Slumdog Millionaire by Vikas Swarup

Originally titled Q & A when it was released in 2005, this is a Boeke prize winning and Commonwealth Writer’s Prize nominated book by Indian novelist and diplomat Vikas Swarup. But its real claim to fame is the fact that Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle – the film which swept the Academy Awards in 2008 – is loosely based on this book.  In fact, after the huge success of Slumdog Millionaire worldwide, this book was reissued under the same name.

Q & A follows the story of an underprivileged boy called Ram Mohammad Thomas, who just lives life trying to survive. Accused of cheating on a quiz show, he is arrested and the law tries to prove him guilty. As he shows that he did really know the answers to all the questions, the story unfolds. For every question, the protagonist tells a story which explains how he, a Dharavi resident who has never received formal education, came to know the answers to the questions. He relates the story of his life, and how at every stage he had to struggle to survive. The novel is fast paced, Swarup does not let you pause for breath. It’s the story of a waiter in a shady bar and how he learnt about life and the world in spite of the fact that he never went to school.

The story takes place in different parts of India: Delhi, Agra, Mumbai and more. The story has it all – drama, comedy, tragedy and romance in equal doses. Each part is distinct and it touches the reader in its own individual way. The incidents related in the book are shocking yet believable though sometimes they get downright disturbing. Thomas also has a sidekick and best friend called Salim. As they face life together as orphaned children, their experiences portray Real India. The India, which not many of us have seen or witnessed and most of us just ignore.

Interestingly the story is not told in chronological order, but follows the order of the questions. Different parts of Thomas’s life unfold as he progresses towards winning a billion rupees. At the very end of the thirteen questions, comes a nail biting climax which keeps you hooked. The whole story comes together in the very end, piece by piece, question by question, in a way which leaves you completely satisfied.

Swarup has explored many issues which form a part of contemporary India. Religion, for one. The protagonist is an orphan and has three of India’s most prominent religions in his name. Swarup doesn’t say God is one, he shows that God is one. He also shows that corruption which breeds all through Indian society sucks the life out of a poor man’s body. Even as children, due to the fact that they are surrounded by such harsh realities of life in the lower strata of society, Thomas and Salim lack innocence in their outlook. Swarup also covers our greatest interest and influence as Indians: Bollywood. Through Salim’s celluloid dreams and worshipping of actors, we get an insight into the lives of the people who actually live the celluloid life.

All in all, Swarup’s Q & A is a must read: for its insight into the lives of slum dwellers in India, for the thrilling pace and incidents, the subtle philosophy and well structured storytelling. It’s a piece of serious fiction and is guaranteed to open your eyes.

Chandani Karnik