Feb 2, 2009

Books - In Conversation with Vikas Swarup


His more salt-than-pepper hair does not quite go with his persona. He writes briskly; once he wrote 20,000 words over a weekend! He talks fast too; cheerfully as well, making it almost impossible for him to sound ponderous. He sprinkles his sentences with a liberal dose of humour. And refrains from saying the obvious. He may not exactly be in love with “Slumdog Millionaire”, Danny Boyle’s film based on his debut book Q&A, but is diplomatic enough not to criticise the film in public. He is not your everyday writer. He is, in fact, an everyday bureaucrat, who “moonlights as an author”.

Welcome to the world of Vikas Swarup who until the other day was yet another diplomat with pretensions of wielding a pen. “We might as well open an IFS School of Writing,” he jokes hours before the premier of “Slumdog Millionaire” on the sidelines of the recently-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. A little away from the crowd, he decides to pick up Mohammed Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes and transforms himself into a stillness so unexpected of a man who exudes life and energy.

What does he have to say about the movie? “A visual delight. ‘Slumdog…’ is an evocative title more suited to the film,” he says, then stops. A shade strange, considering when he speaks there are few commas and hardly any full stops.

Candid talk

Prod him a bit more and Vikas takes recourse in the sayings of Sanker Mukherji, the famous Bengali writer whose books were adapted for the big screen by the legendary Satyajit Ray. “Sanker once said, a book turned into a film is like a daughter given away in marriage. And the film is like a son-in-law. A wise man never says a bad thing about his son-in-law!”

Vikas may not have his tongue firmly in his cheek, but he is willing to be candid. “When I saw the film I was not shocked. I was never invited to the sets and I learnt a writer is not an integral part of production. I got no invitations for the Golden Globes either. When they were happening in Los Angeles I was in Pretoria. But post-awards, I did some 35 interviews in two days in London! I did not know the Golden Globes were that huge!”

He is indeed frank without sounding scathing! How is that possible? “I don’t have to write every day. I am not the kind of writer who would say if he cannot write he cannot breathe. I am happy even without writing. Often writers make you reach for the dictionary. I would rather have them reach for the hanky. I am your ultimate role model as a writer. I have no formal training in writing, did not study literature. I write the first draft of my first book and it becomes a hit! If I can, so can you. For me putting together the first book was nothing but a challenge: if I too can be published! In the end it turned out to be sickeningly easy. I don’t even know about the genre of Q&A.”

The actual writing

He makes it sound so simple, in fact beguilingly simple to write a book that has been translated into 36 languages! “The Dutch and Swedish translations came ahead of the English. I wrote the book in 2003, it was published in 2005 and the film scouts asked me in 2004,” he says, ready to walk down memory lane one more time. “It was quite some time back when I started. I wrote the first draft over two months in London. My wife and kids had preceded me to India. I was alone. I had solitude. I wrote four and a half chapters and sent to 10 agents. None of them responded. One day I was surfing the Net and came across Peter Buchman who offered to help. He asked for two chapters on mail. He replied within 24 hours. I was thrilled. Writers don’t get response that promptly from any agent or publisher! He liked what I wrote. I consulted Patrick French too who advised me not to sign for the book if the agent asked for money. Peter came and all went off well. Then I wrote like a maniac as I was about to be posted as a political counsellor to Pakistan where there is no concept of beginning or ending the day! Once I wrote 20,000 words over a weekend to meet my deadline.”


T`hat is fine, but was not the Government a shade perturbed by the contents; the focus on India’s underbelly? “There is nothing diplomatic about the book,” he says diplomatically. Asked to elaborate, he says, “I did not present India Shining. Indian reality is too vast, too complex. The book only offers a slice of Indian life. I have never lived in Dharavi but I have been to the slums. More than research I needed empathy as a writer. The Government gives you that artistic freedom to write. I did not face any interference in my writing. In fact the only time there was pressure on me to edit part of the book was when I got a call from the American publishers who wanted to edit some dark portions. I said go ahead but if you do that, 40 per cent of the book would be gone and you won’t have much left!”

Well, not much was edited. And the readers loved what was offered to them. “When I finished the book I realised I had a good thing going but did not expect such a response,” he sums up in a matter-of-fact manner.

What was the inspiration along the way? “I had many seniors in IFS. Navtej Sarna and others. I asked myself, ‘Do I have a novel in me?’ I read a lot and was inspired by James Headlley. I devoured everything by him. I loved Kafka too. But thrillers fascinated me with their rare consistency that inspired me in narration. It is something similar to what I found in Hanif’s Exploding Mangoes. It is like an intellectual concert.”

And how did the film come about? “Well the screenplay writer assured me that the soul would not be tampered. I understood then and there the body will be mangled!”

What’s next?

Through with the first book — and knowing him one does not expect Vikas to write a chic-lit — but did he not toy with the idea of a sequel to Q& A; now being reissued as Slumdog Millionaire? “It is the hardest thing to do. I thought of writing a second book but did not want to repeat myself. I have this ability to surprise the readers. So I opted for Six Suspects.”

Is not he again capitalising on a slush-pile of real life? Just as he did with his first book. The book has parallel stories one can draw similarity of many real life instances. For example the Jessica Lal murder case, the BMW fiasco, the Salman Khan black buck case. All that Vikas offers by way of explanation is, “The book is an anatomy of murder. I wanted a narrative from many forms. My book is not about the Jessica Lal case. It is the story of a playboy son of a Chief Minister! In fact, my books in general are more about India because the more affluent a country gets, the more banal become its stories.”

So, he has again tried to defy banal. But has not slipped in the stereotypes of talking of India’s poverty in front of a global readership? “I know about the accusations levelled again ‘Slumdog…’ and some against Q&A too. I have heard of Amitabh Bachchan’s comments too. But believe me there is no personal rancour. We both hail from Allahabad. My grandpa was his father’s lawyer! As a writer, I am not attracted to the gory or the bizarre. I like to write simply. There is no point in creating a false persona.”

Photo: AFP

Setting matters right: Amitabh Bachchan.

Well deserved
A blogger got more attention than probably all authors combined at the recent Jaipur Literature Festival. People came on wheelchairs. And authors, who otherwise had the media lapping up every word of theirs, were suddenly, albeit briefly, not so want ed! He made news before his arrival in Pink City for his alleged remarks on “Slumdog Millionaire”. And used the book launch of Bhawana Somaaya’s Bachchanalia: The Films and Memorabilia of Amitabh Bachchan to clear the air.

Bachchan had been quoted extensively across the press as criticising the film for trying to cash in on India’s poverty. The Golden Globes, the Oscar nominations all came at the cost of projection of the country, some quoted Big B as saying.


Bachchan, however, promptly put the controversy to rest. “The 10 Oscar nominations for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ are all well deserved. I am particularly happy for Resul. I am not sure if many of you know that he is a sound engineer from India. I am happy for A.R. Rahman. It is good somebody beyond the film stars is being recognised. In our industry we tend to applaud only the stars and our technicians, sound recordists, editors… go unrecognised.”

He clarified he had nothing against the film. “I have seen the film. And that was the reason I did not attend the film’s screening in Mumbai. I did not say that the film is trying to project India in a poor light. There were comments made on my blog. It was the opinion of somebody who goes to my blog. They were not my remarks at all. I called up Anil Kapoor and A.R. Rahman to congratulate them.”

On the Osian book which puts together his cine story through the posters of his films, beginning with Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’s “Saat Hindustani” to the more recent ones of Mukul Anand and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Bachchan said, “This book is a novel concept. It is a small gesture, a wonderful beginning to collect memorabilia for posterity.”

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