The Harper Collins Interview
December 2008 With the movie’s Golden Globe nod still hot off the press, Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup talks to us about the “aha” moments and the Bollywood ideas behind this buzzworthy novel. Vikas, even though you are not in the hot seat here and there’s no jackpot at the end of it, here’s your slice of the 15-questions pie: 1. How did you come to write Slumdog Millionaire? I have been telling stories since childhood, but sadly, didn’t write anything beyond my school days. It was only during my diplomatic posting in London that I had the urge to write. I tried my hand at a full-length novel about a contract killer but didn’t really show it around to publishers. I used it as a learning experience to work on Slumdog Millionaire, which I finished in two months flat. And that’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! 2. Was there a particular “aha” moment that gave you the inspiration for this book? It was a series of “aha” moments. I wanted to write something off-beat. I did not want to write a generational family saga or a magical realist fable with talking monkeys. And then it struck me -- why not tap into the global phenomenon of the syndicated televised quiz show? After all, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a top-rated show in a number of countries across the world, including India. The issue was, who would be my contestant? It was around this time that a scandal involving an army major broke out in England. The man had apparently won a million pounds on the show but was accused of cheating. I thought to myself, if someone as well educated as an officer of the British Army can be accused of cheating, why could I not have a contestant who would definitely be accused of cheating? Incidentally, I had also come across a news report of how street children in an Indian slum had begun using a free mobile Internet facility entirely on their own. So I decided to juxtapose these two themes -- of a game show and of a contestant who has had no formal education, who has “street” knowledge as opposed to “book” knowledge. That is how Slumdog Millionaire was born. 3. The structure of the novel is one of its strengths; how did that evolve? Were these chapters always meant to be individual episodes strung together to form a coherent whole? The novel essentially moves on two planes. There is the life story of the quiz-show contestant, Ram Mohammed Thomas, and there are the goings on in the quiz show itself. To my mind, the pace of the novel stems from the fact that there is this dualism, this contradiction, this tension between the two strands of the novel. What links these two strands is memory. Having been an avid quizzer myself, I was interested in the ideational and psychological processes that are at work in a contestant’s mind. As one of my characters in the book says, “A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.” And our memories are produced by various things: by our experiences, our dreams and desires, not just by what we are taught in school. Slumdog Millionaire is built around a series of stories that the protagonist tells his lawyer, which eventually links up to the questions on the quiz show. Some are his personal stories, some he has heard. My aim was to make each story complete in itself, to make it stand on its own, even without the larger context of the novel. The difficulty was doing this while following the conventions of a quiz show, where the questions follow a certain progression: easier questions come first, difficult questions come later and the topics have to keep changing. Since Ram Mohammad Thomas’s life could not follow the order of the questions in a strictly chronological sequence, the additional difficulty was to ensure that the reader does not lose the thread when my protagonist goes back and forth in time. Above all, I wanted to ensure an organic connection between the stories and the questions -- they needed to appear natural rather than gimmicky and forced. 4. You paint such a vivid picture of India’s (in)famous slum, Dharavi, of its inhabitants and their lifestyle. Have you ever visited or come into prolonged contact with one of its residents? I have never lived in Bombay for any sustained period of time, and I have never visited Dharavi. But then, India is a country where no one leads the life of an island. The lives of the rich and the poor, the high and the low, intersect every day. And if one observes and learns, then one can also project. One may not have seen Dharavi, but one has seen slums. You just have to magnify the slums you have seen ten times, or maybe a hundred times, to visualize the scenario in Dharavi. 5. How much effect, if any, do you think your own exposure to Bombay’s film industry has had in directly or indirectly shaping the overall theme and pace of this novel? I admit there is an undercurrent of Bollywood running through the novel. That is because Hindi films are an inescapable part of popular Indian culture. You cannot conceptualize an Indian matrix without bringing in Bollywood. The potboiler Hindi films have traditionally been considered escapist entertainment, perhaps highlighting their appeal to the masses. They almost become an alternate reality for the poor. So, throughout the novel, you have my protagonist contrasting “reel” life with “real” life. But the real treat for me, personally, is that Slumdog Millionaire itself is likely to become a plot for a Bollywood film! Though Film Four has optioned the film rights, several top Indian directors have approached me for the Hindi remake. 6. For viewers of KBC (the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire), or for the general Indian audience for that matter, most of the characters of the novel might seem thinly disguised. Did the possibility of celebrity recognition ever become an issue while writing Slumdog Millionaire? A few reviewers have commented that they found some of my characters -- the action-film hero, the famous cricketer and even Neelima, the tragedy queen -- to be tongue-in-cheek caricatures of real people. All I can say is that the characters I have drawn are entirely fictional, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people find familiar echoes in them. 7. What were some of the research methods you used while writing the book? The book required considerable research. The maximum investigation was undoubtedly needed for “A Soldier’s Tale,” in which I had to document the India-Pakistan War of 1971. I read a number of books on the famous battles of that war, delved into actual soldier accounts of the course of the war in Chhamb and received some excellent feedback from my colleague, the Military Attaché in the High Commission in London. I undertook similarly painstaking research to get fully acquainted with life in juvenile homes, betting on cricket matches, the practice of selling tribal girls into prostitution, the modus operandi of contract killers, voodoo, the Taj Mahal and even Australianisms. My neighbourhood library in Golders Green gave me access to a number of useful books and the Internet also proved to be a mine of information. 8. Throughout the novel one of the major themes that arises repeatedly is the rampant apathy in India -- that of the slum dwellers, the game show authorities, the cinema industry, for example. Do you think this feeling somehow characterizes modern India itself? There is a quote in the book. When Ram Mohammad Thomas approaches the administrator of his chawl, asking him to intervene before Shantaram does something terrible to his wife and daughter, he is told: “We Indians have this sublime ability to see the pain and misery around us, and yet remain unaffected by it. So, like a proper Mumbaikar, close your eyes, close your ears, close your mouth, and you will be happy like me.” Apathy does exist in the nation of a billion people, but one also sees evidence of tremendous compassion and solidarity, such as during the recent tsunami disaster. 9. You tackle difficult issues -- incest, rape, torture -- in almost every chapter of the novel. What was your experience writing these passages? The novel opens somewhat bleakly and then continues in the same vein for the first few chapters. This bothered me a bit when I had finished it, but its structure was such that if I changed even one story or altered the timeline, the whole edifice would have collapsed. In the end I just trusted the reader to find light at the end of the tunnel. By the same token, I had to find my own illumination in writing some of the darker chapters. The writing of “A Brother’s Promise” and the section in the Agra chapter relating to the death of Shankar were the toughest. Finding the right words to describe those emotions was gut wrenching. But the fact that I myself had tears in my eyes when I re-read the Shankar episode convinced me that it had been written with heart and soul. 10. Any interesting anecdotes behind writing Slumdog Millionaire that you’d like to share? I wrote Slumdog Millionaire in complete secrecy. No one, not even my closest friends, knew that I was working on a novel! I kept my professional world as a diplomat and my private world as an author completely apart. But now everyone knows. 11. We know that you were born in Allahabad and were a champion debater and an avid quizzer in school. Tell us some more about your formative years and your family’s influence on your literary aspirations. I come from a family of lawyers. 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 Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I learned 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, from Aesop’s Fables to Albert Camus, from Enid Blyton to Irving Wallace. I believe a good writer is first and foremost a good reader. 12. What are some of your favourite books of all time? Until I joined the Indian Foreign Service, I used to be a very big reader. I have read many authors and many books over the years. I have been a big fan of the thriller genre, but I have enjoyed contemporary literary works as well, such as Coetzee’s Disgrace, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the novels of Haruki Murakami. Some of my all-time favourite works are: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway; The Trial by Franz Kafka; Animal Farm by George Orwell; Dracula by Bram Stoker; and The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. 13. Which faction of creative thinkers might you belong to: one that thinks that good writing pleases the reader, or another for unhindered by audience pressure? As they say, “Any fool can write a book; it takes a genius to sell it.” So readers remain critical of the writing process. Writing is, indeed, a personal process, but I feel that what a writer writes must, in the final analysis, be accessible to the reader. If the writer cracks a joke the reader doesn’t get, then what’s the point? The key to a good novel is to ensure a degree of congruence between the subjective vision of the writer and the objective reaction of the reader. 14. How has your experience been with the worldwide publishing industry? When I set out to write this book I had no idea it would appeal to readers in Brazil and Barcelona, in Seattle and Sydney. The book is now being translated into twenty-three languages, enabling me to interact with publishers and readers on five continents. The experience has been uniformly positive. The reason for the novel’s global appeal, I imagine, is that though it is set in India, the themes and the emotions evoked are universal and the underlying message -- of creating your own luck, of the underdog beating the odds and winning -- applies to every community and culture. 15. Is there a follow-up novel to Slumdog Millionaire in the works? If not, might there be one in the future? I have a number of ideas, so, yes, there will be another book. Perhaps in two years’ time.