(I interviewed Vikas Swarup, the author of 'Q&A', in 2005 ~ years before 'Slumdog Millionaire', based on his novel, became a runaway screen hit)
It’s quiz time, folks!
IS THE Indian Foreign Service (IFS) a fertile field for best-selling authors? Can the range of exotic experiences that come a diplomat’s way pave the way for fiction?
Vikas Swarup’s 2005 debut novel, ‘Q and A,’ just launched by Doubleday in India, tosses up these questions. For Swarup, 42, is currently Delhi-based, as the director of Indian External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh’s office.
His novel, dashed off in a mere two months at the end of his previous London posting in 2003, has already sold translation rights in over 15 languages, including French, German, Italian, Finnish, Russian, Norwegian, Turkish, Serbian, and Brazilian Portuguese. Film Four in the UK has cornered film rights, though Swarup retains complete creative control over the screenplay adaptation by Simon Hooper, who scripted ‘The Full Monty.’
But what’s the story behind the novel? Vital cues surface from an innovative book launch at Landmark in both Bangalore and Chennai (Jan. 21 and 22), triggered by a rapid-fire, quiz-based evening with Navin Jayakumar, the original host for the lifestyle store’s annual quiz.
Why a quiz format? Because ‘Q and A’ is a take-off on India’s most popular quiz show, but with a twist worked in. For its unlikely winner is Ram Mohammad Thomas, an 18-year-old, impoverished Dharavi-based waiter. How did the hero ~ an orphan who has never been to school or read newspapers ~ know the vital answers that gave him access to a billion rupees? As he narrates his life story in 13 controlled, quick-paced episodes that link into each quiz query, the reader realizes that the implausible can turn plausible in life’s great game of chance. Ram’s is a seesaw tale underlined by hope, of a survivor in the underbelly of society, whose experiences provide the clues to Shakespeare and the solar system, the 1971 Indo-Pakistan conflict and Indian films.
“My wife and two young sons had just relocated from London to Delhi in June 2003. I wondered if I had it in me to write a book,” narrates Swarup, during an interview in Bangalore. “I didn’t take a day’s leave from work. I’d read or research the Chhamb sector conflict or the Taj Mahal on the Internet during weekday evenings, then write furiously each weekend, even doing 20,000 words once.”
This unfolded against the backdrop of a writing resurgence featuring his contemporaries. Swarup’s colleague Thirumurthi had just written the Chennai-based ‘Clive Avenue,’ while Navdeep Suri was translating his grandfather’s lauded novel, ‘Pavitra Paapi.’
“I wanted to see if I had a book in me, while I had time on my hands,” recalls Swarup. “None of my colleagues knew I was writing a novel. I did four and a half chapters, then began looking around for an agent. After all, Britain is really the literary and cultural hub of Europe. The first ten agents never got back to me. The eleventh, Oxford-based Peter Buckman, called me after he’d read two chapters, and wanted to read more. If he hadn’t responded, perhaps I’d never have completed ‘Q and A.’”
Nobody else read the completed novel until Buckman received it on Sept. 11, 2003. Swarup left for Delhi the next day. His wife read it on his return.
Confessing to admiration for writers like Raj Kamal Jha and Jhumpa Lahiri, he outlines, “My idea was to write a simple, readable societal novel, because I’m a big fan of the thriller genre. But no Indian has written a good thriller. So, I decided not to try one. It was tough to sustain the first person voice, though.”
What of the theme? “I wanted to tap into the quiz show phenomenon. If a pauper wins a billion, the tension becomes palpable,” the Allahabad-born author, an avid quizzer himself, elaborates. “How could Ram know these answers?”
How impeccable is the fictional verisimilitude? “I’ve never lived in Dharavi, or even Mumbai. I accept any flaws that may have resulted because I wrote in complete secrecy, with nobody to guide me,” Swarup confesses. “But somebody in the army wondered if I’d had access to classified information because of the Chhamb story. I take that as a compliment.”
Did it help to be a career diplomat with 18 years of experience, previously posted at Washington D.C., Turkey and Ethiopia? “Once you know you’re going to write fiction, you look at the world differently. If I’d had the urge to write earlier, I might have done ten novels by now. After all, the pace in Addis Ababa was pretty glacial,” laughs Swarup.
Has ghostwriting his minister’s speeches, handling his correspondence, fine-tuned Swarup’s writing? “In the foreign service, we learn to use our words very carefully,” he adds. “One wrong nuance can lead to a rupture of relations. Brevity is as important. We’re taught to be good draftsmen. But for fiction, you need to have not just the plot, but the prose, too. Eventually, I see my book as one about storytelling.”
On the party circuit, is he seen as a good raconteur? “No, no, no,” he demurs. “I’m seen as a serious-minded guy, but also fun-loving… My colleagues are surprised that I have written this book.”
What of the attendant literary hoopla? “All this has happened even before the English publication,” Swarup points out. ‘Even if the book proves to be a dud, I’d still be published in 15 languages. That means the publishers in Poland and Russia have liked the concept itself. That’s flattering.”
The movie tie-in came in through Random House/ Doubleday. “I initially wanted it to be a Bollywood film. So, Film Four put in a clause that if there’s a request for a Hindi remake, they will consider it,” Swarup clarifies. “To me, Mira Nair seems a natural choice as director because of ‘Salaam Bombay.’ The core of optimism in that film struck me. I believe the book has been sent to her.”
What about a second novel? “I’m under no pressure. First, I’ll allow this to sink in. All the hoopla comes as a total surprise,” he confesses. “I look at it as a very Indian book for an Indian audience. The idea is not to get overawed by the book’s success.”
Would a career shift be on the cards? “Thankfully, I still look at myself as a diplomat,” Swarup stresses, “while, to other writers, writing is almost like breathing.”
That’s the last diplomatic take on “Q and A.”
(The Hindu Business Line, 2005)