“I am an accidental writer,” says Vikas Swarup from his office in Durban. And, indeed, there surely was manner of happenstance at play when Swarup, a career diplomat and India’s current high commissioner to South Africa, decided to write a novel in 2003. The result was Q & A, the novel which would eventually become the multi-Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire.
Swarup concedes the novel was an “OK success” before the film came out. That’s overly modest — the novel had already been published in 36 languages — but one can’t deny that the success of the film added lustre to the book, as well as several more translations (it’s now available in 40 languages).
Slumdog Millionaire also took the 45-year-old writer to the movie industry’s biggest stage when he was among those from the film who accepted the Oscar for best picture at the Academy Awards in February. That pushed his celebrity stock way up, and today he’s asked to judge beauty pageants and speak at conferences around the world. Not surprising, of course: “We all know many more people see films than read books.”
Swarup, who comes from a family of lawyers, was born and raised in Allahabad, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. He joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1986, and his postings have taken him, his artist wife, Aparna, and their two sons around the world, from Turkey to the United States, Ethiopia to Britain, where Q&A was conceived.
But how does one so new to writing follow-up such “accidental” success? For Swarup, it’s quite literally a mystery. His second novel, Six Suspects, was published recently in Canada. It has been marketed as genre fiction, though the author submits that might be a bit misleading.
“The problem with books is that they have to be put into a particular niche. So they have classified it as genre fiction, crime thriller or a whodunnit, but I think it’s really much more than that.”
The plot involves six characters — a Bollywood actress, a Texan, a politician, a mobile-phone thief, a corrupt bureaucrat and a stone-age tribesman — all of whom are suspects in the murder of the playboy son of the home minister of Uttar Pradesh.
“For me, the murder is not important from a forensic point of view; it’s important from a sociological point of view. I’m really trying to push the boundaries. Can mystery fiction also enable you to take a look at society itself ? There is this dualism going on, and most of these people are wearing masks. And through their eyes the idea is to capture a sense of the times we are living in.”
For many authors who have had successful first novels, the follow-up raises certain dilemmas. Chief among them for Swarup was whether to write Q & A, Part 2, and follow his now-wealthy protagonist, Ram Mohammed Thomas — an idea that was embraced by “people connected to the publishing world,” he says obliquely. “I said no. If I were to write another version of Q & A then it means I’m repeating myself and also it means that I don’t have any other new stories to tell.”
Not surprisingly, Six Suspects has caught the interest of the movie industry; BBC has already obtained rights to the novel.
Swarup admits that had he known his debut novel would be an international phenomenon, “I would have taken a much closer look at the final product. … It’s a $15-million budget film, shot entirely in India with Indian actors that nobody had ever heard of. I mean, who gave this film a chance in hell?”
As he watched his story becoming a film, Swarup was worried that some of the elements that were introduced would create controversy, even criticism, in India — not a comfortable state of affairs for a career bureaucrat. The opening scene, for instance, was the creation of the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy.
“I knew when I read the script that some people would be perturbed by its portrayal of India. I’m saying very honestly — the scene of the communal riot where they kill the mother of these two boys, I was not very comfortable with that. India has a broad tradition … of tolerance and harmony. We have had our problems — but Islam came to India in the 8th century AD, and how many religious conflicts can you remember?”
The title of the film was a hot issue as well. There were effigies of the film’s director, Danny Boyle, burned in protest, and an activist and slum dweller named Nicholas Almeida filed an official protest in an Indian court stating the word “slumdog” was discriminatory. He even gathered together some stray dogs and held a naming ceremony, giving the dogs the names as the film’s director, producer and stars. The term “slumdog” doesn’t appear in the novel. Indeed, it hadn’t appeared in the English language until the screenplay. “Maybe they did not understand,” says Swarup. “When Simon Beaufoy invented this word he was really making a play [on words], a pun on the word underdog.”
However, neither the controversy about the script nor the charms of the places he’s served as a diplomat made him want to set his follow-up book anywhere other than his native land.
“‘What I find is that right now there is a hunger for novels about India. In fact, there are non-Indians who are writing novels about India, so why, as an Indian, shouldn’t I write about my own country? I may live for three years in South Africa but I am still only scratching the surface of the reality here. I may live for five years in Canada and I would still not be able to think as a Canadian.”
In fact, Swarup is certain that India will never cease to provide inspiration.
“A nation of a billion people means a nation of a billion stories.”