“India’s complexity requires a multi-level perspective”

Diplomat-turned-author Vikas Swarup describes his three novels as “social thrillers.” Two of them came on screen – Slumdog Millionairebased on Questions and answers (2005) and the web series The Great Indian Murderbased on Six suspects (2008).

The series, which will premiere on Disney+ Hotstar on February 4, was directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and adapted by him, Vijay Maurya and Puneet Sharma. The cast includes Richa Chadha, Pratik Gandhi, Ashutosh Rana, Jatin Goswami, Raghuvir Yadav, Amey Wagh, Paoli Dam, Sharib Hashmi and Mani PR.

The novel follows the investigation into the murder of Vicky Rai, the spoiled son of a politician. The suspects include Vicky’s father, a former bureaucrat who claims to be Mahatma Gandhi, and Eketi, an Onge tribe from the Andamans. “Besides, it’s a classic thriller, but inside there’s the six-subject backstory that brings nuance and complexity,” said Swarup, 60. Scroll.in.

An Andamanese, a mobile thief, an American simpleton: why these six suspects?
An American is an obvious outsider. Eketi was inspired by what I read about Andamanese tribes such as the Sentinels after the 2004 tsunami. They repel any outsider trying to reach their shores. I thought it would be fascinating if they came into direct conflict with modern civilization. Eketi, for me, represents the consciousness of civilization. We call them savages, but his presence makes us think, what are we?

If we want to make India’s complexity accessible, we can’t do it with just one story. We need to give it a perspective on many levels. I could have written the novel with four politicians and two businessmen, but it would give you the same kind of perspective.

The Great Indian Murder (2022).

‘Six Suspects’ is quite the pot. However, it took time to make it a series.
Six suspects was difficult to film. Questions and answers followed by a single lovable central character. In Six suspectsthere is no center of gravity, no sympathetic characters.

The rights belonged to a British company for six years before a Chinese company bought them. So much later, [producer] Priti Sinha and Tigmanshu Dhulia came on board.

With all the adaptations, something is gained, but also lost, like the peculiarities, the interior monologues. For example, the protagonist of Questions and answers was Ram Mohammad Thomas because I wanted my protagonist to be iconic of India. Corn [Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter] Simon Beaufoy wanted to create a western version of Deewar. He had to make the two orphan characters brothers and then you have to give them a family setup, which is how Ram Mohammad Thomas became Jamal Malik.

The hero of ‘Q&A’ ​​is from Dharavi. “Six Suspects” features characters from different social strata. What does your research process look like?
Research can get you to a point and then you are free to do whatever you want. You do whatever it takes to create an authentic backdrop. In this context, the sky is the limit.

During a book-reading session in Mumbai after Questions and answers was out, a lady asked me how many years I had lived in Dharavi. She said she could smell Dharavi from my novel. She was disappointed to know that I had never been to Dharavi.

Some characters are larger than life because they need to grab the reader. My character must obey the laws that I create for this fictional universe. If your backdrop is believable, the antics become secondary. Characters can do unique and exaggerated things. But if the reader doesn’t know whether it’s Mumbai or Delhi, the story won’t work.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

How did you become a novelist?
I had always been a reader but I had no desire to write fiction even when I was, say, stationed in Addis Ababa for three years. There would be hardly any Indian delegations coming. I could have produced 10 novels at the time.

It was when I was posted to London later that the idea of Questions and answers came to me. I saw a book launch every Friday at the Nehru Center. During this time, Kaun Banega Crorepati was becoming popular. A British major [Charles Ingram] was suspected of cheating on the original UK show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? All of these things made me consider writing fiction. I finished the novel in two and a half months.

I call my books social thrillers because I try to give an insight into contemporary Indian society in an exciting way. I grew up reading a lot of thrillers and mystery novels: Agatha Christie, Alistair MacClean, Desmond Bagley, Irving Wallace, James Hadley Chase. I also read Albert Camus or Franz Kafka, but what really interested me was the page-turning quality of thrillers.

I had mostly read Hindi or Western writers, but few Indian writers in English except for Raja Rao and Khushwant Singh. So I read Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Salman Rushdie, Raj Kamal Jha. I found out they were writing about society. Now, I didn’t want to write about society as I saw it because I felt it would be bland, so I decided to marry the two, which led to social thrillers.

How has diplomacy influenced your writing?
What diplomacy has taught me is happiness with words. We are trained to use words very carefully. A bad adjective can rock diplomatic relations. I didn’t have English literature as a subject either, nor did I attend any creative writing workshops. I had only been a reader. So the training I received as a diplomat served me well in the transition from reader to writer.

Writing fiction has given me opportunities I wouldn’t have had as a diplomat. For example, I was invited to universities to speak, because I was both a diplomat and the author of Slumdog Millionaire.

When I was sent to Osaka-Kobe [Japan] as consul general, I had to meet the governor of the province. I was told that the governor often took up to three months to meet with a consul general because he was busy. But he said he could meet me in a week because he knew I had written Slumdog Millionaire.

A lot of people don’t know this, but if you’re an Indian government official, you don’t need official permission to write a book. But I needed permission to accept royalties because I received income from the government. And because I was in the Indian Foreign Service, I had to sign a pledge that my book said nothing against foreign governments or jeopardize our bilateral relations.

Vikas Swarup.

What is your writing routine?
Once I have an idea, I let the seed germinate for a long time, sometimes months. Then I start fleshing out the characters and their arcs in my head, which also takes several months.

When I was a diplomat in service, I got up at five in the morning and I wrote until 8:30 or nine in the morning. I would go to the office, I would come back in the evening, I would do research and I would surf the Internet because I cannot write in the evening. I only had a six to seven hour break on the weekends, which is when I wrote the most. But once I became High Commissioner to Canada, I didn’t have weekends, so I haven’t written since 2013.

After retiring last year, I moved to Greater Noida from Delhi. I started working on something but my tv show Sansad Diplomatic Dispatch now takes up most of my time. The writing has taken a step back, but I’ll write again once I’m more comfortable. I still have many stories in me.

Sharon D. Cole