The Korea Herald


Fantasy fuels hope: Vikas Swarup

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 16, 2011 - 19:48

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‘Slumdog Millionaire’ author and Indian diplomat shares thoughts on writing, his country

“Slumdog Millionaire,” the 2008 mega-hit adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s debut novel, is the ultimate feel-good movie.

The film depicts how an orphan from an Indian slum with a painful past wins a fortune on a TV game show.

High-flying Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, whose 2005 debut novel “Q & A” later became the basis of the multiple Oscar-winning movie, admitted that the story may only be a fantasy. But although it wasn’t likely to happen to most people in India’s slums, he said in a special lecture in Seoul on Tuesday that such stories can at least inspire and give hope.

“Yes, it might be a fantasy and it might be escapism,” he told the audience at Artist House in Daehangno.

“But I see nothing wrong with that. Why? Because one thing that gets the world running is hope. Now, the 400 million people in India who live with less than $1 a day, if they don’t have hope, then their lives are finished.”

Swarup, who joined Indian Foreign Service in 1986, only thought of writing a novel in 2003. And when he did, it took only two months for him to complete, though the real-life event that inspired the main plot dates back to 1999.

He read a news article about how a group of street kids living in a slum in New Delhi figured out how to use a computer ― left behind by computer scientists ― on their own in three months.

“When I first read it, I could not believe it,” he said. 
Slumdog Millionaire author and Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup speaks during a special lecture on his writing career at Artist House in Daehangno in Seoul, Tuesday. (ARKO) Slumdog Millionaire author and Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup speaks during a special lecture on his writing career at Artist House in Daehangno in Seoul, Tuesday. (ARKO)

“Because you would normally associate computers with people with a certain level of technological sophistication. People who can speak English, people who have gone to school.

“And these were children who knew no English, who had never gone to school. So this told me that perhaps there is some innate ability in all of us. I thought if a slum kid can start using a computer, than a slum kid can also participate in a game quiz and win.”

Swarup, who said watching his novel being made into a film was like giving away one’s daughter in marriage, mocked the concept of “poverty porn,” a term used to criticize the book and the film for exploiting the misfortunes of Indians living in slums.

He pointed out that before his book was published, most Indian books that were successful in the West were about “exotic India,” which largely dealt with “palaces, yoga, and elephants.”

“I personally don’t agree with the connotation of ‘poverty porn,’” he said.

“I mean is there really an audience member who loves to see poverty? It’s a ridiculous concept. There is no such thing as poverty porn.

“In my book, I’m talking about a person who is not expected to win at all, who has been given no chance in life but gets it. Someone who succeeds, beating the odds, emerging as the winner.”

“Look, if I were to write about slums in Sweden, you can say ‘what is this nonsense? You are just trying to be sensationalistic,’” he continued.

“But slums exist in India. Anyone who says there are no slums in India would be very stupid. And for me, only when you acknowledge the existence of something can you correct it.”

Swarup, who was invited here by Arts Council Korea, is scheduled to give lectures at ChungAng University, Dankook University and Busan University of Foreign Studies, and meet with local artists on Jeju Island during his stay in Korea.

This is his second visit to the country. He made his first in May this year, attending Seoul Digital Forum as one of the invited international guests.

Swarup leaves for Japan, where he currently serves as India’s Consul-General to Osaka-Kobe, on Nov. 20.

By Claire Lee (