Keeping the day job

It may have been Simon Beaufoy who crafted the words on the screen, yet the concept for Slumdog Millionaire came straight from Vikas Swarup.

While living alone in London, he wrote a draft for the book Q&A: A Novel. With few obstacles, his book was published, the screenplay rights were purchased and eight Oscars later, Swarup hasn’t let it all go to his head.


"I am the luckiest author in the world," he calmly says while on a trip to Hong Kong. "I don’t have a pile of rejection slips and 10 unpublished novels languishing in my cupboard. 1 wrote my debut novel Q&A in two months, found an agent almost immediately and he found a publisher within a few months. The rest, as they say, is history."

In fact, many fans would be surprised to hear that Swarup still keeps his job serving as India’s Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa. So if he comes off as diplomatic, that’s simply because he is.

"My day job is very different to what I write in my novels: he observes. As a diplomat my main job is to represent my country – explain its policies and strengthen and deepen relations between my country and the host country.

I take great pride in representing my country, especially at a time when India is the flavor of the world. So I prefer to describe myself as a diplomat who writes."

Being able to quit the day job is often the dream for most would be authors, but Swarup’s near fairy tale story certainly was only just beginning. He was approached for the film rights a year before the book was published. Beaufoy even approached him for comments after the first draft of the script. From there, the road from novel to film began to go down a very different path.

"Slumdog Millionaire is a really a creative interpretation of my book," says Swarup about the Oscar winning film. "While the framing device and narrative structure of the film is taken straight from my book, I was sorry to see that Rom Mohammed Thomas had morphed into Jamal Malik in the film and Salim had transformed from a young boy into a gangster."

Slumdog MillionaireAnother major difference was the transformation of Nita, a prostitute in the book, into Latika, a childhood friend in the film. "Again, it’s one of those things, " says Swarup with a sigh…

"Nita is the reason Ram gets on the quiz show in the first place. In the film, however, the love story becomes the central theme with destiny at its core. However, I think both the book and the film are really about the energy and ingenuity of India and its never say die spirit."

Though there were reports that Swarup felt somewhat distant from the film’s eventual success, he’s quick to dismiss such claims by giving full recognition and appreciation for what the cast and director Donny Boyle achieved.

He’s equally dismissive of the subsequent controversy over its portrayal of the poor and impoverished in India.

"Where it differs from traditional Bollywood films is that it is a gritty, realistic take on life in India rather than the escapist entertainment of mainstream Hindi films," he says. "There’s room for both kinds of films to co-exist and I’ve certainly always been impressed by the resilience, dignity, energy and ingenuity of people living in the slums."

As for the future, about the only controversy Swarup is likely to face is how his next novel will be received once it hits the big screen.

Six Suspects is a story about six different people who are all suspects in a murder investigation. "I wanted to experiment with a polyphonic narrative," he explains.

"So using the anatomy of murder as the framing device, I have tried to plot a narrative with six different voices of a retired bureaucrat, a Bollywood actress, an ambitious politician, a mobile phone thief, a credulous American and even a stone-age tribesman. It is my attempt to capture the dissonant pitch of our times."

The BBC has already optioned the film rights and are currently in talks with a top scriptwriter. Swarup will no doubt be dreaming up his third novel while on the beat of his dayjob.