“I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.”
From these opening lines to a masterpiece debut novel, I was kept riveted. Vikas Swarup, the deputy High Commissioner to India in South Africa, and also the author of Q & A, seems to have articulately captured the essence of what true India is between paperback covers.
Swarup’s novel tells the rags-to-riches story of eighteen-year-old orphan boy, oddly named Ram Mohammed Thomas, and the events in his life that led to him winning 1 Billion Rupees on an Indian quiz show spin-off to Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
As the story unfolds, the reader is taken on a rollercoaster ride through India, a country whose true side has rarely been shown to the outside world. When most people think of the country, images of rich cultures, vibrant colours, film stars, and songs and dance come immediately to mind. However, from the point of view of one that has travelled to the country previously, I found Swarup’s portrayal of it to be incredibly accurate, right down to the large, grimy slums, corrupt red-tape-ridden politics and heart-rending poverty.
The adventure begins when the protagonist describes his arrest and subsequent maltreatment at the hands of crooked police, tortured until he will tell them how a simple slum child was able to know the answers to all 12 questions on the show. However, he is rescued just in time by a woman claiming to be his lawyer. Just as bewildered as the police are, Ram Mohammed Thomas leaves with the woman, Smita, and at her apartment reveals his life story, swearing to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
Q & A has a very unique way in which its story is delivered: each chapter is an episode of Thomas’s life, as told to Smita, and at the end of each chapter, they both watch a question from the taped episode of the quiz show that relates to how the protagonist knew the answer to that round’s question. However, the chapters are mixed fragments of Thomas’s life, and this is where the genius in Vikas Swarup’s writing is evident: the suspense is created not only at the end of the chapter (as is traditionally delivered by most authors), but by the reader wanting to know how all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fit together, and the reason why Ram Mohammed Thomas didn’t go onto the show for the colossal prize money.
This book takes the reader through one of the most populated, poverty-stricken countries in the world, where, for most citizens, each day is a struggle to survive in the dense slums. From soul-consuming, fast-paced Mumbai with its cosmopolitan flair and deadly underworld, to the beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra, and a dacoit duel on a train ride in-between, we are taken on a vivid journey with Ram Mohammed Thomas, revelling in his quirky wit and straightforward manner of telling his life’s story. At times funny, at times incredibly sad, Q & A has just the right balance, the right panache, to certify it an amazing, entertaining must-read that deserves every accolade it gets.