Cape Town: 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. 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,” said Swarup.
In two months before leaving London, with his wife and children already gone, he finished the tale of a 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”.
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. There are writers a million times better than me still trying to find a publisher,” Swarup said in an interview on the sidelines of a literary festival in Franschoek, near Cape Town.
“It’s my first draft, it has not been re-written. I found a publisher almost immediately,” he said of his success with “Q & A”.
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 and a stage musical along with audiobooks.
During his posting to Pretoria he finished his second book “Six Suspects”, for which film rights have already been sold, and will start work on his third, once he lands in Osaka, where his work takes him next in July.
“Six Suspects” is similarly 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.
‘I am optimistic about India
“The idea is to push the boundaries of a murder mystery,” said Swarup of the novel which is already gaining acclaim, despite his battle with 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 support 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. Yes, they show people struggling with circumstances but also 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. In a sense the people who participated in that film were at a distance form me,” he said.
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. 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.”