The Hindu Interview
the hindu Monday, Feb 07, 2005 Life's about Q&A Diplomat-writer Vikas Swarup's first novel "Q and A" revolves around a TV quiz show vikas swarup For two months in 2003, when he was Counsellor at the Indian High Commission in London, Vikas Swarup was engaged in a task of absolute secrecy. Even his colleagues weren't in on it. Every evening, after getting home from work, he would plunge into research on a suspiciously eclectic range of subjects — voodoo, Dharavi, the 1971 India-Pakistan war, the Taj Mahal, rabies — and pursue them in astonishing depth. And then, over the weekends, he wrote his novel. "Q and A" is Swarup's episodic thriller that revolves around a popular television quiz show. And by the time he got on to promoting the book two weeks back,"Q and A" had already been signed up for translation into 15 languages — including Serbian! — optioned by BBC's Film Four for a movie adaptation, and spotted by a West End producer as a potential musical. "Nobody suspects it, but there's a whole subterranean world that starts operating as soon as a book gets into a publisher's hands," says Swarup. The plot In "Q and A," the improbably named Ram Mohammad Thomas, a destitute 18-year-old waiter, wins the jackpot on "Who wants to win a billion?" and is promptly arrested for suspected fraud. Over the course of 12 chapters, Thomas explains to a friendly neighbourhood lawyer how, by sheer coincidence, the quizmaster had happened to ask him questions that his life had taught him the answers to. "I accept the charges that Thomas' win was just luck," says Swarup. "But I also wanted to point out that knowledge isn't necessarily an asset of the upwardly mobile, and that it is innate in all of us." "Q and A" isn't the typical first novel of an IWE author; there is no glossary of Indian terms, no "karma-dharma exotica," as Swarup puts it. "I wanted to write something different, not the run-of-the-mill Indian family saga," he says. It was a calculated choice; Swarup rabidly read Indian writers such as Arundhati Roy, Manil Suri and Raj Kamal Jha to avoid what British publisher Jane Lawson called "the Arundhati Roy trap," involving "quasi-poetic flourishes... that have become a shade too cloying." It helped that Swarup wasn't one of those people who had dreamed of literary stardom since age five. "I was posted in Addis Ababa for 10 years, where the pace of life was glacial. I could have written three or four novels then if I had wanted to," he says. "But the bug just never caught me. Only after I moved to London, which is such a literary and cultural hub, did I start thinking about it." As with Thomas, other happy coincidences fell into place. Swarup, an avid quizzer in college, keenly tracked the popularity of "Who wants to be a millionaire?" and a related cheating scandal in Britain, read an inspirational article on Indian slum children using mobile Internet facilities, sent four-and-a-half chapters of his book to an unknown agent by e-mail, and finished the last page a day before moving back to New Delhi. "Which was just as well, because in Delhi, my schedule is killing," says Swarup, now aide to External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh. It's easy to believe; in the space of 10 minutes, he gets three phone calls, including one about Sonia Gandhi's schedule for the next day"My schedule now is 9 to 9, so I can't even begin to think of writing my next novel. It just means that I shall have to choose my next posting very carefully, indeed!" — Samanath Subramanium