HONG KONG — It’s an impossible story, really, how a modest fellow from a family of lawyers becomes a back-office diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service, writes his first novel in a feverish two months, finds a clientless agent over the Internet and has a British director turn his mid-list book into a movie that wins the best-picture Academy award and seven other Oscars.
The recent career trajectory of Vikas Swarup is nearly as preposterous as the plot of his novel, “Q & A,” the tale of an uneducated waiter from a Mumbai slum who wins a billion rupees on an Indian quiz show. Mr. Swarup, 47, recently found himself onstage at the Academy Awards, celebrating in the joyous scrum of young Indian actors from “Slumdog Millionaire.”
“Quite amazing,” he said in an interview here. “This kind of thing happens to Tom Cruise, not to authors. But I console myself that this too shall pass and life will return to normal.”
Any return to normal for Mr. Swarup, if that’s even possible now, could begin in Osaka, Japan, where this summer he will take over as consul general. His wife, Aparna, a painter, and their two sons will soon start packing for the move from their current posting in South Africa.
Mr. Swarup, during a brief Hong Kong vacation, was staying at the home of the Indian consul general, a longtime friend from the foreign service. During a long, animated conversation at the official residence on The Peak, an upscale neighborhood, the writer seemed genuinely amazed by his good fortune — with the film, with a renewed interest in his novel, at his luck in even being published at all.
And it’s luck that animates his novel, which is substantially different from the film. Mr. Swarup allows himself the occasional grimace in talking about the numerous changes in the script. But, ever the diplomat, he says the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, and the director, Danny Boyle, stayed “faithful to the central narrative structure.”
That narrative is a series of flashbacks from the young waiter’s life — episodes that are by turns poignant, violent, whacky, woeful — that explain how he knows the answers to each of the quiz-show questions. Set against the poverty and predations in the slum of Dharavi, the novel (and the film) amount to a kind of docu-fable.
The word slumdog, an invention of the filmmakers, caused an immediate furor, as they no doubt expected, and criticism of both the novel and the film was deep and angry. It was particularly acid from within India.
“Poverty porn” has been a commonly heard label, and nationalistic critics have assailed the book for portraying some of India’s darkest sides — poverty, crime, violence, police torture, incest, child prostitution. The novelist Salman Rushdie savaged the novel as “a corny potboiler” and “the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name.”
Mr. Swarup was certainly stung by the criticisms, but said he understood the strong reactions.
“Indians are sensitive to the way their country is represented, but the film was not a documentary on slum life,” said Mr. Swarup. “Slums provide the backdrop to the story of the courage and determination of this boy who beats the odds.”
Beating the odds in “Q & A” required correct answers to a set of questions. So, in that spirit:
You arranged to get passports at the last minute for the two youngest kids in the film — who actually do live in a Mumbai slum — so they could travel to Los Angeles for the Oscars. They had no birth certificates? more