Vikas Swarup tells Budhaditya Bhattacharya about the making of his new novel and how being a diplomat aids writing fiction about India
Between the publication of Q&A in 2005 and The Accidental Apprentice, writer and diplomat Vikas Swarup’s latest novel, a few things have changed. Posted in London at the time, Swarup is now Consul-General to Osaka, Japan. The slums of Dharavi have given way to the locales of west Delhi, and the narrator has changed genders. But Swarup’s basic concern — an ordinary person caught in an extraordinary situation— has remained constant.
If Q&A placed this person in a game show environment, the protagonist of The Accidental Apprentice, Sapna Sinha, a sales girl in an electronics boutique in Delhi, is presented with the opportunity to become the C.E.O. of ABC group of companies, owned by Vinay Mohan Acharya. Only, she has to overcome a seven-step challenge.
The premise is similar to the popular game show The Apprentice, but is rooted, in fact, in our history. “I just thought it would be an interesting conceit to transfer the age-old rite of a king choosing his successor with a series of tests into the 21st Century and see how the process unfolds.”
There are multiple ironies here. Is a functionary of a modern republic implying that corporations are the new monarchies? “That is exactly the point I am trying to make. I even said facetiously in some interview that probably becoming a C.E.O. these days is tougher than becoming a king,” he laughs. “You encounter many more obstacles and many more foes.”
Another avowed aim of the book is to provide “a snapshot of contemporary India”. To this effect, Swarup refers to khap panchayats, child labour, the kidney racket, and the anti corruption movement. “On the surface, my books look quite simple. But if you look at the scaffolding, it’s quite elaborate.”
Written over an 18-month period (whose beginning the writer marks with the 2011 World Cup), the book displays an awareness of corporate machinations that wouldn’t normally be expected of an outsider. “When I impose a superstructure – like in Q&A, there was the superstructure of a quiz show — then I have to follow its conventions. Similarly, having decided that the offer is for her to become C.E.O. and the tests are to focus on the attributes of a C.E.O., I read a whole lot of management books and from there I distilled what I thought should be the necessary attributes.” Another level of preparatory work consisted of familiarising himself with Delhi. “I was born in Allahabad, which is my janmbhoomi. Delhi is my karmbhoomi. This is where the ministry is, where I have served whenever I’ve been in India. So from that point of view this is a city I love. And the kind of infrastructure that has been built up here is really stupendous.”
But in this particular book, he gives up the diplomatic avenues of Central Delhi to reach for the prism of Rohini, the address of his lower middle class protagonist. Not knowing the area very well, Swarup undertook a two-day expedition to Rohini during his home leave to grasp its geography. Normally, he takes recourse to what he calls “Google realism”.
Although Swarup confesses to needing a “clear horizon”, available only on weekends, to write, diplomatic responsibilities assist him in the writing process.
“As a diplomat I am constantly required to interpret India for my foreign interlocutors, which means the connection with India has to be very, very strong. The second is as a diplomat we are trained to use words very carefully. One wrong nuance and you can create problems in bilateral relations. These two attributes, when you are writing fiction about India, can be very handy.”