An Indian diplomat’s sophisticated murder mystery
Unless you were living under a rock this past Oscar season, you’ve undoubtedly heard the buzz about Slumdog Millionaire. But what you might not know is that Danny Boyle’s beloved film was actually the adaptation of a successful novel, Q&A, from Indian diplomat turned author Vikas Swarup.
Swarup’s new novel, focused on the murder of a high society Indian playboy with a knack for getting out of trouble, is not your typical murder mystery. Instead, Six Suspects intricately weaves the stories of six different people (the six suspects of the murder in question) against a fascinating backdrop of modern India.
Swarup, who comes from a family of lawyers, currently serves as India’s Deputy High Commissioner in South Africa. Adept at juggling his diplomatic career with his writing career, he answered questions from BookPage after completing work on Indian’s recent parliamentiary elections.
Six Suspects narrates the lives of six people—seven, if you count journalist Arun Advani’s columns. What was it like writing from so many different perspectives?
It was quite difficult. The difficulty stemmed not so much from the second book syndrome as from my choice of narrative structure. Writing about the interior lives of six different characters is much more complex than writing about the interior life of one character as in Q&A. I had to experiment with voice, with technique and at the same time ensure that my story remained coherent within the confines of the schematic space signposted by the section headings—Murder, Suspects, Motives, Evidence . . .
In the same vein, you cover such a vast range of characters, occupations and complex legal and social situations. How did you do your research?
I was trying to give the readers a glimpse of modern India through six different eyes. So you had to have a diverse range of characters covering a wide social spectrum. Research meant poring over books dealing with the Onge tribe in the Andaman Islands, learning about the modus operandi of mobile phone thieves, discussions with police officers on firearms, and a crash course in Texan English! The Internet was certainly a big help.
Did any of your characters surprise you as the narration progressed? Or did you plot out exactly who did what and when before you started writing?
I think several did. For instance, when I first started writing the diary of the Bollywood actress I thought of her as a vain, flippant celebrity who couldn’t see below the surface. I had initially conceived of her diary entries as being in the vein of chick-lit. But she surprised me with her erudition and emotional depth. She starts out as a clichéd sex symbol but by the end the reader has started feeling sympathetic towards her. The plot also mutated as the book went along.
This may be an impossible question for a writer, but do you have a favorite character in Six Suspects?
I think it is the stone-age tribesman Eketi. The choice of Eketi as a character was inspired by a report I had read of how during the 2004 tsunami the primitive tribes of the Andaman had remained safe using their powers of medicine and magic. I was interested in the interplay between two totally diverse cultures; what would happen when a primitive tribesman is confronted by the glittering lights of the modern world. Although I did a lot of research, eventually I had to get under the skin of the character and that proved to be quite difficult. How do you know how a stone-age tribesman behaves, what he thinks?
Despite your career as an Indian diplomat, you’ve been remarkably frank in depicting your home country in your fiction. Do you have any concerns about giving the rest of the world such an honest slice of Indian life?
Well, first of all, what I write is fiction. I do not wear my diplomat’s hat when I write fiction and my government allows me that freedom. As a writer, I have complete liberty to express myself in a literary work as long as it is clear that the views expressed do not represent the views of my government or mine in my official capacity. I also don’t feel defensive about what I write because at core I am extremely optimistic about India and that comes through in my novels, as well.
Tell us about your writing process. When and where do you do your best work?
Because I have a full-time day job, I do not have the luxury of writing whenever I want to. Besides, I can only write when I have a clear horizon ahead of me and no interruptions. So I write early in the mornings and on weekends only.
Has the success of Slumdog Millionaire had any effect on the way you approach your work as a writer?
When your first novel becomes such a huge success, the pressure on the second novel is much more. But I always ask myself the question, do I have a story to tell? As it turned out, I didn’t have just one story to tell, I had six, hence Six Suspects. The success of the first book has made me somewhat more self-conscious as a writer. But the good thing is, I still see myself primarily as a storyteller.
Six Suspects has already been optioned for film. Do you expect to be any more involved in this adaptation than you were in the making of Slumdog?
Six Suspects is a more ambitious book than Q&A. The characters are very diverse, the resolution is much more complex. So certainly I would take a much closer look at how it is translated onto the screen. In fact, I am myself curious to see how John Hodge (he has just been commissioned as the screenplay writer) adapts it. Whodunits are notoriously difficult to film. You can disguise the murderer in the novel, but how do you disguise it in a film, where everything is in your face?
What do you like to read for pleasure? Any recent favorites?
I have read many authors and many books over the years, from Albert Camus to Irving Wallace. I have been a big fan of the thriller genre, but I have enjoyed contemporary literary works as well, such as Coetzee’s Disgrace, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and the novels of Haruki Murakami.
What can we expect from you next? Do you have plans for a third novel? If so, can you tell us anything about it?
As long as I feel I have stories to tell, I will write. I have already begun my third novel. For a change, it is set outside India.