Interview: Vikas Swarup – The author of Q&A, the novel behind the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire

24 January 2013

The author of Q&A, the novel behind the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, talks to Emily Handley about the challanges of adaptation, a diplomatic career and the release of his new novel…

The Indian diplomat and self-confessed ‘weekend writer’ Vikas Swarup uses an expression coined by Gandhi in order to give me an insight into how he copes with his busy lifestyle and constant cultural shifts: “the winds of all cultures to blow freely about my house, but not to be swept off my feet by any.” His open and relaxed manner sets the tone for the rest of the interview, as we discuss his favourite books and writers, the difficulties of establishing roots in a country while travelling for his work, and the upcoming release of his third book, The Accidental Apprentice, which he describes as a “modern-day coming-of-age novel”.

Born in Allahabad in 1963, Vikas Swarup began a career as a diplomat with the Indian Foreign Service after graduating from university, and this would see him stationed in countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa and the UK. He released his debut novel Q&A in 2005 to critical acclaim, after having “written it in two months in Golders Green”. His modesty belies the vast success that the book would receive four years later, as Swarup was approached about the film rights before the novel’s publication. This led to the production of Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, an adaptation of the novel that broke box-office records and won eight of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated.

As his mother-tongue is Hindi, the author explains that he had not read the works of any English-speaking Indian writers before writing his novel, so he read works by Arundhati Roy and V.S. Naipaul in order to find out what these authors typically wrote about. Having deduced that these authors “wrote about society” and wanting to realise his ambition of writing a thriller, he decided to write a book that would portray Indian society “in a thrilling way”. He has used real-life events as inspiration for all of his books so far, drawing on the murder of model Jessica Lall for his second novel Six Suspects, and, for Q&A, the “incidents of betting on cricket matches and the begging gangs that are part of the everyday milieu in India”.

When asked about how he manages to balance the demands of his career with his writing, he waves away any suggestions that he may be giving up his post in the Indian consul in Japan in order to concentrate on writing: “I enjoy being a diplomat, and now this is the time of India and the time of Asia, where the whole world is looking at India. Also, if I were a full-time writer, I personally feel that I might be under pressure all the time, because you would feel that you have to write, and that’s your bread and butter. This way, I am under no pressure to write, as my day job takes care of my family and gives me a good life.” As writing is not his main source of income, he remarks that he feels “free from the constraints of the market, as I can write what I want, not what the market wants me to write.”

He explains that the demands imposed upon him by his day job prevent him from spending a lot of time visiting other countries to research his novels, and freely admits to using Google in order to “create an authentic backdrop” for them. With these methods of research, how have his portrayals of Indian society been received by his readers?

“The best compliment that I have ever received was when I gave a talk in Mumbai after the release of Q&A, and a lady asked me about how many years I had lived in Dharavi . She said that she had lived there all her life, and she could sense the sights and smells from Dharavi in my book. I said, ‘I’m very sorry to disappoint you, but I’ve actually never set foot in Dharavi'”.

The differences between a film adaptation and the original text of a novel is a matter that is also close to Swarup’s heart, after Danny Boyle collaborated with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy to make Slumdog Millionaire, changing certain elements of the original story in the process: “When Simon met me, he told me that the entire book wouldn’t go into the movie. I expected that large parts of my book would be chopped and changed, but at the same time he made me a promise that he would remain faithful to the soul of the novel. The main USP of the book was its narrative structure as, like the movie, it is told through the medium of a quiz show. They changed the name of Ram Mohammad Thomas to Jamal Malik, as Simon wanted the protagonist to have a brother, Salim . I had to change his name as a family is always very particular: either Christian or Muslim or Jewish, as you can’t have three religions combining in the story of a family.”

Following on from the success of Q&A, Swarup is releasing a new novel later this year about Sapna Sinha, a salesgirl who works in an electronics shop and who lives a “very humdrum, middle-class existence”. Sapna prays at a local temple every Friday and, on one visit, she meets a man who claims to be the owner of one of India’s biggest companies. He wants her to be the CEO of his company, however he asks that she passes “seven tests from the textbook of life” in order to achieve this. The author explains that the premise of the story stems from the perceptive idea that nobody “knows their own limits, and it is only when you are placed in an extraordinary situation that you realise this.” As the interview draws to a close, I find myself thinking that this statement applies very neatly to Swarup himself. He has encountered several extraordinary situations over the past decade, yet he has managed to take everything in his stride, juggling the many duties expected of a high-ranking diplomat and bestselling author with enviable aplomb.