. After the hero Ram Mohammad Thomas, a waiter from Mumbai wins the show, the producers don’t want to pay him and poor Ram is arrested and accused of cheating. To be rolled out in 16 languages including Hindi, Swarup has received a whopping six figures in Pounds that has surprised not only readers but also his colleagues who want him to retire. Describing the book is all about an underdog winning the quiz show, Swarup in a freewheeling interview told Deccan Herald, “The success of ‘Q and A’ is a tribute to the foreign service as it teaches economy of words and how to use words carefully. It instills discipline in what you write and how you write”. Film Four in Britain has bought the film rights. Fittingly, ‘Q and A’ has also made Swarup a millionaire. But when equated with well-known writers like Booker winner Arundhati Roy, Swarup dismisses it with shrug and says, “I am just a diplomat who has written a book.” Excerpts from the interview:- Deccan Herald: Did you ever think of participating in ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’ in UK or ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’? Vikas Swarup: You have to be a Britisher to participate in it. When ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ was running, I was not in India and was posted abroad for ten years from 1993 to 2003 at Washington DC, Ethiopia and London. DH: Then, how did KBC develop as the main plot? VS: One kept in touch with events in India during work or during vacation and was aware of the massive phenomenon called ‘KBC’. DH: How long the story of Ram Mohd Thomas has been developing in you? VS: I got the idea for this novel three or four months before I started writing it. DH: So you are the latest writer from the IFS. Did any one incident fire your imagination to write? VS: I never thought of myself as a writer. Many of my contemporaries in the Foreign Service were writing. That is the time I thought I too have it in me. It was a newspaper report about children in a slum who had begun using a mobile Internet facility that got lodged in my mind. For children who have never been to school using these gadgets is revelatory. This means that knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of the elite or upper middle class people. DH: So, your novel has global appeal and audience... VS: My publishers in Britain when they picked up the manuscripts felt that it is not an Indian novel at all. Although set in India it is universal and could happen anywhere. It is about the underdog winning. DH: Why did you choose a very secular name for your protagonist? VS: Ram Mohammad Thomas could be any one of the children who comes to our homes to wash dishes, car, clean house and garden etc. The moment you give a name in India, he becomes a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian. I wanted my character to be an everyman and really represent the microcosm of India transcending all barriers. Though it is coincidental, he utilises all three elements of his name effectively in different situations. To a Muslim he is Mohammad, to a Christian he is Thomas and to a Hindu he is Ram. DH: RTM is a very smart guy. VS: Yes. At core my novel is about the ingenuity of India. My character is one who learns from every situation he finds himself in and as luck would have it all these experiences come to his aid when he is participating in the quiz show. DH: There are vivid descriptions of slums in Mumbai, servant quarters in Embassies, church. Any personal experience or visit in the book. VS: I have not lived more than ten days in Mumbai nor I have seen Dharavi. But emotions of the poor are not that different from those of rich people. Take money out of the rich and imagine how life would be without a proper house over your head. I visualised it and that is the power of the imagination. DH: Did Google help fill the gaps for facts or colour? VS: I wrote the book in two months. But I did not write every day. If it had not been for Google, the book could not have been written in two months. You type out anything, Google instantly searches it and gives you the information on a platter which otherwise would take hundreds of books to be read over several days. DH: Any favourite authors? VS: I have been a fan of the thriller genre. But before I started writing ‘Q and A,’ I read a lot of books written by the new corps of Indian writers like Raj Kamal Jha, Pankaj Mishra and Jhumpa Lahiri. After reading them I found out the lowest common denominator was that none of them had written a thriller! DH: How are other editions doing? VS: The Dutch edition was the first one to come out. In one book store in Europe the book created its own buzz and even beat ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Other editions are coming out and hitting the stores. The book is coming out in 16 other languages including Hindi. Our Minister of State, (E Ahamed) expressed interest in getting it translated into Malayalam. DH: Film Four, UK had the bought film rights. VS: At the moment they are developing the screenplay. But top Hindi directors based in Mumbai have approached me and want to make the Hindi version. But Film Four have got world rights and they have to agree for the Hindi remake. My agent is now is in touch and negotiating with them. DH: After releasing your book K Natwar Singh Foreign Minister and an accomplished writer had commented that my officers are penning books not pushing files? VS: But don’t forget the second part of his statement. I quote, “I also belong to that tribe only.” Mr Singh said it in a lighter vein but the minister knows how hard all of us work. Vikas Swarup, IFS is presently posted as Director in charge of External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh since August 2004. ‘Q and A’ is published by Doubleday (UK).