The Sunday Independent
Writer in conversation September 14, 2008 Maureen Isaacson This diplomat is no 'one book wonder' Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects is set to rip into the hearts of India's well-heeled middle class. The BBC is in the process of acquiring rights for the film of the novel. It was published in July, two-and-a-half years after Swarup's debut novel. Not an easy act to follow, Q&A was a global bestseller, selling more than half a million copies. Swarup has not yet seen the film that has been made of the book, but it has received favourable reviews. Despite his success, Swarup, who is India's deputy high commissioner to South Africa, says that he is "a millionaire only in rupees". "There are 40 rupees to the US dollar. At home that is quite a lot. Any government servant gets enough money to call himself a millionaire." Two years into his three-year term in Pretoria, he says distance allows him "to be part of the milieu but at the same time apart from it" and so lends perspective. "I am very much connected to India - more so than a person who has made a permanent home in a foreign country. The clock has started ticking." He has used the time to work against the perils of "second novel syndrome", the fear of being a one-book wonder. He insists that he has not yet earned the title of "fully fledged writer" and is, rather, a storyteller. "I am not wed to novelistic or screen-writing form but my novels do have a cinematic feel to them." Such modesty conceals the sharpness of his social critique, which is possibly made more acute by distance. He wrote Q&A while a diplomat in London and Six Suspects while in South Africa. Both novels describe the devastating divide between the rich and the poor in an India that he says "is on the one hand growing at 9 percent per annum, with penthouse apartments, and the India where there are villages that have no electricity. This book is a critique not just of India but of modern culture." I am impressed that a civil servant such as himself is entitled to take a swipe at the hand that feeds him, but he underplays this criticism. "India is a very rich democracy, which does not hide its warts and we are proud of that," he says. "We have a very free media, which can publish what they want." On to the privileged Indian landscape he paints characters and situations which he says are "larger than life in order for the reader to get into the story". In Six Suspects, Swarup expands on the theme of the cruelty and oppression that the rich visit on the impoverished majority. In Q&A, a dirt-poor waiter who wins a television quiz show is hounded down by the authorities, who degrade and diminish the poor. Suspects is narrated by an earnest investigative journalist, who pricks the cushy façade of India's comfortable middle class, its politicians, its mafia, its avaricious sons and daughters. Swarup says he is the novel's memento mori, the mirror on the society that nobody wishes to look into. The bizarre plot was plucked from real life in India, which Swarup describes as "a nation of a billion people and a billion stories". This particular story revolves around the murder of Vicky Rai, a high-flying 32-year-old socialite who is shot through the heart. No nice guy, he kicked off his criminal career at 17 by "mowing down" six homeless people with his new BMW. Money, in his world, could buy everything, including the silence of the six witnesses to this act. Money kept at bay the consequences of a second crime, committed when he was 20, when he killed two black buck in a wildlife sanctuary in Rajastan. The mysterious death of the sole witness, a forest ranger called Kishore, went unmarked. Then, at his 25th birthday party, at the club Mango, Rai shot and killed a cocktail waitress in cold blood in front of 50 people. Why? Because she would not serve him a shot of tequila after the bar closed. The storytelling is melodramatic: "Vicky Rai went into a rage. 'You bloody bitch!' he screamed and whipped out a revolver from his suit pocket, 'This will teach you a lesson.'" The plot has elements of high drama and sometimes farce. He is uncertain of its genre. "I don't know what to call it. It is beyond crime fiction. Saying my book is genre-busting is pompous but it includes social commentary, farce, melodrama, humour, strategy - it is life. "That is what I call it. It was challenging to write it. It was also satisfying because I was trying to test my boundaries as a writer." Are things really so bad in the badlands of the middle class that a father takes out a hit on his son? "Definitely not. I don't detect a single moral trait in the character who does this," he says. "The sky is the limit in the sense that he can go to any length for his political survival." Swarup says that in this novel he has tried his hand at ventriloquism, attempting to explore a polyphonic narrative through the voices of six characters: a Bollywood actress, a politician, a bureaucrat, an American, a "tribal" and a thief who takes incredible chances and whose character is for me the most intriguing. In India, reviews of Suspects have been mixed. Swarup has been taken to task by some for writing about a real story, but he has broken no rules and has not influenced the judgment of the case which "ended well. The murderer was sentenced to life imprisonment." Others have raved. But you don't have to be Indian to appreciate the story, nor do you need details of the original cases. Swarup has not sought truthful representation. "Tribal is an English Indian word, which means a person belonging to a tribe. It is not pejorative. In India there are thousands of tribes The tribal represents 'the other India'. "When a tribal is confronted with the lights of modern civilisation he realises he is in darkness, initially, that he is dazzled by lights but can see that it is hollow inside and is just festering darkness. We worship beauty. "The investigative journalist is a memento mori and mirror but we refuse to see the reality he shows. We are still so smug within our material world. Sometimes instead of jolting you, it [this information] leads you to a sense of apathy. "The tribal and the girl whose face was damaged by the explosion in Bophal are in the brotherhood of freaks, forced to forge friendships with others on the fringes of society." Swarup agrees that the novel is subversive in its tone. He says the ending is morally ambiguous. In this world, he says, there is no black and white; everything exists in shades of grey.