Q & A is the first novel of Indian novelist (and diplomat) Vikas Swarup. It is also the source for the upcoming Danny Boyle film Slumdogs, a film which based on this novel I would be interested in seeing as in many ways the work reads more as a screenplay treatment than as a novel.
At its core, Q & A tells the story of a young and penniless Indian waiter who wins the largest prize in game show history on an Indian equivalent of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (here Who Wants to be a Billionaire?). His success bankrupts the production company, which has him arrested on the assumption of fraud, and this all forms a framing device where he talks a young lawyer through how he came to know the answer to each of the twelve quiz questions and in the process takes us through his life and the various parts of Indian society he has encountered.
Each chapter then is a different vignette from the life of the bizarrely named Ram Mohammed Thomas (his name is itself a plot point, and something of a running joke as he chooses the most convenient part of it at various times so as to avoid inter-ethnic prejudices). The chapters are not in chronological order, but rather in the order of the questions, and each chapter illustrates why he happened by chance to know a particular quiz answer.
From all that you might well think this is a novel in which coincidence plays a large part, and in truth it does since Ram only knows the answers to the quiz by a series of twelve improbable coincidences. But once one gives that (and I don’t think it’s a big give, that string of coincidence is the conceit that makes the novel possible) the rest of the work contains a few coincidences but not so many as to make it inherently incredible.
Generally the tone of the novel is light, often humorous, however the subject matter of individual chapters can be very dark indeed taking in racism, sectarian violence, parental child abuse, the crippling of child beggars to increase their profitability, robbery, murder, wasted lives and crushed dreams and a variety of other issues topical to contemporary India. This is in many sense a state of the nation novel, Ram is an everyman whose life takes him into contact with a wide range of Indian society from the very poorest to wealthy expats to the home grown rich, and through him we therefore see how these different faces of Indian society operate.
Unfortunately, Ram himself as a character did not persuade me, and indeed the narrative voice generally seemed to me much more that of a highly educated Indian diplomat and not at all that of a poorly educated Indian orphan (admittedly Ram is not wholly uneducated, and can speak English, but even given those points it seemed the voice of someone of a far more comfortable background than Ram is given). I simply didn’t believe at any point that I was reading the words of a working class Indian, which given the entire novel is supposed to be Ram’s own words recounted to his lawyer was a problem for me. In the film treatment, that won’t be an issue, but here I found myself remembering the marvellous Animal’s People and how skilfully that gave life to a seemingly authentic voice of a member of India’s poor. Equally, given Ram’s lawyer is an attractive young woman and he recounts his story to her while sitting in her apartment I did find it slightly remarkable that he would describe how when sitting in the cinema he liked to sit at the front as the proximity to the screen made the heroine’s breasts more voluptuous. The truth is of course, Ram is not saying this to a young and pretty lawyer he is sitting next to, Vikas Swarup is saying it to the book’s audience having seemingly forgotten his own framing device.
Worse yet, later in the novel there are two incidents where a dog is described in some detail, down to the spots on its fur, and we are informed that nobody saw it. This simply makes no sense at all, the novel is Ram’s account of his experiences, why then do we have passages detailing things he hasn’t seen? Again, the impression is that Swarup has forgotten his own framing device. Certainly I did not have the impression that Ram is intended as an unreliable narrator, the issue is of a faulty framing device, not a faulty internal narrative.
That’s some fairly hefty criticisms there, so it’s worth going in to what I think does work. Many of the individual chapters make interesting stories, particularly those involving Ram’s best friend Salim who is the greatest film fan in all India. We see Salim’s unfortunate encounter with his film star idol, his brief occupation as assistant to a man who turns out to be a professional hitman, his job as a tiffin box delivery boy, his work as a bit part extra in Bollywood, to be honest I’d have happily seen a lot more Salim and a lot less Ram. Salim is a Muslim, and he is also used to bring out some of India’s sectarian divisions, at one point nearly dying when a religious mob attack a bus he is on:
‘The bus stopped at a traffic light and a group of ruffians wearing head bands and armed with swords, spears and tridents got on.’
‘Oh my God! Don’t tell me it was a mob.’
‘Yes, it was. I realized then that we had landed in the middle of a communal riot. The wreckage of a smouldering vehicle lay directly in front of us. Shops had been reduced to rubble, splashes of blood could be seen on the pavement, stones sticks and slippers littered the street. The driver immediately bolted from the bus. My mind went numb with fear. I had thought I would never have to see such a horrifying sight again. I heard sounds which I thought I had forgotten. My mother’s shrieks [Salim lost his family to religious riots as a child] and my brother’s cries echoed in my ears. I began shivering. The ruffians told everyone on the bus that a Muslim mob had set fire to Hindu houses and now they were out for revenge. I learnt later that the whole trouble had started over a simple quibble about a water tap in a slum. But people’s minds were so full of hate that within hours buses were being burnt, houses were being torched and people were being butchered.’
The mob question the passengers, letting go those with Hindu names though first checking them for signs that they might be Muslims, including inspecting within a small boy’s trousers. The passage is brief, but communicates the casual nature with which sectarian violence can spring up and claim lives. I thought it one of the book’s better passages, though I’d note that Salim’s narrative voice is essentially identical to that of Ram.
Elsewhere, Ram himself works for an Australian diplomatic family, is servant to a faded Bollywood megastar, lives in a variety of slums, travels on India’s famous railways (with much in the passage about the experience, and dangers, of rail travel in India), makes and loses money and helps those worse off than himself whenever he is able. He works as a servant, a waiter and in a range of largely unskilled occupations, with his varying servant roles giving him insight into how the wealthy live.
Other passages that work well include a very early one where we see Ram living in a slum with his neighbours being a once prosperous middle class family headed by a former academic, a man insistent that his sojourn in the slum is temporary and that the family will soon be prosperous again. We learn that the man’s alcoholism led to the loss of his job, and with that and the exhaustion of their savings the family swiftly fell from the comfort of its middle class existence to destitution. Life in Ram’s India is fragile, status and wealth precarious and easily lost and like in the works of authors such as Hardy the threat of ruin is a very real one.
On Mr Shantaram and his family’s arrival next door to Ram:
‘What do you do?’ I ask Shantaram.
‘I am a scientist, an astronomer. You won’t understand. But these days I am taking a break. I am working as the sales manager in the Vimal showroom. This room here is a very temporary arrangement. We will be shifting to a de luxe apartment in Nariman Point very soon.’
I know Mr Shantaram is lying. Those who can afford to live in Nariman Point never stay in chawls, not even temporarily.
For me, this was an affecting and powerful sequence, the snobbery and condescension of Mr Shantaram even in his reduced circumstances is well captured, as are the lies he is telling himself about the temporary nature of his fall, lies which to the poor are hopelessly transparent.
Equally, an episode in which Ram and Salim are taken from their orphanage to a home run by a gangster who cripples children in order to make them more effective beggars is horrific and credible (and being credible is important here, since I understand this is a real phenomenon), and I enjoyed the depiction of the faded Bollywood star unwilling to face the reality that she has become too old for the roles that made her famous.
There were also passages that were, for me, less successful. I did wonder rather at what the story involving a gay tattooed shotgun wielding biker priest told me about contemporary India (though one could argue that the inclusion of gay tattooed shotgun wielding biker priests is essentially self-justifying in any narrative), equally a story involving what appears to be working voodoo magic, even the hitman narrative, seemed slightly unnecessary. There was much in the novel that I thought essentially sensationalist in tone, which ultimately is fair enough given that the book is light and fun and generally an easy read but rather unfairly led to my being disappointed with it as I had expected more about contemporary India and less escapist adventure. Still, one shouldn’t criticise a book for not being what it did not set out to be, and Vikas Swarup is hardly to be blamed for my mistaken expectations of the nature of his work.
Overall then, this is a picaresque novel, though one lacking a picaro as there is nothing really roguish about Ram (though for an innocent abroad he and Salim manage to kill two people and try to kill at least one other). As is the nature of picaresque works, if you are happy to spend time with the protagonist (and Ram is easy enough to spend time with) then if one adventure does not appeal there is usually another along soon enough.
How then would I summarise Q & A? The back blurb refers to it as a “warm-hearted tale [in which] lies all the comedy, tragedy, joy and pathos of modern India.” That’s actually not a bad blurb, it is a warm hearted novel, it certainly sets out to include passages of comedy and tragedy, joy and pathos, it does provide an overview of India that at least to me was not like any other works I have read (though I’m not well read as yet in contemporary Indian literature). But warming hearts is something of a two edged sword, and for me the sensationalist elements, lack of narrative credibility and a certain degree of sentimentality meant that I did not enjoy the novel nearly as much as I had hoped.
All that said, my impression is that I am in a distinct minority and that most of its readers have adored it, certainly the inner cover comes adorned with glowing reviews (and some arguably not so glowing) from among others the Sunday Telegraph (which to its credit uses the term cartoon-like, with which I would agree), The Times, the New York Times Book Review, Literary Review, various Indian and Australian newspapers as well as the perhaps less persuasive Daily Mail and Mariella Frostrup (though to be fair to Mariella, all she says is that she can imagine it as a movie). If, therefore, the theme or ideas of this novel interest you, it may be worth checking out. Alternatively, I suspect it will make a very good film.
Finally, apologies to anyone who came to this page because Google threw it up in response to their search for gay tattooed biker priests. I hope your next hit is more to your tastes, or at least has pictures.
As a minor addendum, this edition has at the back an interview with Swarup, some notes on the factual background to the book, a nice little section of suggested further reading and some incredibly basic questions for discussion which I thought probably pitched at too low a level to be useful to most book groups (which is who they’re aimed at). The idea of this section is I think a good one, as anything that helps people engage with a text is in my view a good thing, but I think it’s a slight shame the questions are at such a basic level. That said, Black Swan may know book groups better than I do, since I’ve never been in one, and at the end of the day it’s extra free content and the interview, facts and further reading sections are all well done.