Vikas Swarup: ‘Slumdog’ author just 'a diplomat who writes'
The author whose novel inspired the award-winning film “Slumdog Millionaire” talks about his life and what’s up next.Vikas Swarup may have penned a small novel that swept the globe, winning accolades and turning out an Oscar darling film but the Indian diplomat to South Africa sees his success as a chance windfall.
While the publicity raged around multiple award-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire, the film interpretation of his novel Q & A, Swarup was serving a stint as India's deputy high commissioner to South Africa.
"I never really thought that I could be a writer,” said Swarup. “It was only when I was posted in London that I first tried my hand at fiction, so I still call myself a diplomat who writes."
Swarup wrote Q & A -- the tale of an 18-year-old waiter from an Indian slum who is accused of cheating when he wins a billion rupees on a quiz show styled after the popular "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" -- in two months. He completed it before leaving London, with his wife and children already gone.
The ultimate underdog
While many authors agonize over the painful process of pushing out a novel and getting it published, Swarup's fresh and original narrative showing the triumph of what he calls "the ultimate underdog" eased its way into a cultural phenomenon.
"I am a lucky writer,” said Swarup in an interview on the sidelines of a literary festival in Franschoek, near Cape Town. “There are writers a million times better than me still trying to find a publisher.”
Speaking about the success of Q & A, Swarup said: “It's my first draft, it has not been re-written. I found a publisher almost immediately.”
He sees himself more as a storyteller than a writer who "has a way with words." His story has been translated into 41 languages, a radio play, a stage musical and audiobooks.
During his posting to Pretoria, he finished his second book Six Suspects, for which film rights have already been sold. He will start work on his third once he lands in Osaka, where his work takes him next in July.
Pushing the boundaries
Six Suspects, like Q & A, is a plot-driven story, with a complex construction and a diverse cast of characters -- including an American, a politician and an island tribesman -- all are suspected of murdering the same man.
"The idea is to push the boundaries of a murder mystery," said Swarup of the novel, which is already gaining acclaim. Swarup admits in the process of writing the book he definitely battled second-book syndrome, which he claims is even harder after such an explosive debut novel.
His third novel is sitting safely in his head until he finds time to write it, but he admits it "will be a conventional novel for a change," with a linear narrative.
The book will be set in a fictional country, as opposed to India.
Slumdog Millionaire has drawn attention to the poverty in India's slums but Swarup says despite being a diplomat, he had to be true to himself as a novelist, and he has the full blessing of his government to write.
"I don't feel defensive at all about what I write because at core I am extremely optimistic about India and that comes through in my novels as well,” he said. “Yes, they show people struggling with circumstances but [they also show] people triumphing."
Since the movie was released, the media has followed the young child stars who come from the slums themselves, regularly reporting on their lives as they returned home after the glitter of the Oscars.
Faced with reports about one of the children's house being razed, Swarup said he feels sad, like any other Indian citizen. But "Slumdog Millionaire is not mine, apart from approving the script,” he said. “In a sense the people who participated in that film were at a distance form me.”
He noted that the children's lives had "been touched by magic" and would never be the same.
"My only wish for them is that they utilise this break in life to get a decent education,” he added. “They should not just get mesmerised by the glitter of Bollywood and Hollywood. It takes two minutes, today you can be top dog, tomorrow you are back to being slumdog."