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Who wants to be a millionaire? Ask Vikas Swarup

February 01, 2005 20:22 IST
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The huge success of Q&A, his debut novel, has left Vikas Swarup bemused.

Published by Doubleday, the novel has been translated into 14 languages. Film Four of UK has bought the movie rights, while audio and musical versions will also be launched. And, it has made Swarup a millionaire.

Q&A is the story of an 18-year-old waiter, Ram Mohammad Thomas, who lives in a Mumbai slum. His troubles start when he wins a jackpot on the television programme Who Will Win a Billion? The television show producers suspect his ability and get him arrested for cheating. The novel unfolds as Ram tells his life story to Smita Shah, his lawyer.

Swarup, 43, is a director in the office of External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh. A career diplomat, he has served 18 years in the foreign ministry with postings across the world, including Washington, London, Turkey and Ethiopia.

Swarup -- who prefers to speak Hindi as it is spoken in Allahabad, his hometown, while at home with his painter-wife Aparna and children Aditya and Varun -- told Senior Editor Sheela Bhatt about the genesis of his novel, and why he sees no contradiction over his simultaneously wearing the hats of best-selling author and senior diplomat.

Why a novel?

I was very happy with my career. I was not set to become a writer. In 2003, I was alone in London. My family had gone to India. I thought I would try writing fiction. I wanted to know if I could write or not. I got an idea and I thought let me develop it. I gave a challenge to myself. I was trying out.

I never had urge to write. Maybe London, which is the literary hub of Europe, influenced me. I thought, the agents are here, the publishers are here, so I wrote it in London.

I have read only fiction. I am a die-hard thriller fan. I have read (James Hadley) Chase, (Edgar) Wallace and many more, but my book is in genre of its own. It has the pace of thriller, yet it has a social commentary which you will find in literary work. It's a perfect marriage of both.

My editor calls it commercial literary fiction. When a writer writes, he puts his subjective vision before the objective public. A successful book is one where the readers' expectation matches the writer's expectations.

I'll take it in my stride if it does not achieve commercial success. But the response has been very good. As the book is reaching readers, I am on cloud nine. I have feeling of exhilaration along with apprehension.

I don't want to be branded as a writer catering to Western sensitivity. This is an Indian novel, rooted in Indian tradition, written with Indian idioms. It is an Indian story of Indian characters in the Indian milieu. There is no karma in my novel. There is no dharma in my novel. I wanted the perfect marriage of plot and prose.

How did you find a publisher?

I wrote four-and-a-half chapters and started looking for agents. What is the use of writing if I don't get a publisher? I sent it to 10 publishers in London whose addresses I got it from a writer's handbook. There was an eleventh agent whose name I got from a web site. I sent it to him too. The next day he responded. Peter Buckman was living in Oxford, and he came down to my home.

My friends advised me before he came: 'If he asks for money to get your book printed, don't sign!'

Later, I found I was his first client. He told me at the first meeting that my book was realistic, it had a fast pace, and it has lovable characters. He asked me to complete my book so that he could market it.

In 2003, I was posted back to India. I had no time to finish it. It was August 2003, and I had one more month in London. The plot was in my mind, so I took up the challenge and wrote down the remaining chapters in one month. Over one weekend I wrote 20,000 words! I sent the book on September 11 and left London on September 12. Soon, Buckman got a publisher for me.

What inspired the plot about a quiz show?

I wanted to write something different, so I decided to write on a quiz show. In a quiz show there is tension. The tension between the person asking the questions and the person answering. I wanted my plot to be big. I thought Kaun Banega Crorepati is passé, so it is Kaun Banega Arabpati? (Who Will Win a Billion?) That's a tantalising prospect.

If my contestant is a millionaire, it does not create tension to give a billion to a millionaire. I produced contrast. Here is a pauper contesting for a billion, and he gets it. The tension is palpable.

I read a newspaper report that street children in India have begun using the mobile Net facility. That gave me an idea. They had intuitively understood technology. You normally don't expect street children to surf the World Wide Web. We think they are uneducated people who do not go to schools. How can they think about the Internet? Here it was a reality.

I thought, why not have an unlettered person appear on a quiz show, where difficult questions are asked and through his real-life experiences he answers all of them.

Don't forget, the Who Wants to be a Millionaire programme was a global phenomenon, shown everywhere, in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Turkey, Russia. The theme was universal. Here is a poor contestant who appears in a show and wins a billion. How he does it is my story.

What is the plot?

My chapter starts with, 'I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.' He is a pauper arrested for winning the quiz show. A lawyer comes to his help.

He does not know Smita Shah, but since she came to save him, he accepts her help. He does not have money to pay her. He cannot even hire a taxi. Smita is a sutrdhar of the novel who appears in all chapters. She speaks well. She brings him to her home. She asks him how he did it. How did he know all the answers?

He says, 'I don't know why I knew the answers. May be, my life is such that I came to know the answers.'

She asks, 'Let me go over your whole life.'

He says, 'May I start with year number one?'

She says , 'No, with question number one.'

That is how there are 12 chapters in the novel and the last chapter is named the thirteenth question, when he wins the jackpot. I have explained his life story in each chapter and at the end comes the question.

The difficult part of writing is plotting. I had to follow the etiquette of the quiz show. In the quiz show, easy questions are at the beginning and the tough one are at the end. It has to be good mix of questions on sports, science, history and other subjects.

The toughest part is to ensure the questions are integral to the story. The readers should not feel that because of the questions I have contrived the story. Readers should feel that because of his life story he has been able to answer the questions.

The second question to Ram on the quiz show is, 'What is written on the Cross? NRI, INRI or RNI?'

He explains how he became an orphan when he was left in a dustbin after birth. The first six years of his life he spends with a priest.

My chapters are realistic, closer to life. That makes it unpredictable too. He meets an Australian diplomat, he becomes a guide at the Taj Mahal.

I try to say that don't dismiss somebody because his circumstances are bad. My plot revolves around Delhi, Agra and Mumbai.

What about your hero?

I have tried to do justice to my character Ram Mohammad Thomas. I have described his life story from birth to 18. When I started writing I only knew he would be a waiter and an orphan. I had a bare-bones outline of him. As I kept writing, his character came to light. Since I wrote it in first person very soon I was able to get under his skin.

If I have been able to succeed in creating a character which is believable, which is realistic, with which people can identify and can empathise with, I will feel my job as a writer is over. This is the best novel I could have written at that point of time.

Where does Amitabh Bachchan come in?

Amitabh is from the Boy's High School in Allahabad where I have studied. He was in my mind as, after all, the premise of the book is a rip-off of Kaun Banega Crorepati. There are references to him. Amitabh Bachchan became a big influence all over India. The show became a national obsession because of him. I don't think any other anchor would have been able to bring the charisma Amitabh Bachchan brought. I was definitely impressed.

My grandfather, who was a friend of (Amitabh's father) Harivanshrai Bachchan, inculcated the reading habit in me at an early age. By 14, I had read the works of Harivanshrai Bachchan.

What about criticism?

Yes, I am told my book is commercial. But I do not write only for myself. I write with the reader's sensibility in mind. When I put my book before the reader, I say that if you buy my novel, it will be worth your while. It will be worth your money, effort and time. To that extent it is commercial.

A critic said my book has footpath lingo. My character cannot leave the footpath language as he belongs there. I have to keep that ambience. I cannot make my character literary . I have shown him at the Regal theatre, where he goes to a particular urinal. He uses certain language. There is no way he can start reciting poetry.

My book can not be rollicking read if my characters are not true to themselves. Ram Mohammad Thomas is a street kid. He learns English at an early age with the help of a priest. The magic language opens doors for him. I have commented subtly that how we elevate people who know English and we don't care to respond to people who speak Hindi. I want to translate the book into Hindi.

What next?

That is a million dollar question. Hopefully another novel. It will be sooner rather than later. I have a plot in my mind but don't have time to put it down on paper because of my job. I am certainly not quitting my job. There are no inherent conflicts of interest or contradiction in my jobs. I can be a writer and diplomat.

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