Diplomat-turned-author Vikas Swarup describes his three novels as “social thrillers”. Two of them have made it to the screen – Slumdog Millionaire, based on Q & A (2005), and the web series The Great Indian Murder, based on Six Suspects (2008).

The series, which will be premiered on Disney+ Hotstar on February 4, has been directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia and adapted by him, Vijay Maurya and Puneet Sharma. The cast includes Richa Chadha, Pratik Gandhi, Ashutosh Rana, Jatin Goswami, Raghuvir Yadav, Amey Wagh, Paoli Dam, Sharib Hashmi and Mani PR.

The novel follows the investigation into the murder of Vicky Rai, the spoilt son of a politician. The suspects include Vicky’s father, a former bureaucrat who claims he is Mahatma Gandhi, and Eketi, an Onge tribe from the Andamans. “On top, it’s a classic whodunit, but inside, there is the backstory of six subjects which bring nuance and complexity,” 60-year-old Swarup told Scroll.in.

An Andamanese, a mobile thief, an American simpleton: why these six suspects?
An American makes for an obvious outsider. Eketi was inspired by what I read about Andamanese tribes such as the Sentinelese, after the 2004 tsunami. They repel any foreigner trying to reach their shores. I thought it would be fascinating if they are brought into direct conflict with modern civilisation. Eketi, for me, represents the conscience of civilisation. We call them savages, but his presence makes us think, what are we?

If we are to make the complexity of India accessible, we cannot do it with a single narrative. We need to give it a multi-layered perspective. I could have written the novel with four politicians and two businessmen, but that would give you the same sort of perspective.

The Great Indian Murder (2022).

‘Six Suspects’ is quite the potboiler. Yet it took a while for it to be made into a series.
Six Suspects was difficult to film. Q & A followed just one central lovable character. In Six Suspects, there is no centre of gravity, no likable characters.

The rights were with a British company for six years before a Chinese company bought them. Much later, [producer] Priti Sinha and Tigmanshu Dhulia came on board.

With all adaptations, something is gained, but also lost, such as the particularities, the interior monologues. For example, the protagonist of Q & A was Ram Mohammad Thomas because I wanted my protagonist to be emblematic of India. But [Slumdog Millionaire screenwriter] Simon Beaufoy was hellbent on creating a Western version of Deewaar. He had to make the two orphan characters brothers and then you need to give them a family set-up, so that’s how Ram Mohammad Thomas became Jamal Malik.

The hero of ‘Q & A’ is from Dharavi. ‘Six Suspects’ features characters from different social strata. What is your research process like?
Research can take you to a point and then you are free to do what you want. You do whatever it takes to create an authentic backdrop. Within that backdrop, the sky is the limit.

During a book reading session in Mumbai after Q & A was out, a lady asked me how many years I had lived in Dharavi. She said she could smell Dharavi from my novel. She was disappointed to know I had never been to Dharavi.

Some characters are larger than life because they need to grip the reader. My character must obey the laws I create for that fictional universe. If your backdrop is believable, the antics become secondary. The characters can do over-the-top, unique things. But if the reader isn’t sure if it’s Mumbai or Delhi, the story won’t work.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008).

How did you become a novelist?
I had always been a reader but didn’t feel like writing fiction even when I was, say, posted in Addis Ababa for three years. There would hardly be any Indian delegations coming. I could have produced 10 novels then.

It’s when I was posted to London later that the idea for Q & A came to me. I would see a book launch every Friday at the Nehru Centre. Meanwhile, Kaun Banega Crorepati was becoming popular. A British major [Charles Ingram] was suspected of cheating in the original British show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? All these things moved me to consider writing fiction. I finished the novel in two-and-a-half months.

I call my books social thrillers because I try to give a glimpse of contemporary Indian society in a thrilling way. I grew up reading lots of thrillers and mysteries: Agatha Christie, Alistair MacClean, Desmond Bagley, Irving Wallace, James Hadley Chase. I would also read Albert Camus or Franz Kafka, but what really interested me was the page-turning quality of thrillers.

I had mostly read Hindi or Western writers, but not many Indian writers in English except Raja Rao and Khushwant Singh. So I read Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Pankaj Mishra, Salman Rushdie, Raj Kamal Jha. I discovered that they are writing about society. Now, I didn’t want to write about society as I saw it because I felt that would be bland, so I decided to marry the two, leading to social thrillers.

How has diplomacy influenced your writing?
What diplomacy taught me was felicity with words. We are trained to use words very carefully. One wrong adjective can send diplomatic ties into a tailspin. Neither did I have English literature as a subject nor did I attend creative writing workshops. I had only been a reader. So the training I got as a diplomat came handy while transitioning from reader to writer.

Writing fiction gave me opportunities that I wouldn’t have got as a diplomat. For example, I would get invited to universities to speak, because of being both a diplomat and the writer of Slumdog Millionaire.

When I was sent to Osaka-Kobe [Japan] as consul general, I had to meet the governor of the province. I was told that the governor would often take up to three months to meet a consul general because he is busy. But he said he could meet me within a week because he knew I’d written Slumdog Millionaire.

Many people don’t know this, but if you are an Indian government servant, you don’t need official permission to write a book. But I needed permission to accept royalties as I was receiving income from the government. And because I was from the Indian Foreign Service, I had to sign an undertaking that my book didn’t say anything against foreign governments or jeopardise our bilateral relationships.

Vikas Swarup.

What is your writing routine?
Once I get an idea, I let the seed germinate for a long time, sometimes months. Then I start fleshing out characters and their arcs in my head, which also takes up several months.

When I was a serving diplomat, I’d get up at five am and write till 8.30 or nine am. I’d go to the office, return in the evening, do some research and surf the internet because I cannot write in the evening. I’d only get a six-seven-hour break at weekends, which is when I wrote the most. But once I became High Commissioner to Canada, I didn’t get any more weekends, so I haven’t written since 2013.

After retiring last year, I moved to Greater Noida from Delhi. I began working on something, but my Sansad TV show Diplomatic Dispatch now takes up most of my time. Writing has taken a backseat, but I’ll be writing again once I am more comfortable. I still have lots of stories in me.