Q & A with Vikas Swarup at the Jaipur Literature Festival
Thanks to the enthusiastic, charismatic and giving spirit of author William Dalrymple, I recently attended the Jaipur Literature Festival, which takes place every year in January, in the city of … you guessed it! JAIPUR. This year Amitabh Bachchan, Tina Brown, Gulzar, Vikram Seth,Pico Iyer, Mohammed Hanif and Coleman Barks were in attendance, among many, many more. But for me, the festival was a sort of closing of the magic circle that had started with a special viewing of the film “Slumdog Millionaire” back in November, right here in NYC. Danny Boyle, along with some of the cast and primary crew were at the screening organized by the IAAC and inspired my piece on the film, published later that week on Chic Today. For the first time in my own writing history, I predicted something that later came true… SM did go on to win many, many Oscars and I admit, I cried real, wet tears of joy when the Best Picture award was announced. But far from making me toot my own horn - OK, toot, toot but very softly - that piece simply inspired me to do better, to be more confident with my own instincts and indulge my likes and dislikes. So what did the Jaipur Literature Festival have to do with all that, and how did it help me to conclude a cycle of my life that ended up being so important for me? Well, there in the Pink City, on a crisp Indian winter afternoon, with a cup of Rajasthani chai in hand, I met author Vikas Swarup. For those who might not know, he is the seldom mentioned author of the novel “Q & A” on which the story of “Slumdog Millionaire” is based. Without him, the film would have never existed. In person, Vikas Swarup is as witty, incredible, charming, interesting and unpredictable as you would expect him to be. He wrote the book while serving in the Indian Foreign Service in the UK and is presently India’s Deputy High Commissioner in Pretoria, South Africa. Following is my own short and personal Q & A with the author as well as some of the highlights from his talk with Mr. Dalrymple, later that evening at the Festival.
VIKAS SWARUP: My kids go to a school 35 Km away. They have to get up at 6.30 in the morning. I am up at 5.30 and write from then until 8.30. I cannot write at the office, with interruptions and phones ringing… Some can manage, but I need absolute concentration.
TA: The book is currently being sold under the title “Slumdog Millionaire” instead of the original “Q & A”. How do you feel about the name change?
VS: In the beginning, I was opposed to it but have since understood that it is done for marketing reasons. It will eventually go back to its original name, once all the hoopla generated by the film is over. The title at the moment is so that the people who see the film, who find out that the story is originally a novel, will then go to a bookstore and ask for “Slumdog Millionaire”. Whatever sells books, I am OK with that!
TA: How do you feel about the criticism that the book, and therefore the film portray India’s slums and India negatively?
VS: Well, India is a country of a billion people, and therefore of a billion stories. Some will be of wealth and some will take place in the slums. I think the film is true to its own story.
Later, Vikas Swarup sat on a stage set up in the lawns of Diggi Palace and talked about his experience writing the most beloved story of the year.
VS: I am in the Indian Foreign Service and actually wrote the first draft of “Q & A” while I was waiting to transfer back from my London post. My wife and kids had preceded me back to India. Without them around, I had no fun but more importantly, no distractions and I wanted to write an entertaining story. I have yet to meet a foreign diplomat who is not in search of a publisher! Anyway, the version of the novel that you are reading is pretty much my first draft. I had heard a true story about an English Army Major who had cheated on“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with the help of a Cambridge professor. The professor would cough on cue to help with the answers the Major didn’t know. They were caught by the producers who watched the tapes of the show… It was also the time when the Indian version of the game show - “Kaun Banega Crorepati” - had begun and this all got me thinking. About a man winning a million rupees, about someone who might be accused of cheating but was not guilty of it… I started looking on thatsite EveryoneWhosAnyone.com for an agent. On the Wednesday, I had written two chapters, by Thursday I had sent them off to a few agents, by Saturday, one had rung my house asking for a meeting in person on the following Tuesday… My dear friend Patrick had one this advise for me: “If they ask for money from you, don’t sign!” But it turned out to be the fabulous Peter Buckman who said that thus far the book was great but, and I quote, “Where’s the rest?!” I knew I had to finish the book before I got back to India, since I had been told I would be in charge of Pakistan for my next assignment and I knew I would never be able to write there! That would definitely not be a cushy job… So I wrote like a maniac and I finished the book in three months, on September 11th, 2003. On the 12th, I was on the plane back to India.
After the book was published, I was criticized for painting an “unpatriotic depiction of India”. I was pressured to take out the dark bits, by my American publisher, never by the Indian government though. I have always been weary of the kinds of books that are touted as having “captured the soul of India”. At best, one can capture a slice of life moment.
About the title change for the film, well there were a few factors. A film titled “Q & A” already existed, with Nick Nolte and I find that although “Q & A” is iconic, the title “Slumdog Millionaire” is evocative and works well for the film. After I was shown the first draft of the script, by Simon Beaufoy, I had a choice to make: either reject it completely or accept it wholeheartedly. A lot was changed. But I thought it best to keep my opinions to myself. For film people, the writer of the original story is not integral to the process. I actually wasn’t even invited to the premiere. I paid my own way to London for the Leicester Square opening night.
I didn’t even know the Golden Globes were that huge, until I started being hounded by the South African and Indian press and that’s when I realized it was a big deal.
My next novel is titled “Six Suspects”. It’s a polyphonic narrative that comes at the reader from all directions. I was inspired by “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Italo Calvino and “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, the latter is made up of six stories. My novel has six suspects in an overarching framework. There are references to many real-life headlines like the Jessica Lall case in Delhi, the murder victim Vicky Rai is straight out of the case where a well-to-do young man was accused of mowing down six people with his BMW and there are even references to shooting a black buck, as in theSalman Khan case. The unchanging factor in my books is that I always want to identify with my characters.
At the end of the talk, William Dalrymple asked Mr. Swarup if “Q & A - Part 2″ could be in the works. The answer? “I really would rather write a fresh story. Wouldn’t writing that mean that I don’t have any new stories to tell? I should not be predictable…”Indeed, Mr. Swarup, and from hearing you speak, you could never be accused of being anything less than brilliant and way ahead of the times.