Rough diamond

2009-01-29 00:00

“I went to bed and when I woke up the next morning the phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped.”

Vikas Swarup (47) is comfortably seated in the upholstered oxblood-colour leather sofa in his spacious office at the Indian High Commission in Pretoria.

Swarup says he has been staggered by the response since Slumdog Millionaire, the film based on his runaway hit novel Q&A (published in 2005), walked away with trophies at the Golden Globe awards in Hollywood recently: for best motion picture — drama, best screenplay, best original score and best director.

Swarup is uncomfortable with all the attention. Says he. He is a diplomat, after all. “Minister and deputy high commissioner of India,” it says on his business card.

How involved was he with the writing of the screenplay? Not much, he says. “You know, in a way the author isn’t really a part of the film project. The screenplay writers and the film makers do what they like with the idea and the storyline. The author him or herself isn’t central to the story.”

How far, if at all, does Slumdog deviate from Q&A? “The movie retains the essential theme of the book, namely how an extremely poor waiter, a tea boy from a slum in Mumbai, manages to win India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and pockets the 20 million rupees cash prize.

“And that he is suspected of cheating during the programme, since no one can believe that a poor boy with no formal education could know the answers to all the questions. Kids from the slums are not supposed to have such a broad general knowledge.”

How does he account for the success and popularity of an Indian writer’s work, also bearing in mind that Aravind Adiga recently won the Man Booker Prize for his debut, The White Tiger? “Two things,” says Swarup. “I think the most important one is that the stories coming out of India are different from those from Europe and the United States. The stories of people who lead a comfortable middle-class life tend to deal with love, marriages and divorces and, how shall I put it, the trivialities of life.

“In large Indian cities most people lead extremely poor lives and, as I [have] put it, at ground zero of survival. That makes for gripping reading.

“On the other hand, we also use English differently from the way a British or American writer does. I think readers like the way we use English.”

“More visually?”

“Exactly! Very visually, very rich and fertile, very exotic. The 1997 Booker winner, Arundhati Roy, virtually created a new language to write The God of Small Things.”

Yes, he does read the work of other Indian writers. He rattles off the names of the best-known ones: “Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, V. S. Naipaul and Kiran Desai …”

Swarup sees his writing as “not really part of the Indian literary tradition, or whatever”.

“Yes, to some extent it is,” he concedes, “because my stories take place in India. But I don’t want to pretend to be in the same stream as Naipaul [literature Nobel laureate]. Because my books are different.

“You see, most Indian authors write literary fiction. That’s the standard, but I feel that kind of writing isn’t accessible to the broad mass of readers. I try to bridge that gap with my books.”

By making his writing more accessible? “Exactly!” he says. “Accessibility, that’s my watchword. My books must be accessible.”

What does he read? “I grew up with Kafka and Camus.” But nowadays time constraints make him a selective reader. He enjoys reading books that will help him with his own writing: “Books with a strong storyline, books that grab and grip one. Books by authors with a strong voice and who know how to develop characters.

“For example, I like the work of Haruki Murakami, South African authors such as J. M. Coetzee and I’m a great fan of Nadine Gordimer. It was a pleasure and an honour for me to meet and get to know her.

“A bestseller is often a book with a theme that is so obvious that many people, writers, will say goodness me, why didn’t I think of that?”

Q&A is a striking example. How did he hit on the idea for his novel? “From the unbelievable popularity of the TV programme Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and a news report about a project called ‘Hole in the wall’. An organisation decided to install a computer with Internet access in a hole in a wall in an Indian slum so that it could not be stolen.

“They left the computer there without showing anyone how it worked. A few months later they came back and found children using the Internet.

“It was unbelievable. I also had to ask myself, ‘How is something like that possible, that these kids, children who had never read a newspaper, never been to school, managed to do that?’ I think there is something intuitive about technology, an inborn ability. Proof that if children, people, get the opportunity, they are capable of miracles.

“So I wanted to show that book knowledge is not the only way to knowledge. Streetwiseness can also equip you.”

He says his books have already been described as an “entertaining read with social commentary”.

“But my point of departure is not, and never has been, to write a piece of critique of India’s social conditions. Nor has it been to take the reader on a tour of India.”

He makes ticks in the air with his index finger. “Like Indian poverty, tick! Indian elephants, tick! Indian weddings, tick!”

He never thought he could write, says Swarup. “At high school I wrote essays and did other creative writing just like everyone else.”

In 1996, he joined the foreign service. “I had never written any fiction until I was transferred to London in 2002.”

There he saw how many new books were published every day and how many new authors entered the market. “Many of my colleagues attached to the old commissariat also wrote and published.” So he thought, “If they can write, so can I.”

He started writing in secret, more as a challenge to himself. He writes in English, but thinks in his mother tongue, Hindi. Sometimes he develops the dialogue in Hindi and then translates it into English, “but it’s a kind of translation that captures the character of the Hindi dialect”.

“So, although the books are written in English, the soul is still Hindi.”

• Slumdog Millionaire will open in South African movie theatres on March 6.

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