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'Slumdog Millionaire opens doors for me as a diplomat'

Last updated on: November 03, 2018 10:43 IST

'If I get posted to a place, if people engage with me just as an Indian diplomat, I have X amount of leverage.'
'But when they look at me as the high commissioner of India and the author of Slumdog Millionaire, many more people are willing to meet me, more quickly than they would as a pure diplomat.'

Ambassador Vikas Swarup, standing behind Anil Kapoor, as Slumdog Millionaire wins the Oscar for Best Picture

IMAGE: Ambassador Vikas Swarup, standing behind Anil Kapoor, as Slumdog Millionaire, based on his book Q&A, wins the Oscar for Best Picture. Photograph: Gary Hershorn/Reuters

He has described himself as a diplomat who writes, and an accidental author.

Vikas Swarup, author of the 2005 novel Q&A, which was adapted into the 2008 global hit film Slumdog Millionaire, is a career diplomat who is now India's high commissioner to Canada, having arrived in Ottawa last year after a high-profile stint as the spokesman of the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi.

Three years after Q&A, he published Six Suspects, and five years later, The Accidental Apprentice. Is it time for his fourth book?

At the annual Toronto International Festival of Authors, where he was a speaker, Vikas Swarup tells Indira Kannan about his writing plans and why most of his books were written during his foreign postings.

 

Your second and third novels were also thrillers. Was that due to the success of Q&A?

What I wrote in Q&A was the kind of book I wanted to write, what I call my own genre of social thriller -- that's a peek at Indian society but in a thrilling kind of way .

You have described yourself as a diplomat who writes. Do you have a preference between the roles?

Primarily I'm a diplomat. I've been a diplomat for 33 years.

I became a writer accidentally when I was posted in London and I wrote Q&A in just the last two months of my posting there. I had no idea that it would become a global bestseller.

So I utilise the brand visibility of Slumdog Millionaire to open up more doors for me as a diplomat.

If I get posted to a place, if people engage with me just as an Indian diplomat, I have X amount of leverage. But when they look at me as the high commissioner of India and the author of Slumdog Millionaire, many more people are willing to meet me, more quickly than they would as a pure diplomat.

IMAGE: Novelist Shobhaa De, Vikas Swarup, novelist, diplomat and then ministry of external affairs spokesperson, director Kabir Khan and Saffron Art CEO Hugo Weihe at the Gateway Dialogue hosted by the think-tank Gateway House and the MEA. Photograph: Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com

How has the ministry of external affairs responded to your success as an author?

When Q&A became Slumdog Millionaire and won the Oscars, the very first thing I received was a letter from the then external affairs minister of India, Pranab Mukherjee, complimenting me on the huge success of the film and wishing me more creative endeavours on the writing side.

So the ministry has looked at it very positively, they look at it as an expansion of India's soft power in a sense because Indian literature is very much a part of India's soft power.

All your books have been written during your foreign postings. Is it easier to write abroad?

Look, Delhi is a madhouse. It's 24/7, the government loves to do stuff on weekends as well and don't forget, I was also the official spokesperson, I was travelling constantly with the prime minister and the foreign minister. So I had no time for myself at all, forget about writing something, I couldn't even conceptualise something.

But abroad, however busy you are, you still get slightly more time than you would get in Delhi. And the advantage of being an accidental writer is I have no deadline pressure. I choose to write when I have the ability and time to write.

Vikas Swarup

Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

You write when you are abroad, but your stories are all set in India. Have you considered including foreign locations, given your access and exposure to them?

Not really. I'm asked very often, why don't you write a cross cultural novel, starting in Cairo and ending in New York, with a spy angle and things like that. That would have interested me a few years ago but not now.

I think the world is hungry for stories out of India. So when there is such a hunger for information and news about India, then why as an Indian would I want to create something set outside India?

Having said that, nothing precludes me from writing such a story tomorrow if I get a very compelling subject in my head, but as of now my focus remains my mother country India.

You said you were an accidental author. What made you write Q&A?

There were two inspirations. One was the city of London itself, such a hub for the world of English language publishing, and the second was some of my contemporaries in the foreign service, who at that time were trying their hand at fiction.

When I read about their exploits, I said to myself, can I also write, do I have a story inside me? And I wrote it literally as a secret project, even my wife did not know I was writing something.

I finished it in two months and it was accepted for publication within three months of my finishing and the rest, as they say, is history.

Indira Kannan
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