Published: Verve Magazine, Features, February 2009
Vikas Swarup, the author of Q&A, on which the movie Slumdog Millionaire is based, speaks to Sitanshi Talati-Parikh about unique plots, winning formulas and how Ram Mohammed Thomas became Jamal Malik
The 47-year-old Vikas Swarup seems to have the Midas touch. His first book, Q&A, besides winning a fair share of awards itself, has left a wake of accolades for any adaptation based on the story. The audio book won the award for best audio book of the year, the BBC radio play won the Gold Award for Best Drama at the Sony Radio Academy Awards 2008, the movie is sweeping all statuettes and there is now a stage musical in the making. An accidental writer, the Deputy High Commissioner of India to South Africa, based in Pretoria, is quick, matter-of-fact and precise in his answers, like someone accustomed to being interviewed.
‘Not all deaths are equal…the murder of a celebrity instantly becomes headline news. Because the rich and famous rarely get murdered. They lead five-star lives and, unless they overdose on cocaine or meet with a freak accident, generally die a five-star death at a nice grey age, having augmented both lineage and lucre.’ Post 26/11, there is an inescapable irony in these words taken from Vikas Swarup’s latest novel, Six Suspects, published last year. Swarup is bemused at the inadvertent implication of his words.
He wears his achievements well, and bears it with the firm knowledge that a first-time writer like him, without any experience in creative writing or literature, cannot afford to take success for granted. While he considers himself “lucky”, he seems logical and practical – not in the least disconcerted by the overwhelming triumph of the film, Slumdog Millionaire. He merely seems gratified – glad that those who had never read or heard about the book before would now reach for a copy.
Sitting back in London, Swarup – who had never attempted to write before – chose to give it a shot. In 2003, Q&A was written and by 2005 it got published, and has so far been translated into 37 languages. “When I wrote this I knew the storyline was very fresh and the plot was unique. But that it would become such an international success, still confounds me. I thought it was a very Indian story, about the real India without any attempt to exoticise it. The fact that the book has appealed to readers from Barcelona to Sydney has come as a very pleasant surprise to me. You would never imagine a book that you have written, a light-hearted story, despite its social commentary, to mean so much to someone, giving them strength to carry on.”
The story did not find him, in the strictest sense of the word. He found it, by creating the perfect, winning formula – a judicious mix of all things desi, with a generous helping of ideas taken from true incidents and realities. The grim actuality of the street, the eternal rags-to-riches story and most importantly, the true Bollywood-style villain. Especially in Six Suspects, which is now being made into a film, many of the stories resonate with real life. Larry Page, for instance, a simple Texan about to marry an Indian girl based on a photo, was inspired by a report of a man who fell in love with a girl after seeing her photo and thinking she’s Aishwarya Rai. The terrorised young kids of the streets (from Q&A) were an “urban myth” while Swarup was growing up. “My mother would say, ‘Don’t go out alone, they will catch you and maim you.’ I have read reports that these things do happen.”
“These are the two things that I try to combine – a story that keeps the reader hooked and at the same time the book should have a soul. It should make you think as well as touch your heart.” So there are references to real people, like Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, with the real story revolving around fictional characters. “When I conceived this book, there was only one show in India, Kaun Banega Crorepati, and you can certainly not attribute anything that Prem Kumar does to what Amitabh Bachchan would have done on the game show. In my fictional universe, the game show is promoted by a group of cheats, whose idea is to tempt and titillate you with the top five, but actually ensure that nobody wins it. The game show host has to be a slightly unsavoury character, actually based on Bollywood villains.”
Swarup, who likes to unwind by catching a movie with his artist-wife and two sons, was not really involved in the film adaptation of the book. He played the part of checking the script and suggesting revisions, but nothing beyond. He has accepted certain minor changes in the story and also that of the main character’s name. To explain the history behind Ram Mohammed Thomas’ name would become difficult to translate on screen, so he simply becomes Jamal Malik. Salim, who originally is a good-looking youth and Thomas’ best friend, becomes Malik’s gangster-brother.
Though born and brought up in India, the nature of his work leaves him unable to physically be in the country in which his stories are set. Swarup stays abreast with the news in India through modern communication – TV and the Internet. “That sense of distance and separation, which used to exist earlier, vanished. That makes you feel much more connected to the country.” And that feeling is very important for someone who is a “global nomad”.
Creative success has definitely influenced this family man’s life as a diplomat. “So many more doors open up for you, when people have read your books, which would otherwise remain closed for a deputy high commissioner!” Despite the popularity of his works, Swarup insists that all his books are one-offs. “Many people suggested another Q&A, and I thought to myself, if I have to do that, then it means I have no other stories to tell. The day I have to repeat myself, I won’t write.”