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India’s envoy to Canada, brain behind Slumdog Millionaire, tackles trade deals

India’s new high commissioner to Canada, Vikas Swarup, is both a well-known writer and distinguished diplomat.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

It was easy to spot Vikas Swarup at the Oscars in 2009.

As the cast and crew of Slumdog Millionaire swarmed the stage to accept the award for best picture, Mr. Swarup, the author of the book on which the movie was based, stood among the crowd of stars and gazed out at the Hollywood theatre, soaking up every second under the bright lights. The audience cheered, his colleagues addressed the camera with thanks, but Mr. Swarup just looked up.

"If you look at my pictures at the Academy Awards … I am like this," Mr. Swarup said in a recent interview, head tilted upward with a look of awe on his face.

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The path to the Oscars stage is unlikely for any writer, but Mr. Swarup says his journey was more unusual than most. He was a writer by passion – but an ambassador by training. "What is a professional diplomat doing in the Kodak Theatre?"

And now, he has landed in Ottawa.

Mr. Swarup, whose passion for writing and distinguished diplomatic career have taken him around the globe and into the senior ranks of the Indian government, is embarking on a new adventure as India's high commissioner to Canada.

He arrives at a significant time for Canada-India relations, as the two countries attempt to finalize two major trade deals. The former right-hand man to Prime Minister Narendra Modi will communicate India's interests to a federal government that already understands the importance of its relationship with the emerging superpower and identifies India as a priority for Canada's trade agenda.

Even as a writer, working in his spare time, Mr. Swarup has taken on an ambassadorial role by showcasing India through his books. His first novel, Q&A – eventually adapted into the international blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire – gave the world a lens into India's notorious slum life.

But it wasn't exactly Mr. Swarup's life in small-town India.

The bitterly cold Canadian capital is half a world away from Allahabad, India, where Mr. Swarup, 55, grew up in a family of middle-class lawyers. (Although it has a population of more than a million, Mr. Swarup says it is still considered a small town in India.)

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Allahabad, home to many prominent Hindi writers, was an ideal place for a child who loved to read. Mr. Swarup said his early love of books drew him toward a career in the foreign service.

"That really motivated me to actually see the outside world – not just from the outside, but actually visit those countries, get posted there."

He joined the foreign service in 1986. His first posting, Ankara, was in his view his first international trip. Before that, he had only travelled to Nepal, which he considered part of India's extended neighbourhood.

Accompanied by his wife, Aparna, he went on to foreign postings in the United States, Ethiopia, Britain, South Africa and Japan.

He never thought of himself as an author. It wasn't until his London posting in 2003 that he started to explore his passion for writing.

The storyline for Q&A was based on the success of India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Mr. Swarup used the TV game show as a platform to demonstrate the "wisdom, knowledge and common sense ordinary folk in India possess."

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Q&A tells the story of Ram Mohammad Thomas, a poor waiter from Dharavi, one of the world's largest slums, who wins India's biggest quiz show. Unfortunately, Ram is accused of cheating and sent to jail. The book uses short stories to explain how Ram's life experiences gave him the answer to each question.

Mr. Swarup began writing it in the final months of his London posting. His wife, an artist, and two sons had already gone back to Delhi, where he was to become the director in charge of Pakistan, a round-the-clock job.

Just four and a half chapters into the novel, he pitched it to Peter Buckman, an Oxford-based book agent who was starting his own agency. To Mr. Swarup's surprise, he heard back from Mr. Buckman, who wanted to read the rest of the book. Knowing he would have no time to write when he returned to Delhi, Mr. Swarup finished the book in two months flat.

Having never been to Dharavi, Mr. Swarup relied on the Internet and his knowledge of other Indian slums for research. He still defends Q&A's portrayal of Dharavi, citing a talk he gave in Mumbai, after his book was released, where a woman asked him how long he had lived in the slum. "She said, 'I live in Dharavi and, reading your novel, I could smell Dharavi.'"

Mr. Swarup was approached for the movie rights in 2004, a year before the book was published. Although he understood the film would differ from the book, one particular change bothered him. The film opens by asking the viewer how the main character won 20 million rupees on the game show, presenting four options: He cheated, he's lucky, he's a genius or it is written.

"One thing that troubled me was my book was about luck, but the film was about destiny. And there's a difference between luck and destiny. Luck is something that happens to us every day," Mr. Swarup said. "Destiny means everything is predetermined. … There's a master puppeteer up there who's plotting everything."

The film was released in August, 2008, after almost going straight to DVD. It won eight of the 10 Oscars for which it was nominated and was one of Fox Searchlight's highest-grossing films of all time, bringing in $377-million (U.S.).

After writing two more books, Mr. Swarup was appointed spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs in 2015, a job that required him to travel on every trip abroad with Mr. Modi and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Mr. Swarup eventually got his pick of diplomatic postings and chose Canada, he says, because it is an English-speaking, G7 country with an Indian diaspora of 1.2 million people.

He now has his mind set on his first major task as high commissioner: securing a visit by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to India. He hopes the trip will happen this year, but the Prime Minister's Office says no dates have been confirmed.

In the meantime, Mr. Swarup is working to help finalize two major trade agreements for Mr. Trudeau's visit. Talks on a Canada-India free-trade deal started under the previous Conservative government, and a foreign investment promotion and protection agreement (FIPA), which establishes rules for investors, is in the final stages.

A number of cabinet ministers have visited India in recent months, including International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne in March. According to the Hindu Business Line, Mr. Champagne insisted that the FIPA be signed before the free-trade agreement – something his Indian counterpart would not agree to do.

As part of the trade agreements, India is also seeking to ease the movement of professionals between the two countries. The Conservative government introduced changes to Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program in 2014 after media reports revealed that companies were using the program to replace Canadian employees with foreign workers. The changes made it harder for Indian companies to send their employees to their Canadian offices through the program. Ottawa is currently undertaking a review of the program.

"Our expectation is that if this government is keen to promote greater trade and openness, then such kinds of measures actually detract from that objective," Mr. Swarup said.

Although he is not writing anything at the moment, he thinks he will seek inspiration from Canada's open society.

"Especially at a time when the world is being divided into narrow domestic walls, to have this openness to outsiders is not just so welcome but so important and so necessary. Canada really stands as a beacon of hope and optimism in this current climate."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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