Vikas Swarup knows he had a privileged childhood in Allahabad, India. A descendant of lawyers, he grew up with access to his grandfather’s eclectic library of about 10,000 books and read voraciously, as cable television had not yet reached his city.
So, he naturally concedes there is a bit of irony in the fact that once the Indian diplomat and author finally got around to writing his own book in his 40s, it was a film that ended up catapulting it to dizzying levels of international fame.
His first book,”Q&A”, did well on its own merit, but its adaptation into the Oscar-winning film, “Slumdog Millionaire” poured gasoline on the fire.
Mr. Swarup wrote the book over a two-month period in 2003 while serving at the Indian High Commission in London. He’d always been a thinker, but his writing “trigger” was a mix of peer pressure and inspiration. At the High Commission’s Nehru Center, he frequently saw writers speak about their new books. At the same time, some of his diplomatic colleagues were dipping their toes into fiction.
“It really started as a challenge to myself. Can I do it? And I call myself a very lucky writer because I got accepted with my first book. I don’t have a pile of rejection slips that I had to cope with,” he told Global Atlanta during a visit to Atlanta hosted by the Halle Institute for Global Learning during Emory University’s India Week, nearly two weeks before today’s announcement that he had been tapped as the new spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
While he was living abroad at the time of all three of his novels, the idea for “Q&A” itself was firmly grounded in Mr. Swarup’s Indian experience, its current affairs and his willingness to grapple with some of the developmental demons his country faces while telling an ultimately optimistic story about its future.
“For me, the spark for my imagination has always come from real life, and I always mention this: Just reading one day’s newspaper in India can give you plots for at least six or seven novels, because there is so much happening in India,” he said.
All his life he was a self-proclaimed “quizzer,” enjoying the accumulation of mundane facts like the names of national capitals and the number of spokes on the Indian flag. Then, along came “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, the quiz show that skyrocketed in popularity in India because it carried with it not only the promise of 1 crore (10 million) rupees in prize money, but also the idea that even the “man on the street” had a chance to change his fortunes.
“At 9 p.m., when (host and Bollywood “king” Amitabh Bachchan) would come on the screen, people used to become positively anti-social. Weddings used to be interrupted so that guests could first watch the show and then get on with the wedding. It was crazy,” Mr. Swarup said.
A few years before that, Mr. Swarup had become fascinated with a program run by NIIT in the slums of Delhi. Through the “Hole in the Wall” project, the tech company installed an outward-facing computer in the wall that its office shared with the slum. Over time, children with no formal education began to learn how to use it.
“That revealed to me that perhaps God gives all of us the same ability. God doesn’t give all of us the same opportunity,” he said.
He wanted his book to convey the human potential of even the so-called lowest members of society, and the quiz show became the ultimate “framing device” for the novel, a love story that follows a slum-dweller’s ascent to a spotlight that promises wealth but which he uses as a platform to find his lost childhood love. His answers to the quiz show come from his life experiences, not the formal schooling of which he had been deprived.
“The point I wanted prove was that the biggest teacher is life itself. You can go to Emory or you can go to Georgia Tech or wherever, but the lessons that life teaches you, no professor can teach you those kinds of lessons,” he said, noting that the elites in India and the U.S. alike tend to lord their book knowledge over the uneducated classes.
“We think these guys are idiots, that they don’t know anything, and I’ve always been tremendously impressed by the amount of wisdom and common sense these folks possess. They also have a point of view; it’s just that we don’t relate to that and consider them worthy of being our interlocutors,” he said.
Here is, perhaps, where Mr. Swarup’s fiction blends with his day job as a diplomat. In both roles, he is seeking to tell the story of India and to portray the underlying optimism he believes shines through its darkest challenges.
In each of his novels, he uses what he calls a framing device. It’s the quiz show in “Q&A”. In “Six Suspects”, it’s a murder investigation that embroils people from all walks of life and even one foreigner. In “The Accidental Apprentice”, it’s the seven life tests that a poor girl must pass before inheriting a $10 billion company.
“It’s been a conscious decision on my part to try to capture the vitality of India, and because India is such a complex country, a single narrative can never do justice to it,” he said.
India is still a stark land of contrasts, home to one of the highest concentrations of billionaires and a fast-growing middle class, but also to an equally large poor population living on less than $1 per day.
Mr. Swarup believes a pervasive optimism is trickling down even to that level of society, and he resists the notion that living abroad for 30-plus years makes it harder for him to keep his finger on the pulse of life. The country is “in his DNA,” and observing from a distance — aided by modern telecommunications, of course — lends perspective that’s hard to achieve when caught up in the “passion of the moment.” Besides, diplomacy has taught him to choose words wisely, and to tackle tough topics honestly but delicately.
“In a sense, I do cover some of the social evils of India, but eventually I think all three of my novels are optimistic pieces. There is light at the end of the tunnel,” Mr. Swarup says. “There are people you will see who have not even a scrap of clothing on their body, but yet the guy has a smile on his face because he believes his tomorrow will be better than his today, and that’s what impresses people about India, that people can have such an optimistic view of life despite living in depressing, dehumanizing conditions.”
Mr. Swarup on April 1 was named the next official spokesman for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Read more on that news here.
Visit his author website at www.vikasswarup.net.