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17 February 2009

Q & A

Slumdog Millionaire
Vikas Swarup

Originally published as q & a, Vikas Swarup’s debut novel is the story of Ram Mohammed Thomas, a 19-year-old orphan from the slums of Bombay. When the novel opens, he is a) a billionaire, having won the billion-rupee prize in a game show, and, b) in jail, the producers having charged him with fraud. He is in jail because the producers of the show have no money to pay him, a fact you are made aware of, on page 7.

As a young lawyer comes to the young orphan’s assistance, Swarup unfolds the almost-Dickensian tale in first person, told over the course of a single night, in 12 chapters, each a short story in its own right, each chapter dealing out interesting vignettes of the protagonist’s fractured life, and the many people who helped shape his world view. As a plot device, it works. Swarup paints different settings for his protagonist, and uses humour to underline his insightful commentary on the social fabric of contemporary India.

The chapters are not in chronological order, though, the first person narrative weaves back and forth, and as each chapter unfolds, Thomas explains just how the crucial events each provide a key to the show’s twelve questions.

This is not a book for the squeamish. There is enough foul language, sex, murder, battle and sudden death to keep a dozen novels going. What works in its defence, is that Slumdog Millionaire is a fast paced read, and right from the protagonist’s three names, is absolutely cinematic in scope. There is also an impish reference to a well-known plot device from a ‘70s blockbuster. Hindi film aficionados will recognise the scene.

A diplomat by profession, Vikas Swarup shows a tremendous grasp of the underbelly of contemporary Indian life, and takes sardonic, sometimes savage digs at the abuses that are rampant in 21st century India. While you can dismiss the frequency with which these abuses seem to happen in the short life of his protagonist as plot device, they are very real, and mirror a reality that most of us would prefer to ignore.

Swarup weaves all 12 somewhat-implausible strands into one believable though intricate whole, and though coincidences run riot, his writing skills are good enough to make you suspend disbelief. This is truly a fantastic yarn, with well-constructed characters, which make you empathise with them.

Finally, though, the story is about the age-old fight between good and evil, and how spirit triumphs over adversity. It has all the ingredients of a wonderful potboiler, bad guys and white knights, diplomats and film stars, poverty and exploitation, pain and redemption, and everything else that you can throw into the mix. Stirred up and served by a wonderfully articulate author, in a language that is so simple that it reminds you that simplicity has its own charm, you are willing to forgive the slight melodrama and the various plot contrivances. Indeed, it is to Swarup’s credit that he ties up all the loose ends in a convincing manner, and leaves us with a novel that is all that a novel should be, but is so often not – a tale well told.

© Anuradha Warrier and curledup.com

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