Imagine this: An Indian diplomat in London churns out his first novel during a two-month hiatus before his next posting. The novel becomes an international best-seller and is translated into 42 languages. Before the book is even printed it has been optioned for a film, which goes on to win eight Academy Awards.
Sounds totally implausible, to be sure, but no more than the novel’s premise itself — that of an unschooled Indian waiter who triumphs on a TV quiz show.
The film, of course, is this year’s global hit, “Slumdog Millionaire,” and the diplomat is Vikas Swarup, 48, author of the book “Q&A” and a second novel, “Six Suspects.” Serving since August as the Indian consul general for the Kansai region, based in Osaka, the diplomat with a 23-year career discussed his improbable good fortune in a recent interview.
Except for a story in grade school, Swarup hadn’t published a word before writing “Q&A” in 2003. But inspired by London’s effervescent literary scene, he thought he might have a book in him.
“My first novel was a challenge to myself,” he recalled. “No one had an inkling that I was working on it. I wrote the book instinctively and with spontaneity, but the reason I could write it in two months was because the main character, Ram Mohammad Thomas, is just telling a story. I think much of the appeal of ‘Q&A’ is that it has the impact of an oral account.”
Even more than the simplicity of the story’s voice, what was appealing about the book, Swarup felt, was its unique structure, in which the protagonist’s life story is revealed through each question asked on a quiz show.
His model was the program “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” which was as big a hit in India as it was in the West (and in Japan, where “Millionaire” host Mino Monta’s query “Final answer?” has entered the local lexicon). He was also influenced by the 2001 case of Maj. Charles Ingram, who was convicted of cheating on a “Millionaire” broadcast in Britain.
Swarup himself, descended from a family of lawyers in the northern Indian city of Allahabad, would appear to have little in common with his “slumdog” protagonist. But he suggested that “with empathy you can imagine what character’s life and perspective would be like. That is what enables you to appropriate emotions that are beyond your domain.”
A year before the book was released by publisher Doubleday/Random House in 2005, U.K. producers Film4 optioned film rights for the story. “I was completely surprised, as there was really no tradition until then of Indian novels being made into movies by Western producers, except for period pieces,” Swarup said.
Swarup met with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who explained that the book title would be changed and some major scenes cut for the movie, but, he said, they “promised to be faithful to the soul of the book.”
As Swarup joked in a speech at the Japan Writers’ Conference in Kyoto in October, “When a filmmaker says that, you can be sure that the body will be pretty well mangled.” Still, Swarup diplomatically professed to be quite satisfied with the film adaptation, which retained the book’s central narrative structure.
Swarup was attending the movie’s Mumbai premiere when he learned that “Slumdog” had been nominated for a staggering 10 Academy Awards. The modest Indian civil servant suddenly came in for much more than 15 minutes of fame.
He recalled being hounded by the media for interviews and later finding himself, looking slightly bewildered, onstage at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on Oscar night, when “Slumdog” won eight of the awards it was up for, including Best Picture.
“Danny Boyle had said ‘I don’t care if we don’t win anything, but I wanted everyone involved with the movie to be there.’ ” That included the lead child actors from the Mumbai slums, who not surprisingly lacked passports or travel fare. Swarup, in his diplomatic guise, helped secure passports and U.S. visas for the children within 24 hours, allowing them to arrive in Los Angeles within days.
About the film’s global appeal, Swarup said, ” ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was the right film for the right time. Increasingly, the 21st century is about India and China. There has been interest in China for decades, but India is new territory. This was also a film about hope. At a time of economic crisis and uncertainty this uplifting film spoke to people about their hopes and aspirations.”
The current worldwide surge of interest in India may be sparked by the nation’s rollicking economic and population growth, but it also speaks to an increasing familiarization with Indian culture via yoga lessons, curry dinners, Bollywood films and Indian-inflected call center assistance.
This fascination extends to Indian literature in English, which is as common today on best-seller lists as it is on shortlists for literary awards.
“Indian writers have appropriated English as an Indian language, and that gives a certain freshness to the way we write. Also, the themes you can get in India and the kind of spectrum from the very high to the very low, from the call center worker to the day laborer, cannot be found elsewhere. It allows you to extract stories that give your writing such depth and richness.”
During a posting to South Africa, Swarup wrote his second novel, “Six Suspects,” which he described as a “murder mystery explored through the anatomy of a murder.” The book has also been optioned for a film by a production team that includes the BBC and the screenwriter John Hodge, best known for the film “Trainspotting.”
Swarup, who writes on weekends when he is not at official functions, is now working on his third book, a coming-of-age story set in a fictional Eastern European country.
Despite his tremendous literary successes, Swarup feels no desire to give up his day job. “I take pride in representing India. And what better time than now, when India’s story has caught the imagination of the world.”
He credits the Indian government for allowing him “full freedom for creative expression,” despite writing fairly harsh depictions of Indian corruption and police brutality in his fiction. “My books may highlight corruption, brutality and venality, but they also show that if these things come to light there is rectification. The voiceless do have a voice; democratic mechanisms and accountability do exist. So I think the eventual message is positive.”