Vikas Swarup was born in Allahabad. He tells me his earliest memories are of a sprawling house, two Alsatians and his grandfather’s magnificent library, which instigated his love of books. He became a diplomat somewhat by default. Even though he was born into a family of lawyers, his mother didn’t want any of her sons to get into law. He considered engineering, but The Principles of Theoretical Physics, gave him the jitters. Science and medicine were ruled out because the anaesthetised frogs he dissected in biology always died ghastly deaths. Eventually, it was decided that he should join the Indian Foreign Service. For 27 years he has happily been roaming the world, and since the publication of his first novel Q&A, published in 2005 and written in just two months, he has gone on to become one of India’s most successful writers.
We met recently in Bhubaneswar, at a literary festival organised by this paper, a week before Cyclone Phailin battered the coast of Odisha. Vikas is one of those writers who could easily inspire irritation in other writers. One: He has a real job. Two: Who writes a novel in two months? Three: How does that novel go on to be made into a major motion picture, raking in Oscars and Golden Globes, and getting translated into 44 languages? It’s the kind of dream run that even the most imaginative writer couldn’t script. The thing is, he’s a genuinely nice guy to boot.
Q&A was a game-changer for Vikas, and he was as flummoxed as anyone about its success. “I thought it was a very ‘Indian’ book and only readers in India would be able to relate to it. So the fact that it has found a worldwide readership has come as a pleasant surprise. No one gave the film (Slumdog Millionaire) a chance, made on a shoestring budget with Indian actors and technicians, but it managed to stun the world.”
The notion of “Indianness” in writing has been a contentious debate on the lit-fest scene forever. The argument, essentially, is this: If you write in English you’re pandering to a Western audience and your authenticity has more cracks than a Ming Vase. Vikas doesn’t fall into the crossfire of this debate because despite having written all his books outside of India, his three novels remain deeply rooted to India and its contemporary concerns. Q&A uses a series of flashbacks reminiscent of Indian oral storytelling, but pivots the plot around the modern phenomenon of Kaun Banega Crorepati. Six Suspects was inspired by the Jessica Lal murder case, and The Accidental Apprentice gives a nod to yet another TV show (The Apprentice), while exploring the problem of corruption in India. In all his books, and indeed in his own life, the role of chance (is there a more Indian idea?) is vital.
Vikas’s literary heroes are “the grand old writers”—Hemingway, Premchand, Steinbeck and Camus. Despite the fact that his travelling bookshelf is now his iPad, and all his books have or will be turned into films, the book is still an object of multi-dimensional glory for him. “Only through reading can we learn to use the mind’s eye, and escape to literally any place a human mind can imagine. Books are repositories of our collective dreams and memories, of histories, of values, of our very identity.”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.