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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Since its Man Booker win, Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger has sold over 285,000 copies in the UK alone. It has been sold to publishers for translation in over 26 countries.

I first read the book in May this year (and have been meaning to blog about it since then!), loved it and gave it a glowing review in the paper. When I visited India in June, I saw it had significant shelf space in the some of the hole in the wall bookstores you find next to the dhabas. It was a sign the book had arrived, well before the Booker judges ruled.

Aravind beat off competition from five other authors, including Amitav Ghosh, to win the prestigious literary prize this year. Judges felt the book won in the end because it "shocked and entertained in equal measure."

Michael Portillo, chairman of the judges said that through its protagonist Balram Halwai, "the novel undertakes the extraordinarily difficult task of gaining and holding the reader's sympathy for a thoroughgoing villain. The book gains from dealing with pressing social issues and significant global developments with astonishing humour."

I'd interviewed Aravind for another story after the big win. For those of you who missed it, here it is, in continuation of the spirit of sharing.

Q : Are you still surprised to see how well The White Tiger has travelled? Is the Booker recognition sinking in?
A :
Yes, I'm absolutely delighted. It's my first novel: I had no idea how it would be received. Every young writer dreams of being on the short-list of the Man Booker Prize; I'm overjoyed that the White Tiger made it there.

Q : What about critics' reactions about the other India - the no saffron, no ornamental prose, no silk saris etc?
A :
The book is set in the country I live in; and the problems that Balram Halwai, my protagonist, grapples are the problems that millions of Indians grapple with every day. Far too many Indian novels deal only with the middle-class. That class is real, but it covers only maybe one-third of this country. Below the middle-class starts another, greater India, of many hundreds of millions: men and women who are all but invisible in most Hindi films and English novels that come out of India. If this underclass is depicted, it is depicted incorrectly: the poor are sentimental, humourless, and obsessively religious weaklings who beg for the readers' pity. I've tried to capture a voice from the underclass that should delight, provoke, and disturb my readers.

Q : As a first time author was it hard to get your book published? Any painful rejections?
A :
Yes, I've been rejected many times. It's especially a problem when you live in India, with no real community of writers or critics around you - there is no support network when you face rejection. But failure forces you to confront the core issues: why do I write, and what do I want to write about if no one, absolutely no one, will ever read my writing?

Q : I still marvel at the fact that you managed to balance your journalism with your fiction. Did the two ever get in each other's way?
A :
I've always wanted to be a writer - there's never been any doubt in my mind as to which calling was more important. But you can't support yourself by churning out unpublished novels; and there is the danger that you get trapped in a room if you are just a writer. Journalism paid the bills, and gave me a chance to travel throughout India; it also forced me to overcome my innate shyness and talk to people. I always knew, however, that one day I would give up my job to write. I resigned from TIME magazine at the end of the 2005 to concentrate on my writing. Now I'm doing more journalism again.

Q : You've said Balram Halwai is a composite of various men. Who are some of these men? Did you entirely fictionalise the character?
Yes, Balram Halwai is a composite; many different men have been blended into this character and his voice. One example: some years ago, during my stay at a corporate guesthouse in Bangalore, I made friends with the cook, who was from Bihar. We got along famously. None of the other guests paid him any attention, but I found him delightful. He wanted me to buy him mutton (which was too expensive for him to get on his salary); in return, he told me stories about the rich men who had stayed at the guest-house, including one of India's most famous tycoons.
"The rest of the world thinks of that man as a saint," he said, "but I know the truth."
"What is the truth?" I asked him, as he was licking the mutton off his fingers.
"He makes his servants shampoo his dogs." He scowled in disgust. "What kind of human being forces another human being to clean his dogs?"
This became an episode in my novel; and the Bihari cook's tone of contempt towards the rich strengthened Balram Halwai's voice.

Q : What about Ashok? He has his moments, though the lesser ones seem to dominate.
A :
I've never thought of Ashok as an evil man; he has quite a bit of myself in him. He's liberal and essentially decent, as most of the middle-class is in India; but he is weak. He recognises the political system around him as corrupt and unjust, yet allows himself to be sucked into it: when his wife is involved with a fatal accident, for instance. Far too many of the liberal middle-class know that something has to change with the system, but they also know, secretly, that the corruption of the system will work in their favour if they get into trouble. This reduces their incentive to change how things work. Therein lies a great danger for India: because in the end, a bad system will bite everyone, the rich and the poor alike. And indeed, the middle-class in India, people like Mr Ashok, are as much the victims of the system as the under-class, even if they haven't yet realised it.

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Slumdog Millionaire is anything but an underdog film. Its made the critics sit up and take notice. But the film wouldn't have happened if not for Vikas Swarup's book Q&A.

Recounting an earlier interview done for my book show Off The Shelf. Yes, it was many Christmases ago.

Vikas Swarup, India's latest literary sensation earned a whooping six figure advance for his debut novel. Interestingly titled 'Q & A', the book has already been translated into fifteen languages.

And that's not all, a Hollywood movie based on the novel is already in the works. The book recounts the adventures of Ram Mohammad Thomas, who makes off with the jackpot on a quiz show called 'Who Wants to Be A Millionaire'.

A charming book, made even more fascinating by the name of its protaganist. Between travels to Pakistan and Afghanistan, diplomat and author Vikas Swarup takes the time for this exclusive chat with Deepika Shetty.

Q : Vikas, why the name Ram Mohammad Thomas?
A :
I wanted him to represent the richness and diversity of India, not just as a cliche.
And if you read the book, you'll see the name means a lot in the book. Ram Mohammad Thomas is not just a name.
He actually uses the three elements - the Hindu religion, the Christian religion and the Muslim religion when he interacts with various characters.
So for his Muslim friend Salim, he becomes Mohammad, for the Australian diplomat he becomes Thomas and for the Indian actress who is wary of keeping a Muslim servant he becomes Ram. So he does utilise his name to meet various circumstances.

Q : What was the inspiration for your plot?
A :
I had come across a news report some time back that slum children had begun using a mobile internet facility.
That is what set me thinking because normally you associate the internet with a certain level of sophistication.
You would expect people who are well educated, who read newspapers who would use the internet and here you had children from a slum who had never gone to school, had probably never read the newspapers, who were logging on to the worldwide web.
And that set me thinking that perhaps there is some innate ability in all us, that given the right opportunity can surface.
At the same time I wanted to tap into this global phenomena called 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire'. This is really the first televised globally syndicated quiz show.
So the idea was let's juxtapose the quiz show with a rather untypical contestant and that's why you had Q & A.

Q : You are a first time novelist, did you imagine the book would be this big?
A :
No, never. In fact when I wrote it, I wrote it primarily as an Indian book for an Indian audience. I had no idea it would be picked up publishers everywhere and would emerge as a global novel.

Q : Critics have called your book 'sweet, sorrowful and compelling'. In fact, your writing style has even been compared to the bestselling author Mark Haddon. That sounds like a dream come true for any author. How do you feel about all the positive reviews?
A :
I feel very, very gratified. I wrote this book primarily for myself. The book is about an Indian milieu, its set in India.
There is no attempt to exoticise places, it deals with the sordidness with India in a certain sense, the underbelly of urban India.
In fact, there is no attempt to pander to Western audiences, which is often a charge levelled against Indian authors who have an eye on the Western market.
So the fact that this has been accepted so willingly, and before the English publication, that is the best thing. Normally, a book becomes big in India and then its picked up by the rest of the world and then people say its all because of the hype.
And here I am an unknown author, I haven't been published in India, yet my book has been picked up by publishers from Brazil to Barcelona, that means something.
So I am very very gratified. I suppose the reason for that is that maybe at the core there is something universal about the book - its about the underdog winning and that's something that appeals to people in all cultures and communities.

Q : How long did it take to write it?
A : The actual writing took me only two months. I wrote this towards the end of my posting in London, when my wife and children preceded me to India and I was to go back to India after two months. That's when I decided to try my luck at writing and it just happened.

Q : Wow! What about the movie, were rights snapped up even before the book was out?
A : Absolutely! Film Four - they were very interested in the book. They felt the plot was compelling and that it would easily translate into celluloid. They snapped up the movie rights within a month of the acquisition of the book by Random House.

Q : Continuing our Q & A, are you already at work on your next novel?
A : (Laughs) No, I am at work in the office and I think I need a little bit of R&R (rest & recreation) before I start work on my next novel.

Q : You are a career diplomat in India, how did writing happen and how do you even find the time to write?
A : I suppose that is one of the big mysteries. I suppose all of us have some free time on our hands, diplomats do when they are posted abroad.
In India, of course its a nine to nine job and so there is no question of thinking anything beyond non-fiction. When we are posted overseas, we do have the time. It all depends on how you want to use it, some choose to spend it watching movies, reading books or with the family.
Since my family was away for two months, I decided to use my time thinking about a book and writing about it. I don't know if I'd be able to do this thing again in two month, maybe my wife has to go away again.

Q : What have been the influences on your writing, any writers you admire a lot?
A : Well, I've read a lot of writers over the years - everything from Albert Camus to James Hadley Chase. Subconsciously what you consider to be good writing does have an influence on you but in terms of writing style, I don't think you will see echoes of any particular writer or style.
I have written as only I can write. If I wanted to copy a writer, I don't think that's possible, you can only copy a plot. If you have a unique plot, like mine, then you have to write in a new style altogether.

Q : Did you have to deal with rejection in any form when it came to publishing 'Q & A?
A : No that's the surprising thing. I think I've been a very lucky writer. Basically I wrote four and a half chapters and sent it off to 10 agents.
I picked up the 11th agent off the internet, he liked the book and I had a deal. I am really one of those lucky authors who does not have a pile of rejection slips in my cupboard.

Q : Since you have no rejection slips, what would you say to aspiring writers?
A : Always chase your dreams. If you want to be a writer, then don't get disheartened by the first couple of rejection slips. As I have discovered it takes just one good agent to help you make your mark in the world. But the important thing is that your product must objectively be good.
There are writers I am sure, who think they have written the next Nobel Prize winning novel, but maybe the novel is not so good. So get objective advise. Consult your friends, your colleagues, consult those who read books and if they like your book then I don't think you should give up, you should keep on trying and I'm sure you will hit the jackpot someday.

Q : And before I let you, I just can't resist this question - will be see a Bollywood remake after the Hollywood version is out?
A : I certainly hope so.

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