It’s okay if you haven’t heard of Q&A by Vikas Swarup. I certainly hadn’t before. But I’m sure you’ll know the movie adaptation of this book: it won 8 out of the 10 Academy Awards it was nominated for, and was a critically acclaimed success, raking in over 300mil against a budget of 15mil. I’m talking, of course, about Slumdog Millionaire. There’s something about the rags to riches narrative that captures our hearts and minds completely. We love to hear stories of the underdog beating the system and rising against all odds to triumph. In Q&A, the underdog is one Ram Mohammad Thomas, a boy from the slums who goes on to win one billion rupees after participating in a gameshow similar to the reality TV series Who Wants to be A Millionaire – before he is arrested for ‘cheating’ – his only crime being trying to go against the status quo.
The story starts with Ram’s arrest at his home in the slums, the night after the gameshow recording. He is taken to the police station and tortured, as the producers, complotting with the police, try to force Ram into confessing that he cheated so that they may wiggle out of the payment. A woman called Smita barges in, claiming to be his lawyer and rescuing him from their clutches. Out on bail, she takes him back home and asks that he explain how he could answer all the questions. Ram tells a disbelieving Smita that he got ‘lucky’ – that each question corresponded to an event in his life which enabled him to answer them correctly.
As Ram recounts his memories, readers are taken on a heartbreaking tale of poverty and loss, mixed with uplifting moments of hope, desires and dreams. One sympathises with the harsh realities of an orphan boy’s life, peppered with tragic but colourful characters, and brief respites of happiness. Swarup holds nothing back about the dark side of society – from the missionary ‘priest’ who takes drugs and is caught having homosexual relations in the church to an orphanage warden who sexually abuses the little boys he is supposed to be caring for. There is a gangster who maims children to beg on the streets, a drunkard father who falls into despair after losing his job, an actress forgotten by time, and a diplomat’s family who keep up appearances but harbour their own secrets.
But not all is doom and gloom. Even in the worst of times, Ram finds joy and love. He makes friends with a mentally challenged boy with a heart of gold, a fellow orphan who harbours dreams to become an actor, a prostitute whom Ram falls in love with, and a next door neighbour who he comes to love as a sister. All this culminates to his final moments of entering the quiz show and winning the grand prize that would change his life forever.
Q&A shows a side of India that is at once sad and haunting, but not without hope, as the young Ram perseveres through all odds to make his life a better one. We can see his wit and resourcefulness when Ram runs away to Agra, where, loitering around the Taj Mahal, he picks up information from other tour guides and ends up becoming one himself, despite not having any prior training or knowledge. His street smarts enables him to survive dangerous situations more than once.
The chapters are not told according to the timeline, skipping back and forth with Ram’s recollections. This makes reading the novel a little choppy, but it compensates with charm, melodrama and an optimistic sense of humour through difficult times. We can’t help rooting for Ram, the little slum boy who has survived such hardship and is finally looking at the chance of a better life. I also liked the plot twist at the ending. Not gonna spoil anything, but let’s just say that good deeds will never be forgotten 😀
The language is simple but engaging. Some critics have panned this as ‘lacking in prose’, but I found it added impact, since it was narrated by Ram who never went to school but only learnt English from the missionary priest and from his stint at a diplomat’s home as a servant. It’s a book that you’ll find hard to put down, to say the least.